Dad’s Birthday 2015
“Yard Bird” is the name of the sculpture on the back porch. His back is a shovel, his wings are garden rakes, his legs are the front fork of a bicycle, and the cocksure feathers on his head were, I believe, some kind of hand rake. He’s purple and yellow, has a long beak/nose, and with his lug nut eyeballs/glasses, he looks, weirdly, like Dad. Yard Bird was bestowed to him on his birthday many many years ago, and when Mom gave it to him, they both howled. He wasn’t a sentimental guy, and he wasn’t materialistic in the least, but certain things were dear to him. One day, while digging one of the ponds in the back yard, his trusty shovel split and cracked beyond repair. My fiancé was with him at the time, and Paul reported in hushed tones later, that he had glimpsed tears in Dad’s eyes as he held the broken pieces. “I’ve had this shovel for twenty years…” he choked out. The handle had been replaced before, the screws tightened, but this damage… this… the crack along the thinning blade… was irreparable.
Together we buried it under the pond that became it’s memorial. The following birthday, Yard Bird was later placed ceremoniously beside it to watch over the goldfish, and provide shade for Jabba the frog. There was a moment of silence. I believe he may be the only man to have given a funeral to a shovel.
As with many days, this day in 2015, his birthday began with me on his back porch, listening to life, breathing clean, with his dog under my feet. The binoculars I gave him on another birthday still live on the table here, through which he would track the comings and goings of the birds and the rotund squirrels that gorged themselves at the feeders he always kept full. A typical phone call from the west coast was comfortingly predictable…
“Hey, Dad… how are you doing?”
“Welp, I got one eye on a book and one eye on a ballgame, and Wen, I had the fattest blue jay out here this morning, and oh, there’s that cardinal isn’t he pretty… later on I’m gonna put a pork chop on the grill.”
This brilliant leader who encouraged men and women towards their greatest potential, in business, and in war, never lost sight of the beauty of the natural world. He wanted his hands in the earth. He made my brother and I get our hands in it, too… and I remember complaining with him about the heat, complaining about our backs hurting with all the stooping over from pulling weeds. Complaining about my shoulders hurting from redistributing gravel in the driveway. Complaining about the allergens, and the spiders, and the ew-father-God-what-the-heck-is that?!! But most of all I was hemoraging over the fact that at thirteen I was already waaaaaayyy smarter than my parents… what did they know anyway?.. and what am I some kind of slave?!!
Teens are so friggin’ entitled… I’m horrified at myself…
But those were the days I learned the satisfaction of a job well done. I learned what it was to feel strong. To sweat. He was like Mr. Miagi… but less patient. (I think I complained more than Ralph Maccio…) Dad loved Mowing the lawn because it smelled good, and you could look back instantaneously and see that you had accomplished something that made things better. Instant gratification. Strong, healthy, instant gratification.
Because of him, I learned to breathe, keep my eye on the basket, and how to do that wrist thing before taking a free throw. My preteen self may have been “smarter” than Dad, but who knew that I could get a rush when the wedge was in exactly the right place, I could place my feet properly, keep my eye on what I wanted, swing my sledgehammer high, and let gravity do the work, the wood would split perfectly. Just like Dad’s. Then to later remember that feeling months later when building a fire… the smell of the trees, the smell of the earth and the fumes from Dad’s chainsaw… the cool of the air, and having to take my coat off anyway because I was sweating. We’d go an hour barely talking, just working side by side, to fill the pick-up with the fuel for a winter of fireplace magic. He’d let me have some of his beer, because there were no water bottles then, but there were plenty of beer cans, and I’d remember, as I tee-peed the wood the way the indians did, the way Dad taught me…. I split this wood… that day in the woods with Dad.
That was a good day.
Those kinds of moments helped negotiate the waters of pre-teen entitlement that I’m still scarily struggling with. I need to remember more often the gifts that Fathers give. While they may be hard, and they may not be what we want right now, there’s something good on the other side of it. “All things work together for good… in some whack way…” I think that’s how it goes… Bible again. I gotta memorize where stuff is…
Dad had the drawl of a southern gentleman, and if you want an idea of what he sounded like, there’s something of Morgan Freeman that always reminds me of him. People are sometimes a little alarmed when I tell them that Morgan Freeman reminds me of my dad, but skin tone aside… their bone structure, mannerisms, phrasing and tone are similar. Morgan plays strong, intelligent, to-the-point roles, like Nelson Mandela, the coach in Million Dollar Baby, and my favorite, and most evocative of Dad, The Magic Of Belle Isle. He was a man of few words. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, people listened.
While he may have reminded me of Morgan Freeman, I always thought Dad looked like Clark Gable. Tall, mustached, blue eyed, a decathlete. He always said he was never great at any one thing, but he was really good at a lot of things. He was a super-hero. Able to bench press kids, hurdle fences, and pull the string of the fifty pound gorgeous polished wood bow that lives with the quiver of arrows, shamefully dusty, behind Mom’s statue of Diana in my back bedroom. Like many blessed kids, I thought that my Dad could do anything.
I’m thankful today, his day, for the lessons he taught me. Love, long division, and discipline. He taught me to read when he tucked me into the corner of his arm and read Horton Hears A Who, National Geographic, and Santa Mouse. He taught me love of the outdoors, respect for nature, a good sweat, and the joy of dirt under my nails. While Mom was artistic and verbose… Dad taught me economy of finances and language. Speak softly… carry the big stick… or whatever tool you can use to get the job done. And do it right the first time, or you’re just gonna have to do it again.
His words of wisdom were framed by that bushy mustache he had. I’ve never been able to date someone with one because it was just too weird. It was one of those Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck kind of mustaches, that made tickle fights and butterfly kisses impossibly unfair. When Mom passed, I took up the mantle of “Dad’s Barber” because, thankfully, he never really gave a crap what he looked like. I can’t profess to be consistently good at it, but I’d get into the character of a hairdresser that knew what she was doing, imitate some of the moves I’ve witnessed, and sometimes his head came out miraculously not horrible. Sometimes he ended up looking like Yard Bird, but after Mom and the disastrous second wife were gone, no-one outside of the folks at the quickie mart down the street really ever saw him. He let the hair get as long as a mullet, and woof… his unshaven crazy face…
As it got harder for him to stand at a sink, his face would sometimes go weeks without shaving, and he’d have so much grey scruff that, I’d convert the front porch to a barbers station, arm myself with the clippers, and go to town. We made it fun. I’d carve out a Robin Hood, jaw defining, masterpiece out of his stubble. I’d turn him into a goatee’d hipster and laugh. I even gave him a soul patch once… “GET RID OF IT!” He’d giggle as I contorted my face into what I wanted his to do to stretch the skin properly for the clippers to work. The man had bushes of hair in his ears, long unruly eyebrows, and would even get strays growing not only out of his nostrils, but out of the bridge of his nose! A half hour, and a warm wet towel later, he’d depart the porch looking again like the dapper guy he was.
He was a sharp dresser, but that was only because of Mom. She had to dress him to prevent disastrous combinations that left him befuddled when a certain outfit didn’t work because, although he insisted “Everything’s blue…” he never had quite the eye that she did. He wasn’t color blind, but he never really saw nuances of color in clothes…and he never saw color in people.
Mom was raised in an extraordinarily bigoted home. I remember being so confused when we went to her parents seeming mansion with the gorgeous everythings, magnolia trees, china, country clubs etc… and I would be stunned when Grandaddy was cruel to beloved Mabel, his maid, who always hummed as she worked. I would follow her around, fascinated, and she encouraged me to sing. Later, when I learned what racism was, I wondered if Grandaddy was in the KKK. I still wonder. When I got into theatre and was first exposed to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, a layer of my mothers upbringing was brought into sharper focus in the character of Big Daddy. It was all about the money, the power, and all about the stuff. The lessons Grandaddy taught her, carried over, and when she first married my dad, she had actually said that she while she would be polite, she would not entertain colored people in her home. My mom. My family. Wow.
But Dad not only educated my brother and I, he taught Mom. One of his closest co-workers, Mary, became an intimate friend of the family that began to crack open the bullshit of Mom’s upbringing. Smart, funny, down to earth, Mary respected and loved my dad, loved my mom, loved us, until Mom had nothing to do but unreservedly put aside the polite stuff, and fully love her back. Mary came the day Dad died, having planned a visit with him, but he didn’t hold on quite long enough. She was here in the den the night the 1940s suit and hat wearing gangster looking cremation society guys wheeled him out. They looked like cartoons as they wheeled him away… it was almost funny. Almost.
The pastor whose dark hand held Moms as he helped her home to God finally broke that last link of racism, and purged our family of it’s toxicity forever. My brother and I are stronger for it. Thank you Dad, for that. The whole country could really benefit from you still being in it now.
But he’s not. Physically, at least. I feel him in the hug of my heart, and the light that shines behind my eyes when I think of him. He’s here in the smell of grilling steak, cut grass, and Prince Albert pipe tobacco. He’s in the birds in the yard, the hearts of his friends, and the crack of a can of Budweiser.
So today, I’m going to buy a six pack. I’m getting out the weed-eater, and with my house full of impending family, we’re going to putter around the yard he loved, work up a good sweat, get some dirt under our nails, dodge spiders, get the clippers and give my geriatric lab a puppy cut on the porch.
I think he would have liked today…
I think he will.
Happy Birthday, Dad.