“I believe that what we become depends on
what our fathers teach us at odd moments,
when they aren’t trying to teach us.” — Umberto Eco
A friend said to me once, “If you could sit on your porch and visit with anybody living or dead, who would it be?”
Flannery O’Connor crossed my mind, as did Eudora Welty and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. How I would love to pick their brains!
Yet, if I had a choice, the person I would choose was not famous. He never wrote a book or cure a disease. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself outside of the small town in which he was born. Given what he had to work with, however, he accomplished a lot.
That person was my daddy whose life ended much too soon.
“There are two things you should always remember,” he said to me when I had been married for almost a month. “Number one,” he held up his index finger, “never buy packaged hamburger meat in the store.”
“Why is that, Daddy?”
He sighed. “Butchers grind up the unmentionables, add some fat and call it hamburger. Trust me; don’t eat it.”
When Mama and Daddy were newlyweds, long before he got into law enforcement, Daddy was a salesman for a meat packing plant. It was after the Great Depression, before the FDA began cracking the whip. Visions of cow parts prepared for human consumption was burned onto the walls of his brain. I never saw my Daddy eat a hamburger.
“Okay, the second thing you need to remember,” he said, “is about coffee. It tastes better when you drink it out of a thin cup.”
I was a young bride at the time and needed practical advice: hints on balancing the budget or how to keep love alive in a new marriage. What did I get? My Daddy, serious as a heart attack, enlightened me with a complete list of stomach-churning ingredients in hamburger meat.
After that, he counseled me to drink coffee in a thin cup. I didn’t get it. I kept on drinking Folgers Instant in my thickest mugs, ones that wouldn’t break when I threw it at my husband because Daddy had not told me how to keep love alive.
Many years would pass before I discovered coffee brewed with fresh ground beans imported from Colombia and enjoyed when sipped from a thin china cup.
So, what might we talk about today if we were sitting, as my friend suggested, together on my porch? What would we say as we watched egrets fly overhead and listened to barking dogs somewhere in the distance?
Before I said the first thing, I would pour freshly brewed, steaming Starbucks French Roast into two bone china cups. I’d add a splash of cream to mine while Daddy, being a coffee purist, would shake his head in disapproval.
“I thought you had better sense than to ruin a good cup of java with cream,” he would surely admonish.
Then I would take Daddy’s hand in mine and hold it for a little while. I would try to memorize the shape of his long fingers while running my own over his knuckles, nails and his FBI Academy ring. I would examine both sides of his hands to determine whether either of my sons had inherited those hands.
After a few minutes of quiet time, I might say, “Daddy, what do you regret not doing when you were alive?” Secretly, I’d hope to hear him say, “I’m real sorry I didn’t take the time to hug you more often.” Most likely he would reply, “I regret not catching the SOB that robbed the First National Bank!”
I would want to tell Daddy that, in spite of everything, all the missed opportunities that lingered between us, I had loved him deeply and respected him for all that he accomplished with so little formal education. I would tell him how much I admired him for taking responsibility for our town’s safety, even though our family was too often shortchanged in the process.
Maybe I would ask him to put his arms around me and hold me for a few precious minutes. Wanting him to be my daddy again for a while I’d say, “Let’s pretend that the years have not gone by and that I’m still your little girl.”
I would try to tell him all the things I never got the chance to say, like that he had been a good man and that his family was proud of the difference he made.
“You were important to me, Daddy, and I wish we had been closer.”
With the hope of making him laugh, I would attempt to say something funny. If I succeeded, then I would burn the vision of his smiling face onto the walls of my brain and carry it with me until I go to that all-you-can-eat, artery-clogging hamburger buffet in the sky.