Being a Dad can be complicated. The old saying is that any guy can father a child, but it takes real effort to be a Dad. True ‘dat!
When I visit the home place in Hampton, there are a thousand images of my Dad that flow across the movie screen in my head. We changed the oil in the car in the back yard on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Dad didn’t consider that to be working on the Sabbath.
“Crawl under there on your back. Get where you can pull on the socket driver. Turn it left and take the plug out of the oil pan. Get your tray ready. When the oil comes out it’s gonna be warm and fast. Try not to let too much spill on the ground. You can do this.”
I can see him throwing ground balls to me in the front yard. Butchering a cow hanging from a beam in the old barn on a cold fall day. Paddling around the lake in the old green wooden boat with a fishing line in the water. The two of us sitting in the living room talking to a State Trooper about my less than perfect driving habits in Mama’s Oldsmobile Delta 88 with the 455 Rocket V8.
If I had to, I think I could tell you about some of the more important lessons I learned from him. The lessons that have shaped my own effort to be a Dad to my three kids. It wasn’t like he ever told me how to do this job. There were no speeches on the do’s and don’ts of being a Dad. It was more about the little things I observed over the years without even knowing at the time that I was paying attention to anything significant.
If the human mind is a sponge, then this is what I soaked up.
One evening he is sitting in his recliner. Spit cup on the floor beside him. His bare feet propped up in front of the TV. The phone rings.
“Hey Bill. Uh huh. Oh, yeah man. You come on out tomorrow and pick all the corn you want. We’ve got plenty. Help yourself. There’s squash and tomatoes, too if you want some.”
Dad never hesitated to share what he had. Being generous may not directly be a Dad-thing, but it spills over into every aspect of how a man relates to his children. If he is generous, they are better people for it. I wouldn’t be where I am today without his generosity.
In the spring of ’94, Beth and I came home for a visit. Dad and I sat out in the back yard in these old metal chairs which were a permanent fixture of my home life. They had been spray painted a few times over the years. We sat in these chairs to eat watermelon, clean birds, and just watch the clouds pass by. They always sat in the shade of the Pecan trees and were a welcome place to rest if there was slight breeze passing through.
I struggled for the words. I was 37, but he was still my Dad. “I’m quitting my job and moving back to Georgia,” I tell him. “I’ve got a job lined up at Callaway Gardens. It won’t be much money. We’ll struggle until I can move up a little. But we’ll make it.”
I was embarrassed. I had been through 5 jobs since college. He kept one job for 48 years. I changed complete vocations 3 times. He stayed focused his entire life.
After a certain point, a father knows that he cannot make his children’s choices for them. He watches from a distance. He listens and offers advice if asked. But sometimes he is handed decisions already made. A son gives him a piece of news, and what the Dad says next will say a lot about their relationship.
It was quiet for what seemed like a long moment. “Well,” he said, “I hate to see you give up on what you’re doing. You’re good at it. But, I’m not in your shoes. What can I do to help you?”
I talked to my Dad about everyone of my job changes and not once did he ever criticize me that I recall. I can only imagine how he was tempted to, but he didn’t. He showed me respect and treated me like I was a grown man, though I never was fully grown in his presence. It’s hard to make the mental and emotional shift from raising block-headed kids to standing by in support of your grown children come rain or shine, but he did that.
My Dad was known far and wide as a teller of yarns. He loved to listen to Jerry Clower. He was familiar with the call of a coon dog and the life of Marcel Ledbetter. He read Lewis Grizzard faithfully and would often clip one of his stories out of the AJC and mail it to me. A little handwritten note at the top. “A good one.”
Dad had no shame in taking someone else’s story and making it his own. He would change the details just enough to make it seem real. Which was the hook to getting people to buy into the story thinking it was real. It took me a long time to realize that there was nothing deceitful about it. All the great story tellers borrowed and reworked someone else’s material.
I squirmed when his stories included me, because I knew it wasn’t real, but I was expected to go along. If a bunch of men were sitting around a camp fire, you can bet Dad was the one telling a story.
“Why, me and Paul were bird hunting a few weeks ago down the other side of Cochran. This fella said we were welcomed to walk his fields with the dogs. The Quail hunting was good this year.”
“He told us one thing: ‘ There’s a new bird in these parts. Migrated up here from South America somewhere. It’s pretty good eating, too. It’s called a Flip Bird. He’ll be flying along and all of sudden he flips over and flies upside down. If you get a chance you oughta try one out.’ (long pause) ‘ Just one thing. Don’t shoot him when he’s flying upside down.’”
“You tell ‘em son. What’d he say?” I squirm. “He said don’t shoot him when he’s flying upside down because he’ll fall straight up and you’ll never get him.”
Dad had the perfect poker face for his stories. And the stories worked best in a crowd where some folks didn’t know him. I heard it all the time. One guy would lag behind everyone else laughing and say, “Naw, that didn’t happen. Did it?”
I’m not exactly sure what I learned from all his stories that applies directly to being a Dad, but it has helped me to see the humor in life. That life all around us has some built in humor to it that makes it all a little more interesting. It’s not hard to find. All you have to do is look for it and make it your own.
I think his stories have helped me see that even when things seem the worst, it’s possible to find something to laugh about. All three of my grown kids have come to me in the middle of all kinds of tough times for them. We might embrace. We might debate the options. We might pray together. But before it’s all over, we usually find some small piece of comical relief. “Well, at least you didn’t set your hair on fire and run through the streets naked.”
So, thanks, Dad. Thanks for all the help and support. Thanks for all the great stories. I’m sorry I thought they were stupid sometimes. Maybe you’d be proud to know that I’m telling a few of my own.