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TALKING TO MYSELF 16 JUNE 2013 Many of you will have read my essay "Daddy" in Butter in the Morning, but in the hope that a good story bears repeating, I am posting it here again today. When I was young, I assumed everyone had a father like mine - and grandfathers like mine, too. I understand now how fortunate I was to have been nurtured by three men of exceptional character. They were the male role models in my life, so it is not surprising that I sought a husband so similar to them. I suceeded :-)
DADDY: Bad fathers, from King Lear to Huckleberry Finn’s Pap, get more attention in literature, it seems to me, than good ones. The Bible warns us, though, that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children even unto the third and fourth generation, stalking families, cursing them, haunting memory. Perhaps twisted men, like the narcissistic Lear or the drunken Pap, leave behind a legacy so toxic it can only be excised with the power of words, with the purity of poetry.
Still, it troubles me that the influence of good fathers is not celebrated more in letters. From a lifetime of reading, I finally pulled up Atticus Finch as an example of a great literary dad, a sort of Anti-Pap-Finn. Surely there are others in the pages of books, but Atticus is who came to my mind, maybe because he reminds me of my own father.
Daddy was a Kentucky tobacco farmer, not an eloquent lawyer like Atticus, and he didn’t look or sound anything like the magnificent Gregory Peck who won an Oscar for that role in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. But Atticus Finch was a believable character to me because I was raised by Dexter Green.
In a curious way, I think I began writing because of my father, my Atticus, so that I could hear his voice in my head again after he died. Daddy cut through pretense wherever he ran across it, and homed in on what was genuine. He could spot the absurd in any situation, and get everybody laughing about it, thinking about it. And so I believe I write to hear him tell a story again. Maybe I even hope – though he’s been gone over twenty years – that he’ll whisper, yes, Georgia, you’re getting there, you’re learning, you’ve just about got it right this time.
But I’ve had trouble writing about Daddy straight on. Like all originals, he’s slippery on paper, defying easy images. He was a tallish man, even as I’m a tallish woman, and yet I think he had to stretch to reach six feet. Perhaps it was his insistence on good posture for both himself and me that made him seem taller than he was. When I was growing up, he would encourage me to practice walking with a book balanced on my head. “Tall girls can’t slump,” he’d say, and so I didn’t.
Although everyone tells me I’m the spitting image of Mother, I always thought I looked more like him. His hair, when he had some, was blonde, and in the set of his blue eyes and the narrowness of his mouth, I see my own. And if I have a memory for story or detail, it is a pale reflection of his.
Despite his flair for storytelling, he was, when I think about it, a quiet man, reserved. Yet men who were young when my father died, tell me even now that they quote Dexter “all the time.” When I press them for examples, they shrug, and glance away as though embarrassed at their seriousness, and say, “Oh, you know, things about living life.” And so I have a glimpse of my father as a philosopher in the tobacco fields influencing the men who worked alongside him.
He was a man who more often sought the sidelines than the spotlight, but then I remember his boisterous laugh. A whooping affair that could be heard a block away, it punctuated all his stories, and it was wonderful, I realize now, the kind of laugh that got everyone else laughing too. But it embarrassed me when I was a kid. You never wanted to see a funny movie with Daddy – not if you didn’t want everybody in the theater to turn their heads and stare at you.
With the exception of the few years he spent at Georgetown College and in the Army Air Corps, Daddy farmed all his life. He respected the land, and was an environmentalist before the word came into vogue, leaving his place on earth better than he found it. He must have served on the Owen County Soil Conservation Board for forty years. Yet I never thought he enjoyed the business of farming. He didn’t have the passion for it that my mother had.
I’m not sure what livelihood Daddy would have preferred over farming. If there were a job that would have paid him for reading -- remember Li’l Abner who napped all day testing mattresses?-- he might have liked that. He would come in from the fields every night, settle in his easy chair, and read a book. That is my most enduring memory of him. And so I grew up assuming that reading was an everyday ritual, like eating.
Daddy was a considerate man, too, who never wanted to put anybody out so I know he would have been mortified at the commotion his death caused. His tractor overturned on a steep hill below the barn on a rainy January day, and it took hours for his body to be recovered. Somewhere, I’m sure his spirit is still apologizing to his friends and neighbors for the trouble he caused them.
More than considerate, he was also tender-hearted. Many stories come to my mind, but one that haunts me is the time his BushHog ran over a newborn calf hidden in the undergrowth. Daddy took it so hard, we nearly had to bury him that morning. The men who were working with him repeated that story to me one after another at his funeral, shaking their heads as they remembered his anguish.
As for me, he never refused to do anything I asked him to do. Forty-five years ago, Ernie and I were married in the small Methodist Church near our farm. It was a simple wedding open to everyone, but I’d been off to college by then and was starting to have highfaluting notions. I wanted a fine bakery cake brought in from Frankfort for the reception. And so Daddy set off in his pick-up truck to carry home a cake wide enough and tall enough to feed two or three hundred folks. How he managed to get it there intact over 40 miles of the crookedest roads in Kentucky, I’ll never know. But he did it without a complaint – even though he personally thought people should simply “go to the courthouse and not worry everybody to death” when they wanted to get married.
Daddy wasn’t perfect of course. He could lose his temper – never at people – but at things when they broke. He was too often quiet when he should have spoken, giving in to others on things that didn’t matter in his opinion in order to avoid conflict. And sometimes he was outspoken in his opinion when he should have remained silent, a wise man talking to fools who couldn’t hear. Yet, he was as fine a father as I could have ordered up.
And surely, if a father’s sins can reverberate for generations, surely, surely, a father’s goodness echoes through time.
©GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER