Friday, June 20, 2014

“Every father should remember that one day his son will follow his example instead of his advice.” — Charles F Kettering

I didn’t write about my father on Father’s Day, but I’ll correct that now.  The quote above could not be more apt for the relationship I had with my father.  He wasn’t the best of fathers to me (better to my siblings), and he was the very best grandfather for his five grandchildren that they could ever want.  In his defense, regarding his rocky relationship with me, his own father was an alcoholic who died in his early forties and was a horrible role model, so Dad did the best he could with what he had.  He and I were too alike for us to have a close relationship, but he loved me even he didn’t tell me till he wrote it on the bottom of a birthday card when he was eighty-six years old.  Still, he did write that and even said it at least once or twice more before he died.  He also lived long enough to tell me he was sorry for the things that happened between us.  There were times that we didn’t talk for years, but he was always there for me even when I didn’t want him to be.  He never graduated from high school but he taught himself and worked hard to move from a lowly paint salesman in a Sears, Roebuck store in Houston till he was a group manager of multiple stores in Robstown and Corpus Christi, Texas, when he retired from Sears about forty years later.  He was very proud of the fact that all four of his children were college graduates with six graduate degrees among us including a Ph.D. (my brother, Rob, from the University of Texas at Austin).  While I graduated four times (including high school) he wasn’t at a single one of them.  Yet, he was there when every one of his five grandchildren graduated from high school and college.  It helped that all five were graduates of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.  He couldn’t tell me that he was proud of me, but he showed it in many ways, and he was there for the births of all three of my children.  He was a very good man, generous, caring, and a fighter for the rights of the poor and marginalized.  He removed the “colored” water fountains and rest rooms when he became the manager of the Sears store in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1963, which was a very brave thing to do, both in terms of his career and his family’s safety, but he did it.  He also learned Spanish when transferred to Corpus Christi so he could talk to the Hispanic workers on the custodial staff and helped send more than one of their children to college.  When it was just a day or two before his death in 2003, my brother, Rob, and I were in the room with him as he slept.  Rob and I were telling each other how everything that we really liked and admired about ourselves, we got from him—from his example, from the way he lived.  After a while, he lifted his head from his pillow, turned to look at the two of us and asked, “Is the damn wake over yet?”  He was still being funny and alert just a day before he died of leukemia at the age of 89.  While he may not have known how to be a nurturing (we never hugged) and loving father to me, he lived the life of a loving and nurturing man and was that to all of his grandchildren and that was the man that everyone else saw, and ultimately, the one who had such an incredible impact on my own life.  The picture on the right was taken just a few weeks before his death and is still one of my favorite pictures of him.  One of his favorite hymns was “Oh Happy Day” and whenever I hear it, it makes me smile and causes a tear to run down my cheek.  It was how he lived his life and not how he fit my idea of a “good father” that made me see him as such a good man—and a good father in the end.   The world is a better place because he was in it, and I pray that just half the good things said about him at his passing will be said about me at mine.  If that happens, it will be a “happy day.” 
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