It’s easy to imagine my father as a little boy, befriended by his books, his faithful dog Brindle and all the neighborhood children he met throughout his nomadic young life. He was born a few years before the stock market crash of 1929 and, though his earliest memories are inextricably linked to the Great Depression, he describes that life with unimpeachable fondness — a world of day-to-day riches. My father’s father moved the family from verdant North Carolina to dusty New Mexico, then back to North Carolina, Oregon and Kansas, first in search of work in the worst of economic times and later in professional ascent within the U.S. civil service.
Small town sensibilities, urban schooling, rural summers with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and the romance of 1930s car travel along the unpaved roads out West gave my father a uniquely textured childhood. He was regularly uprooted, he says, but always felt loved and secure.
His mother was a dependable source of care and affection and made sure books were available to him wherever they lived. His father, quick to recognize Dad’s skill with the written word, paid him (as an 8-year-old!) to write movie reviews, planting a tiny seed that surely led to my father’s long and respected tenure as a newspaperman.
Did his parents know what sort of man would grow from this boy? When I was born barely a year after he and my mother said “I do,” did he yet know what kind of father he wanted to be? Did he realize that taking on the enormous responsibility of rearing five children would make him a finer man?
I’ve known my father for a long time now. I believe we understand each other. We share basic attributes and interests — a good sense of humor, a tendency toward cynicism, easy friendships, a farmer’s instincts for growing summer vegetables and an unapologetic love of books. I think my siblings would agree that Dad’s success as a father lies in the essence of who he is, an affable man with a rich inner life — an imperfect but lovable product of his time, upbringing and intellect. A good provider. A stern taskmaster. A poet at heart.
My father can be unexpectedly insensitive, but he has a masterful capacity for intimacy. People love him. He has always been at ease with expressing pride in his children. He has never been stingy with affection. He is not one to seek praise for his charitable works or wallow in self-pity. And I have never heard him utter a negative word about my mother. Not a single word.
Once his family returned to North Carolina for good, my father never lived anywhere else. His desire for stability spilled over into a commitment to his wife and children — a career spent with one publishing company and a life lived in the same grand, white clapboard house for nearly 50 years. He and my mother, now well into their 80s, live there still.
Some years ago, on a humid evening in late June, my father and I sat on their back porch swing, relaxing after my mother’s traditional summer supper of fresh local produce: corn on the cob, field peas, homegrown tomatoes, corn bread and sweet ice tea. My sisters and brothers were there with their children, so there was a lot of conversation. The sky had darkened enough to create a sensation as all the cousins chased lightning bugs through the lush vegetation of my parents’ magical garden. The scent of mimosa trees hung thickly in the air and the ceiling fans lazily pretended to cool us.
“This is what I love,” said my father. “A summer’s evening on this porch, with my grown children at home and the unrushed time to admire my progeny.”