My mom tells me that Papa was never the same person after his experiences in the war. Prior to going overseas, he was a freer guy who would do things adventuresome things, like ski and ice skate. Afterwards, he was more somber, had a harder time finding happiness, and frequently would wake up in the middle of the night in a horrifying dream. He became critical, hard on us kids, and difficult to live with sometimes. Today, I would say that he was the classic case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but back then, no one talked about those sort of things, and war veterans could only seek sollace in each other, I suppose. Understanding my father on that level opens up huge compassion for him in my heart.
As a child, I remember my friends were afraid of my father because he was ill-humored and very strict all the time, the essence of what his father had been to him and his siblings. Although I don't recall my father striking me a lot, I do recall lots of really mean tongue lashings and threats that frightened me and made me want to crawl away to a safe place. To this day, I don't like to have my picture taken because I have memories of his nastiness when he thought I was "posing" or being silly in front of the camera. His love was a hard love, especially when he felt bad on the inside himself. Communication on any level, with his kids or his wife, was not his thing, and he did what he pleased, whether or not it was convenient for us, Mom, or anyone else in the world. He was happiest when he was out hunting or fishing from dawn until dark with his friends, Bynum or Conley.
Papa joined the faculty of Appalachian State University after he finished his MA degree there shortly after I was born. His career as the Acquisitions Librarian for the university lasted until he had to retire. In his early 50's, Papa was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and he has lived the last 32 years with a condition that has progressively emaciated his body and taken away his ability to walk and care for himself. My mom now cares for him 24 hours a day, sometimes getting up with him as many as 17 times a night to attend to his needs.
When I was talking to Mom the other day, I commented that I really have to search my memory bank to come up with an image of a healthy Papa in my mind. I am amazed at how our family's life has been so defined by his health and temper. When I called Papa for Father's Day yesterday, I could hardly understand him on the phone because of the constant convulsive state of his tremors. (Our family term for his incessant movement is "flailing.") So, I spent a good deal of late yesterday afternoon and evening alone here at The Farm, meditating on my father and trying to faccess memories I have of him as healthy and active. It was a good time spent because I was able to move past the frail and sickly mental photos I hold of him and see him vividly as a younger, healthy man in my mind.
I saw him...
~laughing with me as he picked me up by the love handles on around my tummy when I was little.
~ hiding me in a rhododendron thicket one Saturday morning when he was crow hunting and listening to him call in the crows with his crow call. (I can see him off to my left with the call in his mouth and his gun ready to shoot. I was amazed at how the crows came, and I recall seeing more than a few of them hit the ground. I decided then that I would not shoot anything, but I would learn to use the crow call....And, here on the farm, I get out Papa's crow call every once in a while to see if I can come close to his success in getting them to come check me out. So far, I have not. )
~ taking a power nap in the driver's seat of the red and white 1949 Ford station wagon once he'd come home from work. He always rested his head in his left hand that was propped by the window.
~taking me to work with him early in the morning and spending an hour in the college library witih me before I had to go to school. I can see him standing behind the check-out desk, handing me books to go put back in the stacks. I loved being down in the stacks of books...It was a magical hideaway for me.
~throwing the baseball with me almost every afternoon when he'd come home from work. As a boy, Papa was quite an excellent pitcher, and he taught me to play like a boy. I can the ball coming at me really fast, and I remember thinking "WOW...this one's gonna sting through my glove," catching it, and feeling really proud of myself. I also remember a couple of times when he'd throw so hard, the force of the ball would knock me over. And, I can hear him telling me to lock my eyes on the balls I missed as I was running after them before they bounced into the woods.
~ with delight on his face when I spotted a groundhog in a field before he did.
~in the fishing boat at Watauga lake, sitting back by the motor. I can vividly see him casting out over and over and finally reeling in a couple of big fish. I can feel him behind me as I was bringing in my first catch --he wanted to make sure I didn't lose it.
~ running the rototiller in the garden at Roaring Fork.
~playing fetch with Nickles, our beloved family dog. Nick loved Papa, and Papa loved Nick.
~watching him work with his English Setters, teaching them to bring back the grouse he killed.
~ right by my side the first couple of times I dressed the game brought home for us to eat. He and I alway inspected what was in the grouse's gizzards, and one time, I remember we found fermented blackberries that smelled like wine in the grouse's craw.
~with tears in his eyes at the death of his favorite bird dog.
~looking into my eyes as he walked with me up to the big oak tree where Sam and I were married.
~holding Samuel for the first time.
~telling me that a little girl had come to him and called him "Papa." This was right before Eliza was born.
There are also two things that always bring my father's voice to me. I can close my eyes and hear his voice as he blesses the food on the table, a blessing that has never changed over the years: "Our Father, we thank you for this day, this food, and our many blessings. Amen." (On a couple of occasions he has added "our friends" to his grace.)
And when I leave Boone to come home or when I say goodbye to him on the phone, he unfailingly says, "I love you, sweetheart." Every time I hear those words, they melt my heart.
Today I give thanks for my dad. As cantankerous and grumpy as he can be, I love my dad with all my heart. I give thanks for this day and for the many, many blessings I have known in my life with Papa.