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One of my earliest memories of my father was watching him walk out the door.
He was still in high school when I was born. I know this to be true because I was present at his graduation. Some months earlier he had taken some time off from school to go to work with his father in Oklahoma. While there, he met a beautiful, fiery Choctaw girl and began a whirlwind romance. Or perhaps better, a tornadic affair that left much debris scattered in its wake. Some of which was me.
Mom’s dad, my dad, and me
Doing what he thought to be the right thing, he married her and brought her home to Arkansas. But any disposition towards domestic tranquility was not in her family's DNA. Her mother was a cold woman who seemed to have had just enough affection to pass between my mother’s three older sisters and one elder brother. By the time mom came along, her mother’s reserve of charity was all but spent.
Her sisters, older by some years, were already having babies of their own and didn’t have time to worry with the little girl always tugging at their skirt tails. So she spent most of her young life hiding from the world in her brother’s shadow. At least he was kind. He took her hunting and fishing and taught her how to hunt crawdad’s in the ditches near their ramshackle home. And his shadow also provided a bit of refuge from her father’s drunken rampages. But her brother was shot and killed in a hunting accident about the time she began to blossom into adolescence. And with his shadow gone, my mother was left open to a kind of fatherly affection that left her scarred for the rest of her life.
That wound never healed, it merely scabbed over. Bleeding anytime she let her guard down or became vulnerable. So as an act of self-defense, she has refused to open her heart to others.
I was five years old the last time I saw her cry. Standing beside her daddy’s grave, she looked at her mother through moist but steely eyes and said, “This should have happened years ago.” Which was startling considering that just three days earlier, her mother had caught her daddy beating my Aunt Audry to a blood pulp and shot him nine times with a .22 rifle.
When my dad first met mom, he heard wedding bells. When she met him, she saw a ticket out of town. So it was no surprise that their marriage fell completely apart after two years.
But by then I was in the picture. Mom had left for Texas and left dad with a toddler to raise. So he did the only thing he knew to do–he took me next door to his mother’s house, and he climbed into the driver’s seat of an eighteen wheeler and went to work.
My dad was gone for most of my life. On my first day of school, he was delivering pickles at a warehouse in Shreveport, LA. When I played my first Little League game he was fueling up somewhere near Milwaukee. He spent his nights counting mile markers up and down the highways. I spent my nights looking for his big headlights through my bedroom window.
My grandmother often tried to reassure me. “He doesn’t work all the time because he doesn’t love you,” she’d say. “He works all the time because he does.” And though I understood that he was sending money to buy shoes and braces and baseball gloves, what I really wanted was for him to be home long enough to teach me how to play catch.
My grandmother had divorced my grandfather shortly after my parents split up. After putting up with two decades of infidelity, she finally got fed up. And one day she walked out of the front door of the house she had built with money she earned sewing buttons at the shirt factory and working graveyards at the papermill and moved into a trailer beside my great-grandparents. She had her freedom and she had me, and for her that was enough.
Soon after, she scandalized her friends and family by telling them that she had been seeing “a black man from Union County.” In the early 1980’s this raised more than just eyebrows. Her daddy said, “I need to meet this fella. We need to have a talk.”
But whatever fears they had were alleviated when she showed up with a tall white man dressed in boots and a cowboy hat. “I’m Eddie Black,” he said, as he stretched out his hand toward my papaw. Papaw just fell out laughing.
They married in 85’ and he took on the responsibility of a new wife, a drafty old trailer house in which snakes would crawl inside through the open spaces between the doors and their frames, and a precocious toddler that didn’t even bear his name.
He may not have been my daddy, but he didn’t let that stop him from being my father.
When dad sent money for a Louisville Slugger, Grandaddy was there to teach me how to “watch the pitch” and how to “crowd the plate” and “choke up on the bat.” He instructed me in matters of manners and hygiene. He taught me how to shoot a gun and the proper way to skin a squirrel. He even tried to teach me how to whistle, though I never quite got the hang of that. More than anything, he taught me the value of hard work and what it looks like to love a woman more than life itself.
As I have gotten older I have realized that Dad did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. I am not bitter. I didn’t pass through life without a father. I was blessed to have two. And today I will have the opportunity to sit at Sunday dinner with both of them and pray that I can be half the man that both of them are.
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