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my father loved
by peggy millin

Last month the members of the Tell It Like It Is classes I lead wrote from the prompt, “My father loved…” for seven minutes. Writers are invited to interpret the prompt however they want—one person shows us what her father loved and allows those things to tell us about him, rather than the other way around. Others provide lists, still others find one thing and follow it.

The entries about fathers appear to me to be less ambivalent than those about mothers. I wonder if this is because we’re women, and further wonder if our brothers would have felt the same—one writer says not. One thing several writers shared—these were not easy to write. For most of us, the pen faltered along its way, challenging us to go deeper into who was behind that man we called Daddy.

Ginger Graziano, West Asheville

My father loved my mother, and saw her as a savior; being there for him and not dying like his mother did at three, or his father soon after, or his aunt while taking care of him. He was abandoned in an orphanage. He loved being up early, before dawn. He learned that there, out milking the cows and hoeing the vegetables, a healthy country life.

My father loved us, my brother and I, although he had an abusive, scary way of showing it. My brother would dispute the love. He hated my father, I did too back then

My father loved to take pictures of us, to capture his family in a square, a box. Then we couldn’t leave like his first one did.

My father loved to whistle, coming up the stairs from work-a two-hour subway ride from Brooklyn to the last stop in the Bronx.

My father loved to take us into the woods. Thank you for that, Dad. It’s my love too.

My father loved peace and quiet, to not be disturbed when he sat down to read the paper at night. My mother put us to bed early.

My father loved me. I loved him too, finally, at the end. He gave me tools for my home before he died, to fix things like he loved to do. He opened a paper bag and out tumbled hammers, saws and rasps for his first-born daughter. The seal of approval.

My dad loved to come to my house when I was married and fix things, walking around measuring each week and coming the next, with tools to mend. He couldn’t mend that marriage; he lost his workshop too.

My father loved to eat at 6pm on the dot. He loved to eat the same food on the same day every week.

My father loved structure and no more surprises.

Kimberly Childs, East Asheville

My father loved to tell me dirty jokes, the kind that ended, “Where were you when the shit hit the fan?” By age seven, I’d heard them frequently enough to groan and say “Oh, Da-addy.” My father loved magic tricks. He made a quarter dance across his knuckles and pulled a cigarette out of my ear. Initially, I found the performances enchanting but as I grew my interest diverted to bicycles, which I needed instruction to ride. He, being an asthmatic city boy couldn’t provide this. I learned at age 26 with a friend holding the seat as they ran along side, but that is another story.

My father loved parrots. Our small city apartment housed a succession of macaws, a sulfur crested cockatoo, an African Grey, an Amazon Green and several Rosy Cheeked Cockatiels. My father told me the story of when I was a toddler, I freed a cageful of blue, green and orange finches into New York City’s inhospitable canyons. Now I am passionate about wild birds that migrate across continents unaided.

My father loved chocolate of any description: Nestles bars with almonds, Hershey’s kisses, Rocky Road ice cream, Toblerone, and as a consequence has a large waistline. Of course, I inherited this predilection and profile but with the help of Weight Watchers have whittled myself down.

My father loved to tell stories about the colorful personalities he encountered during his workday at a New York City newspaper. My role was to be rapt listener, but after the hundredth time hearing the same story, I grew impatient and wanted to trade roles, which he couldn’t do.

My father loved me as a child. I yearned for him to see me as the adult I was becoming but to do so he had to grow up, which he never did. Now he lives permanently in a world where I am a child who gazes at his Peter Pan with adoring eyes.

Maggie Wynne, Montreat

My father loved his camera. He felt safe behind it. From that safe place he could embrace his wife and daughters, make love to his roses, and play with the dozens of cats and kittens he allowed to climb and pounce in the garden. My father loved walls, red brick ones and gray stone ones. He loved gates, the high, heavy green one in the stone wall, the waist high white one with the wrought iron hinges. He loved fences. The last one he built his neighbor declared “hostile.”

Boundaries. He set out to contain his family, his pets, and his garden. Had his home been a castle he would have loved the mote and the drawbridge. His passion for barricades kept many out, but in the end no wall or fence or gate could hold us forever. Enclosing us was a vain attempt to keep us from the things he feared, the things he knew only too well would bring us pain.

His mysterious Mississippi childhood was something he never mentioned. He never spoke of his home, his family, or friends. He only said life was hard, very hard. He kept us isolated as long as he could. A private man, he could only enjoy life behind the barricades he constructed—the physical ones, the social ones, the emotional ones.

I grieve that I failed to break through and love this solitary man. His fears made me afraid. Father and daughter, we danced a careful dance and never touched. Only when I look through the boxes of photographs he took am I able to glimpse the yes behind the camera. I see his soul reaching out, touching me with unspoken love, still hiding behind the lens of that awkward black box.

My father loved moderation in all things, although he never verbalized this motto. The foremost example was food. He believed his grandfather, who was obese, had literally eaten himself to death, and so he had an abhorrence of overeating. Not only did he keep his own eating to a minimum, he also expected us to do the same, saying, “You should not leave the table full.” He expected us to eat only enough to maintain basic health and satisfy basic hunger. The idea of eating more than one needed simply because the food tasted so good disgusted him -- a rather hard concept for a child to master.

When I was teaching but still living in my parents’ house, he chided me for bringing home so much paper work to finish. “If you can’t finish your work at school, you’re doing something wrong,” he told me repeatedly. I could not make him accept that an English teacher could not complete everything in spare minutes at school. I wasn’t observing the principle of moderation.

Some secret, subconscious ogre also kept his displays of affection to a moderate level. While my mother actively believed too much affection would spoil a child, my father held back for lack of knowing how to show his love. I had to make do with being called “Toots” or “Snooks,” or even in somewhat immoderate moments, “Snookums.” Today the memories of such epithets are among my fondest of my father.

Exercise, alcohol, sleep, and even work should not be overdone. In retrospect I suppose it was not too bad an idea. But I wonder if he knew he believed this? Was it a conscious rule of living? I’ll have to settle for a moderate amount of uncertainty.

Cheryl Dietrich, Arden

My father loved to gamble. After my parents’ divorce, he began taking me to horse races. It became our special thing. Sometimes he would take me out of my fifth grade class in the early afternoon and we’d go to the track. Miles Park, not Churchill Downs--that was for the Derby only. He taught me to read a racing program and a racing form. He allowed me to select my own horses and placed two-dollar bets for me on each race. He funded me for the first races but after I had won something--and I usually did--I had to provide my own gambling money out of my winnings. By the end of the day, after eight races in four hours, he would have “borrowed” all my money back from me to place his own bets. I never saw any of the money, but I never expected to. He called me “Daddy’s little handicapper.” When my brothers got old enough to join us, I might have been jealous except that he insisted over their protests that only I got to pick the horses.

After awhile, the racetrack lost its appeal for us. We asked our father to take us to Kiddie Land, the local amusement park, instead. He would swear to take us tomorrow, next time, next visit. He promised so sincerely, that each time we believed him. And each time it felt like a new betrayal when he drove us right back to the track.

“But you promised,” we whined, as children do.

Each time he responded, so patiently, “But you know I keep promises like pigs fly.”

He lost it all eventually, gambled it away on the horses: his wives (there were at least six that I knew of), his house, his law career, his health, and his children. All gone except his chief love. My father loved to gamble.

Madge Murray, Asheville

My father loved the earth. It was his great joy to have part of our back yard plowed early in the spring. Plowing in those days meant a horse pulling a heavy iron plow through the dark, brown sod of our yard, guided by a man hired for the job. I always liked to be in the yard to watch the long rows being overturned by a huge horse trampling up and down the garden understanding the commands gee and haw !

My father always planted spring onions first. One or two rows at the head of the garden. Spring onions could withstand a late frost. After the last killing frost, he set out tomatoes and prepared hills for white potatoes and other vegetables that would follow.

He would come home from work and head straight for the garden to see if things were well there. The children didn’t chop weeds until they could identify plants from weeds.

All the summer he tended his garden, rich with ripe tomatoes and yellow and white squash and even acorn squash that everyone hated. Summer always ended and as cooler weather came, the large squash leaves turned yellow and curled on their sides and the bean plants lay withered around the bottom of their stakes.

I imagine watching him in his garden. He walks down the row where the tomatoes grew. He stoops at one withering plant where four bright green tomatoes still cling to the vine. I imagine that he knows the garden can no longer give these unripe tomatoes a place to mature and ripen. He kneels and gently picks these firm green jewels from the useless vine. He holds them carefully as he carries them to a safer place.

Mary Olson, Arden

My father loved people, he loved his family, he loved me.  My father owned a restaurant he had inherited from his father.  He tended bar, working 6 days a week, mixing drinks and serving sandwiches.  He served up friendship most of all.  The patrons came in to see him, not just for food and drink, but to share a story or unburden their troubles.  John, dad, was a great listener.  He was always supportive.  He encouraged his friends as well as the strangers who hopped up on a barstool.  He always lent a helping hand, from giving a meal to someone down on their luck to making a phone call to help another find a job.  He always had time for people.  He was a Democrat but had just as many Republican friends.  To me he was my friend and from him I learned what unconditional love is.  I didn’t realize until his death how loved he was by the community.  Two weeks prior to succumbing to cancer the Republicans set up a scholarship fund in his name at the local university.  Democrats and Republicans alike raised the needed monies in those two short weeks.  The local newspaper and radio stations both had commentaries and articles about this man who gave and gave and gave to the community he loved and who loved him in return.

Sandra Fletcher, Swannanoa

My father loved to play with us seven girls. He would take us for hikes in the woods on Sunday afternoons and on another day to pick blue berries. On a hot summer day we would go the creek to play in the water. He never seemed to be in a hurry, like he had all the time in the world for us to ask him questions. The real kicker was when he would take us all fishing. Now, I wonder how he had time to put worms of all our poles and still catch fish of his own.

He loved to farm. He used to say that it was in our blood. He was always busy with the plowing and cutting hay and feeding the cows and the pigs. He loved to watch things grow—the animals, the land and the trees. He taught me to love nature. He would point out the Little Dipper in the night sky and tell us about the man in the moon.

He always drove a pickup truck, went to town on Saturday afternoons, and took Sundays off. He always read the funnies in the newspaper, drank one cup of coffee for breakfast, and wore Jergen’s lotion as aftershave. He always wore blue denim overalls, work boots, and a felt hat. He always had a pencil in the smallest overalls pocket just in case he wanted to figure something, carried a pocketknife, and went to the barn to tend the animals the first thing after breakfast and the last chore before supper. He always fussed up a storm when one of us kids would use one of his tools and not put it back in its proper place. He was always the same, and he always had a gentle spirit laced with humor.

I remember feeling that he was forever.




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