LONGLEAF STORIES

full circle in the hundred acre wood

The distance that the dead have gone

Does not at first appear;

Their coming back seems possible

For many an ardent year.

 

And then, that we have followed them,

We more than half suspect,

So intimate have we become

With their dear retrospect.

             1781, by Emily Dickinson, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, reading edition, edited by R. W. Franklin 

 

(Thanks to Whiskey River for recommending the R. W. Franklin edition.)

 

What I know about the details of my father’s life wouldn’t fill a small notebook. What I feel about his essence overflows and breaks the dam.

As a child of twelve, the type of sharp-edged grief I would feel now at the death of a person I love was then more of a numbed shock, a two by four between the eyes. An unthinkable, unimaginable, unexpected loss. A permanent power outage in the soul of our family.

November reeks with the pungency of farewell. Dead leaf lookers congregate to admire its colors. Dead wood smokes in fragrant immolation. Dead parents populate my thoughts even more than usual:  Daddy gone since November 6, 1963; Mother since November 14, 1989 — although in truth, Mother shattered and left us in 1963, too.

Some folks are orphans from birth. For most of the rest of us, it comes later, the timing and circumstances as myriad as the permutations of our loss. Something happens to a person at the moment of consciousness of one’s own “orphanhood” — for me it was an audible sound like a row of ivory dominoes falling against one another — and then a silence inside my own head that taught me what silence means.

My Daddy’s skin was deeply tanned from the many years he worked in Florida’s searing sun, rising from laborer to carpenter to licensed home building contractor. I remember sitting beside him on Sundays at the Brandon Baptist church, fascinated by the network of weathered lines on the back of his neck, dress shirt so white against his brown skin.

I remember:

  • How he loved singing the old tent-revival style hymns. . .. The Old Rugged Cross, Sweet Hour of Prayer, Trust and Obey, and that Billy Graham crusades perennial closer, Just As I Am.
  • The faint smell of Zest soap and Old Spice aftershave.
  • The Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller sing-along, and polka music albums he bought home and played, bringing music, fun and oh my dear lord even dancing into our home for a brief spell.
  • Backyard family gatherings, where he proudly presided over the home-made brick barbeque grill, as extended family members and friends sat like beached whales in webbed lawn chairs under the spreading oak tree, swilling sweet tea.
  • The Tennessee Ernie Ford record album he loved to play. Clicking my fingers the way Ernie Ford did, I can hear “Sixteen Tons” playing through the great turntable of time. . .
“Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you, then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.”

          ( Lyrics by Merle Travis. Click here for this song’s interesting background.)

 

 

Sitting out on the screened porch this afternoon, the bright sun is lowering to eye level and will force me to move my chair or move in soon. It’s about 65 degrees. I hear a small plane buzzing way off in the distance. A mockingbird hops around in the clearing. The air seems thick with dragonflies. Needles from the hurricane-downed pines have all turned a dark brown, just waiting for a stiff breeze or the passage of time to shed off into the waiting soft black earth. The air is very still.

Time seems frozen. Or maybe it has collapsed on itself, reshaping, re-expanding.

I see a hologram through the sun’s glare: sitting by my Daddy, my small hand in his larger one, I look up and find him smiling warmly down into my eyes. I feel his hand squeeze mine.

Forty one years ago. Or was it only one minute?

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