But there was a day that made his imminent death a certainty in my mind, the day his doctor told my mother and sister the rest of us should say our good-byes very soon. I stood in the kitchen washing dishes and cried more in one go than I believe I ever had before. We had planned a quick camping trip that weekend, and Husband didn’t want to cancel it, so we went anyway—I would travel south to see my father a final time the following week. After the girls had gone to bed in the motorhome, Husband and I sat out by the fire, and I listed all the things my father had ever said and done to me that made me feel cold to him. I won’t list them here because they aren’t on the surface anymore, but that night, as I thought of his dying, all I could think of was the worst of him. That notion haunts me now, not because I was harsh in the cathartic exercise but because I think of how my children might react in my last days—people do remember our worst, even decades after we’ve committed our crimes, and that should give us all pause.
But today, so many years later, I remember the best of my father. He was fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, a good ol’ boy from Alabama who never wanted anything but good food, good music and his girls by his side. Even when he was sick, he would occasionally have lucid moments and would remember his girls.
There are four of us, His Girls, and because the others are several years older than I am, Daddy and I had a few years at home with me as the only child in the house—my high school years. He seemed old and mellow then, in his 60s, and was often out of work from construction lay offs, so we would do things around the house together. He’d make me help take the big window air-conditioners out in the fall and help him move furniture—even that time he took an entire window frame out in order to get the big couch into the little room, with me standing in the front yard holding up my end and him on the inside yelling “push 'er on through, Rob!” My mother would come home and see what we had done and would scold Daddy, “You work her like a man!”
The day I felt closest to my father, the day he needed a pal and not a daughter, went like this—the night before, he had been to the union hall playing poker with his buddies. It was a tough time with little work and little money, so while he felt he needed the relief from being poor, my mother felt he needed to not be out having a few beers and losing money. He didn’t come home until after midnight, and she met him at the bedroom door with a pillow and a blanket. That was the only time I remember his sleeping on the couch.
The next day after Mama went to work, Daddy asked me to go with him to the jewelry store downtown, one that was going out of business and had everything on sale. He wanted to get something “for your Mama,” he said, and needed help choosing just the right thing. So, we hopped in the old Ford LTD and drove down to make peace.
We chose a simple bracelet with one stone and a ring—I don’t recall what it looked like—and the bill came to $75. I asked where he got the money because I knew there was nothing spare laying around for jewelry, and he told me not to worry about it. Clearly, he had won at poker. I don’t know how much, exactly, but $75 of it went to smooth things over with the woman. He used to call her that—"Woman"—until she snapped and said, "I have a name!" and then he switched to calling her "Mama."
That evening when our Mama came home after work, we had dinner ready for her, and Daddy presented her with the jewelry boxes like a peace pipe. I never heard him say “I’m sorry,” but she smiled and forgave him anyway, at least enough that we had a meal without the nerve-pounding yelling and scolding I was expecting.
That day ranks among my favorite with Daddy because we were buddies. In those years, he felt more like a lovable brother than a father, and I was fine with that. I was sometimes jealous of friends whose fathers would teach them things, watch NOVA with them, offer words of wisdom or at least not spit tobacco juice in a can. But when my father needed my help, even when he worked me “like a man,” I decided I had nothing to be jealous of.
Here my father stands with his brothers—he's third from the left—all but one, Uncle Hershel on the right, are gone:
|Melvin, Robert (Bill), Elmer, Everette (Chief), Kenneth, Hershel|