Most years, Father’s Day comes and goes without my even being aware of it. Pretty much all advertising is wasted on me; I pay no attention to what product is being advertised, and helping Dad celebrate his special day with a sentimental card and a new weed whacker blows right past my consciousness. Father’s Day has always been a day for other people—not only the fathers, but also the people with fathers.
I’ve never thought much about Father’s Day because I’ve never had to. My father died a month after I turned five, but my memories of him are vivid and specific.
One summer when I was at my grandparents’ dairy farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi, he made the two-hour drive from Jackson to spend the weekend at the farm. He brought me a plush stuffed tiger, a gas-station giveaway (“Put a tiger in your tank”). It was in a clear, protective plastic bag, and he gave it to me in the dairy barn, where I was watching my grandfather hook up the cows to the milking machine. Afterward, the two of us went to the house together. I held my father’s hand, and with my other hand I swung the tiger in its bag. I clearly remember how happy I was to see him, how surprised and delighted I was with the gift. I haven’t been without that tiger since. It’s nearly fifty years old, and its frayed green velvet ribbon may be the only thing holding its head on.
If I were in the car with him when he was driving to the farm, once he’d made the turn onto the dirt road to my grandparents’ house, he’d let me sit in his lap and drive, which meant that I put my hands on the steering wheel. He also let me ride on the riding lawn mower with him. The general wisdom these days dictates—and rightly—that kids not do these things. But my father had sense enough to hold on to me, and I had sense enough not to let go.
Every evening when he left work, he bought a Tootsie Roll from the newsstand in the lobby of his office building, and when he got home, I’d shimmy up him as if he were a tree, knowing that the inside breast pocket of his jacket held a treat for me.
When I was about three, he spent some time affixing a hook-and-eye latch high up on our screen door, because I was tall enough to open the one just above the handle. I watched him work, and when he was done, I went to the broom closet, got a broom, and used it to pop open the latch.
He made sure I had my own bottle of apple juice because of the considerable backwash I produced when I drank straight from the bottle—which he allowed me to do. I think he even encouraged it, because the sight of a four-year-old knocking back a whiskey-size bottle of apple juice cracked him up.
He took me trick-or-treating.
He decorated the silver aluminum Christmas tree with shiny red ornaments.
He buried our dog, Charlie, who was hit by a car.
When he cut down an oak tree in our yard, I asked him to leave me a thinking stump. “A what?” he asked. “A thinking stump,” I said, “so I can sit on it and think.” So he did. And I did.
When he had a heart attack, I found him facedown and unconscious on the bathroom floor, and I thought he was playing a game with me. I jumped on his back and proceeded to bounce, performing, I’d like to think, chest compressions in a sort of ride-’em-horsie fashion. He didn’t die then, at any rate.
After his leg was amputated, he had an actual wooden leg. He would have marveled at modern prostheses. His artificial leg was heavy and uncomfortable, and he spent long hours in physical therapy. I once decided to practice my karate moves on him, and I karate-chopped the wooden leg, which amused him to no end.
I once went to physical therapy with him by stowing away in the backseat of the car. My parents didn’t know I was hiding on the floorboard until we arrived at the physical therapy facility. Neither did my sisters, who were supposed to be watching me at home and weren’t quite sure how they were going to tell my parents they’d misplaced me.
He read to me.
That’s about it. It’s not a lifetime of memories, but it’s been enough because it’s had to be.
And the strange thing is, with only this to remind me of a man I hardly knew, I still miss him.