Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day

Grandad and I have spent a quiet Father's Day together. We started with church this morning followed by breakfast at IHOP. Then we hung out at Barnes and Noble for a while and did a little shopping. We spent the rest of the day watching movies at home. Both of the kids called their dad and he got a huge kick out of talking to Our Little Princess on the phone. Both of the grand-girls will be here on Thursday night for a visit. They'll stay until Sunday or Monday. We're both excited to the point of being silly about it.

Father's Day makes me melancholy. I loved my dad a lot and he loved all six of his kids. But, as often happens, when I became a teenager our relationship became strained and contentious. Unfortunately, the strain in our relationship lasted well into his old age and my adulthood. He's been gone a long time now and the passage of time has softened my feelings. I think that's a lovely gift you get with age.

You see, my dad was an enigma. He was extremely tenderhearted but very quick to anger and he cussed like a sailor. If you were on the receiving end of his anger, it was terrifying. He was prone to violent outbursts. Just being in the vicinity when he was mad about anything was very frightening. I could tell you stories that would curl your toes, but, for today, I choose to remember the happy times.

Daddy loved to fish. One of my earliest memories is of him coming home from fishing on Saturday morning. He was carrying his rod and reel in one hand and his tackle box and minnow bucket in the other. There was nothing unusual about that except, this particular morning, there was a glint in his eye. He squatted down on the front porch and opened the top of the minnow bucket. Inside was a very small, very wild kitten that poked his head up as soon as the lid was opened. He had found several kittens living among the rocks near the dam where he fished. He could only catch one of them, so he brought it home. I have no doubt that he would have brought all of them if he could have caught them. My little sister and I were very excited to have a new kitten and that wild kitten was soon a beloved pet. 

Once we moved to South Texas and my brothers grew older and left home, I would often go fishing with him on Saturday mornings. We would go down to the bayfront and walk out on the breakwater and spend hours sitting and talking as we fished. Those were special times and made me feel very close to him. It made me feel special to get to spend one-on-one time with him.

Another of my early memories is of Daddy teaching me to swim. I must have been very little, because I could swim very early. But I remember him standing in the lake and helping me swim by stretching his arms out in front and supporting me under my stomach while I floated. Then he would walk along with his arms outstretched, supporting me as I kicked my feet and paddled my arms. Before I knew it, I was swimming.

My dad was employed as a civilian mechanic working on heavy equipment for the US Navy. He worked 7 to 4 with a thirty minute drive in each direction. He got up at 5 a.m. and my Mom made a full breakfast for him every morning. I will always associate the smell of frying bacon or sausage, fresh-baked biscuits, and coffee brewing with him.

When he got home from work he was always covered in grease. He would take his work clothes off in front of the washing machine and go straight to the bathtub where Mom had already drawn his bath. His hands were a working man's hands, rough and stained with grease.  When he retired and stopped working as a mechanic, it took years for the grease stains to fade away.

Because of the schedule he worked, we had dinner at 5 o'clock and the house had to be quiet by 9 o'clock. Woe be unto the child who received a phone call after nine. When the phone rang after 9, my mother answered it and made it perfectly clear that we were not allowed to have phone calls that late. Those callers rarely called back ... ever. When she got off the phone, she headed straight for our room and read us the riot act. We soon learned to tell our friends that we were not allowed late evening phone calls.

My Dad was a reader. I rarely saw him without a book in his hand. He loved Zane Grey and often had a paperback rolled up and stuck in his back pocket along with his red mechanic's rag. He read in the bathroom, he read at the table, and he read in bed. I got my love of reading from him. Why couldn't I also have gotten his "bird legs?" Instead I got my mother's tree trunk legs and my dad's love of reading.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings he would be up early, often waiting for the newspaper to be delivered. He would sit at the dining room table and drink coffee as he read the paper. He liked his coffee black and he drank it by "saucering and blowing." He would pour a little bit at a time out of his cup and into his saucer. Then he would blow on it until it was cool and slurp it out of the saucer. It was fascinating to watch as a youngster. Then he would take his newspaper and go back to bed where he finished reading it.

As soon as I got out of bed, I would make a beeline directly for Daddy and Momma's bed where I would climb in between them and beg him to read "the funnies" to me. Many mornings there would be three or four kids on the bed for him to read to us.

When the grand-kids came along, they loved to lay on the bed cuddled up to his big belly. This delighted him beyond words. He was as bald as Telly Savalas, but he had very thick chest hair. He always wore v-neck t-shirts. Almost without fail, the grand-babies would tangle their tiny fingers in his chest hair and pull. He would wince in pain and they would giggle. Smiling though the pain, he never stopped them. There was very little that he loved more than his grandchildren.

I was 10 years old when we moved to South Texas. It soon became home to me, but even though he lived here the rest of his life, he never settled here. He always talked about going back to the Piney Woods where he grew up. But he soon took us exploring in South Texas. I remember Saturday afternoon drives to see the big tree at Goose Island and weekends spent floundering and crabbing in the Laguna Madre. He taught us to body surf on Padre Island. We would often spend New Year's Day beach-combing on the island and, if the weather was warm enough, we would go swimming. He got a big kick out of the mild winters here. I tasted my first alcoholic drink on a weekend trip with him to Matamoros, Mexico. It was a frozen daiquiri, all frosty and white with a cherry on top. He learned to bargain in the Mexican marketplaces and taught me too.

Every year, when he took his vacation, we would drive back to Bryans Mill, Texas where we spent two weeks visiting relatives and staying with his mother. That would be eight people piled into a station wagon driving 500 miles in one day. Not only did most of our cars not have air conditioners, none of them ever had a radio. Daddy was hard of hearing and it was just noise to him. We passed the miles by singing. We knew the words to all the traditional Baptist hymns. Daddy especially loved The Little Brown Church in the Woods and The Great Speckled Bird, which he would lead us in singing. We often made the same trip for Christmas. Then we sang Christmas carols.

My mom was a teetotaler, but Daddy liked a little nip now and then. He kept both peach and peppermint schnapps in the top cabinet above the sink in the kitchen. He had to stand on the countertop to reach it, which was impossible after he got older. After my marriage, when we would visit, he would take my husband into the kitchen and point at the cabinet asking him to get down a bottle and have a drink. Patrick could reach it without even a stool. They would take it to the table and share a couple of drinks while my mom showed her disapproval.

Sadly, Daddy never got to move back to his beloved Piney Woods until almost forty years later when it became his final resting place. He rests in the beautiful little cemetery in Bryans Mill, Texas. He is finally home surrounded by tall pine trees under blue skies. I know it's where he wanted to be, but I wish he was closer. It would be easier to visit more often.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy! Thanks for the lovely memories.

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