Daddy’s Girl

This morning, I was looking for old photos of my dad to share on this Father’s Day when I ran across a piece I wrote about him a few years ago. It seems as good a time as any to return to the blog. Here’s the essay, and Daddy, here’s to you.

Daddy and me

The Saturday morning Daddy died, I’d washed my hair, and I was sitting under the dryer when my mother called. It was February, cold but sunny in Jackson, even colder in north Mississippi. Daddy had been raking leaves, she said. Yes, in February; the falling leaves had dwindled to one here and there, but she and I always joked that he had to be there to catch the last leaf when it fell. He knew he had a serious heart issue. My mother and I knew it, too, but she and I had given up policing. “We can’t take everything away from him,” she’d said. And so he still puttered in the yard, played a little golf, and went to the grocery whenever she “needed” something.

When she called, they had already arrived at the local hospital. He’d refused to let her call an ambulance, so she’d driven him, and now he was in what passed for intensive care. “A heart attack,” she said, her voice even but tinged with fear. His condition was too precarious to risk moving him to the medical center twenty miles away. “I think you’d better come.”

A three-hour drive. “I will. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” We hung up. What to do?

Frantic, I took my damp hair down and threw clothes into a bag. My boys were playing at a neighbor’s house. I would call my ex-husband to come get them. Surely he would do that. But before I could call, the phone rang. He was gone.

My first thought was, I didn’t get to say I loved him. But he knew. Surely he knew.

Born the eleventh and last child of a north Mississippi farmer, he claimed he was his mother’s favorite child. When he was old enough to work in the fields with his brothers, she kept him home. After high school he went to live with and work for his older brother. A handsome man, Daddy followed the big bands all over the Southeast and collected a number of lovely girlfriends. The proof is in a packet of photographs of beautiful young women I found in a trunk after he died. When he was thirty, his brother moved back to their hometown, and so did he. There he met my mother, whose best friend’s house was across the street from the service station where Daddy worked. Mother was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married. I was born three years later, an only child because, he once told somebody who was rude enough to ask, “She’s all in the world we ever wanted.”

He was the epitome of a self-made man. He opened an automobile parts store where he worked long hours six days a week. When he was expecting a parts delivery, he would go early in the morning to take inventory and stock the store. Some summer mornings, I went with him. I loved the tin ceilings, the tall bins of parts, the floors stained with motor oil, the smell of automobile paint. My mother was his bookkeeper, and once I was old enough, I’d walk the quarter mile from school to the store in the afternoons and get a Coke from the machine Daddy kept in the back.

His work ethic was his downfall. He was diagnosed with ventricular fibrillation soon after he retired. Their plans to travel “later” evaporated. His frugal nature was the one serious flaw in his and Mother’s relationship. For years she dreamed of building a house out in the country. They bought the hilltop land and an architect drew plans, but Daddy balked. “What if I die?” he told my mother. “You’ll be alone, living out there.” Not building the house deeply disappointed my mother. Yet they loved each other with a love I envied.

His death stunned me. I had thought we would have more time. We’d talked less in those last years, my visits home a whirlwind of activity focused on my sons. Through my divorce, he was the rock. He mailed my children boxes of dime store trinkets. He sent me checks to help out because he knew money was tight. He sent me valentines and big boxes of fresh-cut greenery at Christmas. Sometimes, nearly forty years after his death, I hear his voice: “Things could always be worse,” he would say when life seemed dark.

A few years after both my parents had died, I dreamed they came to visit me. They drove up in their car, much like they used to, got out, and we had a pleasant few minutes together. I was so happy to see them! They couldn’t stay long, they said. “We just came to make sure you’re doing all right.” In the dream I told them I was, and they got back in their car and left. The dream never recurred, and I don’t believe in ghosts or “visitations” from the dead, but I woke from that dream full of their presence and love.

Sometimes, I’m reminded of him: the smell of pipe tobacco, a certain hymn, my adult sons’ resemblance to him. I’m grateful my sons remember his love, strength, and perseverance. I’m grateful, not the least ashamed, to have been a “Daddy’s girl.” I still am.

Crossroads

crosstiesb:w
Crossroads, Corinth, Mississippi / Gerry Wilson

Last spring, I attended a family reunion, a gathering of distant cousins who were mostly strangers, all linked to my great-great-grandfather who settled in middle Tennessee in the early 1800s. We cousins are a diverse group–all ages, many different professions, some with strong genealogy interests and knowledge and some, like me, more or less novices. I am an only child. Until the last few years, when these cousins surfaced, I’d felt isolated and wished for a big, extended family. Now I have one. We swapped a lot of stories that day.

For the reunion, my husband and I stayed in Corinth, Mississippi, the nearest town of any size to Selmer, Tennessee, where my father’s family roots are.  We visited the Civil War Museum in Corinth, a museum that doesn’t glorify the war but portrays its heartbreak and deprivation. We also discovered the little railroad museum built beside the tracks that, as in so many little towns, run right through the heart of things.

The rails in the photograph mark where the east-west and north-south railroads crossed–a significant crossroads for both North and South, thus the battles nearby for the control of that area. Those railroads and the nearby Tennessee River were major conduits for goods and soldiers.

At the war’s end, my great-grandfather reached a crossroads of his own. His oldest son had been killed at the Battle of Corinth. (My father was named for that soldier.) A younger son was arrested for passing himself off as a Confederate soldier and commandeering a horse and a mule. My great-grandfather posted bond for him, using his land as collateral, and when his son failed to show up in court at the appointed time, my great-grandfather went on the run, too, taking his family, including the wayward son, with him.

I imagine him rushing into the house, the door banging shut behind him, telling his wife to hurry, throwing things into the wagon–a feather bed, a chicken crate, pots and pans, maybe my great-grandmother’s travel trunk she refused to part with–settling in the children, and setting off into the night. Leaving much behind: house, land, family, friends, debts, a dead son. They moved to Mississippi, and that’s where they stayed. My grandfather, the youngest child, was six years old.

Colorful stuff, this. The stuff of story.

Think about your parents’ or grandparents’ crossroads. Whose choices have shaped your life?

Today or Tomorrow, Noon or Evening

Today, another assignment from Blogging 101: use a prompt from the Daily Post and make it my own. Here’s today’s prompt:

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

Bruce tells it like it is.

By many people’s standards, my days are not “hard-earned.” I have a good life, not without its problems and sorrows, but relatively easy compared to some.

My dad’s days, on the other hand, were hard-earned. He came up poor, and after high school, he went to live with and work for my uncle, who had a car dealership in a nearby town. When my uncle decided to move back to Pontotoc, the tiny town in the hills of north Mississippi where they had grown up, my father moved with him. In those days, Daddy  followed the big bands that traveled the South. He was quite handsome, and I have old photographs of the pretty girls he knew. But my mother put an end to what seemed to be his confirmed bachelorhood. When they married, she was eighteen and he was thirty-two, and the love affair that was their marriage continued until his death forty-five years later. For the rest of his life, he worked six days a week, from six in the morning until six at night, to provide for my mother and me. Maybe we were his reason to believe.

Do I believe in providence?

Daddy @ 1937

my father, about 1937

Yes, I suppose I do. I’m not certain how my parents met. I do know that my mother’s best friend lived across the street from the little service station my dad ran. I imagine her walking past the station, blushing, never looking his way. Did she and her friend watch him from the friend’s front porch? Did they giggle? Did she write her name as his–“Mrs. G______”?

I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t. What a shame I never asked.

I can only speculate, just like I can speculate about the coincidence of meeting my first husband at a college party. We were both there with other people, but he cut in and danced with me. Later, I ran into him on campus and he offered me a ride back to the dorm. Still later, he called and asked me out. And that was the beginning.

Or much later, some twenty-five years ago now, a phone call came from a man I didn’t know, the man who is now my husband. He needed a judge for a high school literary magazine contest; would I do it? When I said yes, he offered to bring the materials to my house. And soon, there he stood, on my doorstep, this man I would eventually marry. He says he remembers I served him iced tea (it was July, maybe August). What if I’d offered him coffee? Or lemonade? Or nothing? What if I’d said no on the phone? I so easily could have, but I didn’t.

Today or tomorrow, noon or evening.

This restaurant or that one. Why are we in particular places at particular times? Five minutes, or less, even seconds, and the turns our lives take could be so very different. Call it providence. Call it fate. Call it God-ordained. Our lives unfold in mysterious ways.

What is my reason to believe? My best answer is how can I not?

I’ve lived long enough to look back on the days of my life–some of which were indeed hard-earned, heartbreaking days that I thought at the time would surely break me–and see how they didn’t. They shaped and matured me and made me a different person from the one I might have been. That evidence is my reason to believe. No, I can’t prove it. But it sustains me, and that’s what matters.

Have you experienced a particular moment in your life when you felt something larger than yourself at work? I’d love for you to tell me about it here.

 

Reason to Believe