Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes. ~Gloria Naylor
Memories of my father have reached that hazy, mythical point where the things I remember are only fractions of moments, pieces of time, out of context. He has been gone from my physical life for far longer than he was ever in it. I lost him right before Christmas, my senior year of high school, when I was barely seventeen. He’s been gone for almost thirty. His birthday next month would have been his ninety-ninth.
I can’t truly say that I knew him all that well when he was alive, to be honest. I mean, how well does any child, or teenager, really “know” their parent. I know the things he taught me — a sense of self, a respect for history, a love of family, a comfort with patience, a faith in things greater than myself.
I know the facts of his life. He was born, grew up, lived, and died in the same town. History shaped his life, his views. Young during World War I, he came of age during the Great Depressionand was excused from military duty during World War II because he was a farmer. After war’s end, he spent his days farming, his Sunday mornings in church. He lived in a tiny house next to a portion of the land he farmed, with his mother (widowed in 1951) and one of his sisters, who had been tragically widowed just prior to her twentieth birthday, after a marriage of less than a year. His sister never remarried. They traveled occasionally, including a trip to the Rose Parade, Disneyland, and Pike’s Peak. That trip had to be around 1953 or 1954, because in one of the slides, my father is at Disneyland, standing next to a sign that reads “Coming soon: Tomorrowland” which opened in July 1955. He once described life then as simple, quiet, and one where he did a lot of reading and thinking. The quiet and simple part certainly changed when he got together with my mother. There are many ways to tell the story of my mother and father, but, without question, my favorite version is the one my mother wrote in her memoirs:
On November 3, 1963, I married Richard E. Phillips, one of Kenneth’s closest friends and co-workers in our last church. Dick was a fifty year old bachelor, an elder in our church, and a rather quiet, shy person. I’m sure it was rough on him though, marrying a thirty-eight year old woman with children eight, nine, and eleven. I kept asking him for years after we were married, “Oh, Dick, wouldn’t you really love to go back over home and read a book in peace and quiet?”
But he always answered, “No, Bonnalee, you can’t imagine what it was like. To have a really good day, or as a farmer would say, a really good year, and no one to share the pleasure with.”
I must tell you about Dick, really a great man. I noticed him looking at me in church one Sunday, and I suddenly kind of liked “that look.” I knew he would never approach me. One day, I needed a slide projector and knew he had one. I called him and asked to borrow his. He said, “Yes, do you know how to run it?”
Being a wise woman, I said, “No. Would you mind bringing your’s over and showing me how?”
That night he came with it and brought his pictures of Disneyland to show the children while he was showing me how to run the machine. When he started to leave, he said, “Bonnalee, I’d like to take you and the children out to dinner sometime. Would you go?”
I said, “Yes, Dick, that might be good for all of us. But not just yet.” He sighed, rather heavily. I asked what was the matter, that I really would go with him, but just wasn’t ready to date yet.
He said, “I’m just glad that’s over. That’s the first time I’ve ever asked a girl for a date.” Several days later, he called and asked if I could come visit for the evening and this began our beautiful relationship. Dick used to call before he’d come over to the house to see me. He was always a man to respect me in every way, including my time, my friends, my thoughts. He was always right beside me but never interfered. I was always very careful to include Dick in everything, because he only came into a situation when invited, out of respect and a sense of shyness, but really rather old-fashioned and lonely. But Dick and I were always able to laugh together so easily and many times at ourselves.
He was fifty-three when I was born. Although my mother came as a package deal with three children whom he loved deeply, I was without question his baby girl. Even I will freely admit I had the man wrapped around my little finger. Like my mother, I seemed to be able to talk him into things that he probably would not have done on his own. Like, for example, learning how to turn a jump ropeor towing his daughter around in a wagon behind the mower. Many of my habits and interests come directly from his influence, including my love of gardening and watching things grow as well as my love of history and good books.
Most of what I remember about him though is much like how our pastor described him in the eulogy he delivered at my father’s funeral that cold December morning. They’d been good friends, and my father had been a member of that church his entire life. I think he captured him perfectly: He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, his words showed profound insights. His remarks were often of the kind to be turned over and over in the mind and examined for more and more shades of meaning — understatements that held attention long after the conversation had ended. To me as friend and pastor, his remarks were always expressions of support and encouragement. His quiet and faithful support of his church, and his profound faith, are well-known to all here who knew him. He did not demand perfection of himself or of other people. Instead, he did his best as he understood it, and trusted in God. He died as he had lived — quietly and peacefully. What is left for us is to find the strength for today’s sorrow, and the strength for tomorrow’s tasks, in the very kind of faith in God and love shared between people that Richard Phillips demonstrated to us.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!