I love my father as the stars – he’s a bright shining example and a happy twinkling in my heart. ~ Terri Guillemets
My father was a farmer, and the primary land my father farmed was located about ten miles south of the house where we lived. Several of our ancestors were buried in the front part of the woods. During the winters when he couldn’t farm, my father worked clearing the timber, setting the tombstones upright again, and cutting wood to feed our fireplace at home. He would come home out of the cold on those winter evenings, to settle in front of that fire with his coffee and a good book.
He hated illness, especially his own, and it was not often he was ill. Mostly that was because he’d never admit to it. My mother would always tease him when he would reach for so much as an aspirin.
“Better call Meredith. He’s taking a Bayer.” Meredith Pritchett ran the local funeral home.
One evening after working in the timber all day, he came in limping, obviously favoring his left foot and trying desperately to hide it from Mom’s eagle eyes. I was setting the table, moving from kitchen to dining room and heard the conversation only in snippets. It began as I took the plates from the cupboard.
“What happened to your foot?”
I was out of earshot until I returned for the glasses.
“So you dropped the axe?”
“Axe?” I thought, nearly breaking a tumbler. I slowed my actions in hopes of hearing more.
“A little bit, yes.”
“A little bit?”
I knew that tone. It was the same tone she used when she arched her eyebrow and called her children by their full first and middle names. That tone meant trouble. I grabbed the last glass and headed for the dining room, but soon returned for the silverware.
“It’s nothing. A little bruise,” he insisted.
I knew from his defeated tone that surrender was imminent. It was only a matter of time.
When I returned for the napkins, it was over. My father was up against the kitchen counter, staggering to keep his balance as my mother tugged off his steel-toed work boot. His sock was scarlet, dripping abstract patterns onto the blue-flowered linoleum. Turned out he missed his target with the axe and hit his foot instead. The steel of his work boots saved his foot, absorbing the brunt of the hit and dissipating it. Instead of slicing off the front of his foot, the power of the swing reverberated through his shoes hard enough to split his foot open across the sole. It took twenty-five stitches to repair.
My mother tended to describe my father to her friends via clichés, summing him up as the “strong, silent type” and often commenting that “still waters ran deep.” I remember him as being quiet, often sitting still amidst the chaos of his wife and four children. His recliner was the most worn piece of furniture in the house. When my mother had it recovered, she chose green checkerboard leather because the material would stand up well to wear and tear. I hated sitting in it during the summer after that because the pattern would end up welded into the bare skin where my shorts ended. I saved a piece of that material when we left the house, and now it is a part of the cushion on my rocking chair. Some summer days I forget to move the cushion and for a moment I am twelve again, feeling the peeling leather stick to my legs as it imprints the checkerboard into my skin yet another time.
I remember the day one of my childhood neighbors drove my dad home. It was mid-winter, when the sun sets by late afternoon and frosty fog rises to coat the trees by nightfall. This particular evening, my father’s truck pulled into the lane much quicker than normal, and, as it slowed in front of the house, I saw my father slumping against the passenger door, visibly gray under his permanently farmer-tanned skin. Johnny Moore, the neighboring farmer who lived across the way from the timber, was driving. Johnny hopped out and went around to help him out, shouting for me to get my mother, double-quick. Johnny told Mom that my father had knocked on his door and asked Johnny to drive him the ten miles home, as he wasn’t feeling well. We later learned that he had been about one hundred yards into the timber when he felt the first pain. He walked to the edge of the timber, down one side and then up the other side of the ditch at the side of the road, crossed the road and walked up the quarter-mile lane to Johnny’s house, because he didn’t trust himself to drive. It was my father’s first heart attack; I was a freshman in high school.
He was back at work within a couple of weeks after that first heart attack. No real damage had been done physically, but it had dealt a psychic blow to the man who thought himself invincible. He began to work his death casually into conversations, as though testing the waters.
“I don’t think I’ll ever sell this tractor. That will be your job when I’m gone.” His hand lingered on the yellow stripe down the side of his favorite piece of John Deere equipment.
“Make sure to remind your mother that the tax papers are in the bottom drawer of the cupboard. She never remembers where they are, and she’ll need them.”
During my senior year of high school, he surprised us all one late autumn day by announcing that he was going to quit farming. He’d done his time, he said, and he was tired. Early on a December morning, a month after his last crop was harvested and stored away, he got up to use the bathroom and get some water, then returned to bed. My mother couldn’t get back to sleep, so she put the coffee on and finished writing the Christmas cards. When she was done, surprised that my father had not yet re-appeared, she went to wake him, but he was gone; he passed away in his sleep. I came downstairs that morning to go to school only to find my world had forever changed.
That day was December 14, 1982, 29 years ago today.
The family found instructions on how to handle the farm sale on his desk, and my mother’s traditional Christmas present –a bottle of her favorite Estée Lauder perfume and a box of Fannie May chocolates—already wrapped and under the tree. Mom chose “Goodnight, Sweetheart” as the closing song for the funeral, as it was the last thing she said to him every night. At the service, the pastor commented that the only thing that would have made my father happier was to have one hand on a John Deere tractor as he went.
He was probably correct.