Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Spotlight on Daddy

I have been reminiscing about my father the last couple of days--reminiscing about the past and not thinking about the present because he died six years ago after floating around inside the Alzheimer's bubble. I never felt very close to my father--he wasn't the kind of man you "get close" to. At times he was more like a brother, plotting with me behind my mother's back to do things like slipping some wine in the pasta before she got home from work or buying her a bracelet with poker money to make her less angry for the gambling. One phrase I remember his saying often was "Don't tell your Mama."

My neighbor's father was a math teacher, and they liked to watch NOVA together. My other neighbor's father was a history teacher who encouraged her to aim high on the SAT. I admit to being jealous when I was a kid because my father's response to shows like NOVA, or any show that didn't involve a Ewing or an old-yeller kind of character was, "Ah, hell." And he never cared for people with an education or the tests they like to take.

For all the things I didn't get from my father, I did get things that the neighbor girls missed out on from their teacher dads. My father had a simple view of life--food, shelter, family, a good gospel tune, and a nice wad of chew. Anything else was an unnecessary frill. If you can sit in the shade on a Saturday afternoon, whittle nothing more than something resembling a pencil, spit tobacco in the grass, and listen to the July flies rattle from tree to tree, then you've got it all. If you know there's stew in the kitchen and the mortage has been paid, then "you're set."

My father was born in 1920 just outside Decatur, Alabama not far from the Tennessee River. He went to school on and off until the family moved to town. By then, sometime around the seventh grade, it seemed useless since he had missed so much anyway, so that was the end of school. His younger brothers went on through college, but Elmer floated, working here and there and passing the time.

In 1941, he signed up for the army and went to Europe. He rose in rank a couple of times, only to be knocked back down to private. When I was first shown this picture of his peeling potatoes, I asked why he was doing that, sitting on a coffee can. My mother said that he peeled potatoes quite a bit in the service.

After the war, he became a carpenter's apprentice with a union in Alabama. When the work dried up, there was a kind of exodus of construction workers heading north to steel country. We landed in Indiana about an hour from Chicago. My father made a home in yankee territory, but I think he was always a bit misplaced. He was always an old southern boy in a town where tobacco chewing and squirrel hunting and pimento and cheese were foreign.

He was the kind of man who needed a son, but instead he had four daughters. Being the youngest and the last hope, I was supposed to be a Robert. Robyn seemed close enough, but it didn't take long for me to labeled just plain Rob, usually attached to a "hey," as in, "hey Rob, get over here and help me lift this airconditioner into the window." One phrase I remember my mother saying often was, "stop working her like a man."

As the years passed, my father floated from job to job as construction workers do, until he retired sometime when I was in college. He went from a strapping man with a weathered face and arms as hard as steel to a guy who watched NBC soaps and played golf with Vern down the street. He went from a full-of-life character with a toolbelt to a man who carried a peach can stuffed with paper towel to spit the "juice" into. He seemed to generally shrink.

Here he is with his brothers--he's the shorter of the two in the middle.

I was once called a "little person" because I didn't have big dreams. I have very big dreams, but I don't think of myself as big, a character trait I find unpleasant. What I got from my father is that life doesn't have to be big, that relishing in the simple treats makes it grand, and that sometimes just floating is enough.

2 comments:

3rdvalve said...

Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the life of your Dad. I can identify with you. I have seen my Dad (who is still alive) change and shrink in size. Although he's not going easy as he tries to prove himself still young.

what you wrote was quite moving. I feel that in a way,despite you not being the "boy" he wanted. I got to know someone who was very special to you all the same.

Anonymous said...

Robyn, Can't believe you put our picture on the internet! Nice post about Daddy. I've been thinking a lot about him lately too - his sense of humor and that he had enough faith to never worry about anything.
His neck was always so red that I thought he must be an indian - until he retired and it faded. FYI, he is the one in the striped shirt. And, I chose your name - while Mama was rolling my hair so tight that I couldn't close my eyes. After you were born, they said I was probably going to be the closest thing to a boy he would ever have. They couldn't keep me from climbing trees and I loved to play baseball. He only took me hunting once because I scared the squirrels away.
When it comes down to it - you have to say that Daddy did the best he new how, and it was enough. He would appreciate all the nice things you said about him and get a kick out of the other things. Do you remember how he used to hold his arms out straight and let us swing from them - a long time ago?

Big Sister