Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Just Sitting

“If you could sit on a park bench by the ocean and visit with anybody living or dead,” a friend asked me, “who would it be?”
Flannery O’Connor crossed my mind, as did Eudora Welty. I would so love to pick their brains!
But the person I would ultimately choose was never famous. He didn’t write a book or cure a disease. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself outside of the small Southern town in which he was born. Given what he had to work with, however, he accomplished quite a lot.
That person was my father whose life ended too soon.
 “There are two things you need to remember,” he told me when I had been married for almost a month. “Number one,” he held up his index finger, “don’t buy packaged hamburger meat in the store.”
“Why is that, Daddy?”
He sighed. “Butchers grind up all the unmentionables, slap a label on it and call it hamburger. Trust me. Don’t eat it.”
When Mama and Daddy were first married, long before he got into law enforcement, Daddy was a salesman for Kingham and Co., a meat processing plant in our town. It was just after the Great Depression, long before the FDA began cracking the whip. Seeing cow parts processed for human consumption was a vision burned onto the walls of his brain. I never saw my Daddy eat a hamburger and especially not a hot dog.
 “Okay, the second thing you need to remember,” he said, “has to do with coffee. It always tastes better if you drink it in a thin cup.”
I was a young bride at the time and needed practical advice: hints on balancing the budget would have been nice, or thoughts on how to keep love alive in my new marriage. What did I get? My Daddy, serious as a heart attack, enlightened me with a list of stomach-churning ingredients in hamburger meat after which he told me to drink my coffee in a thin cup. I didn’t get it. I kept on downing Folgers Instant in thick mugs, the kind that would not shatter when thrown at my husband because Daddy didn’t tell me how to keep love alive.
So what would we talk about today if we were sitting together just visiting, as my friend suggested? What would we say to each other while sea birds skimmed over the ocean and dogs barked in the distance?
Before any conversation could begin, I would pour freshly brewed, steaming French Roast coffee into two bone china cups. I would add a splash of cream to mine while Daddy, being the coffee purist, would shake his head in disapproval.
No doubt he would admonish me. “I thought you had better sense than to mess up a good cup of Joe with milk.”
I would take Daddy’s hand in mine and hold it for a while. I’d try to memorize the shape of it while running my fingers over his knuckles, nails and his FBI Academy ring. I would examine both sides of his hands in an effort to determine whether either of my sons had inherited his bone structure.
After a few minutes of quiet time, I might say, “Hey, Daddy, what do you regret not doing while you were still alive?” Secretly, I would want him to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t 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 the missed opportunities that lingered between us, I had loved him deeply and respected him for what he had accomplished with so little formal education. I would tell him how much I admired him for taking responsibility for our town’s safety, even if our family was too often shortchanged. I would tell him that I was proud of the difference he had made in our little town.
“You were important to me, Daddy.”
Maybe I would ask him to put his arms around me and hold me for a few precious minutes letting him be my daddy again for a while. “Let’s pretend the years have not gone by and that I’m still your little girl.”
Hoping he would laugh, I might attempt to say something humorous. If successful, I would then burn the vision of his smiling face into my brain so I could carry it with me until we meet again at the all-you-can-eat, artery-clogging hamburger joint in the sky.

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