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“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
My friend Beverly asked me, “If you could sit on your porch and have a long visit with anybody living or dead, who would it be?”
John F. Kennedy crossed my mind, as did Eleanor Roosevelt and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. How I would love to talk with any one of them!
Yet, when I thought about it, the person I would choose was not famous at all. He did not find a cure for any disease, never wrote a book, nor did he do much of anything to distinguish himself outside of the small town in which he was born. Given what he had to work with, however, he accomplished quite a lot.
The person I would want to sit on my porch with is my daddy whose life ended much too soon.
“There are two things you should always remember, honey,” he said to me. I had been married almost a month. “Number one,” he held up his index finger, “never, ever buy plain hamburger meat in the store.”
“Why is that, Daddy?”
He sighed. “Butchers take the unmentionables, grind them up, add fat and call it hamburger. Trust me. You don’t want it in your body.”
When Daddy was first married, long before he got into law enforcement, he was a salesman for a meat packing plant. It was right after the Great Depression, before the FDA began cracking the whip in super markets. A vision of cow parts being prepared for human consumption was burned onto the walls of his brain. I never saw my Daddy eat a hamburger.
“Okay now, the second thing you need to remember,” he said, “is about coffee. It tastes better if you drink it out of a thin cup.”
Since I was a young bride at the time, I had hoped for sage advice from him: hints on balancing the budget or keeping the love alive in a new marriage. But what did I get? My Daddy, serious as a heart attack, enlightened me with a complete list of stomach-turning ingredients found in hamburger meat.
If that were not enough, he then counseled me to drink coffee in a thin cup. I just didn’t get it. I kept on drinking Folgers Instant in the thickest mug I could find, the kind that would not break if I threw it at my husband because Daddy had not enlightened me on keeping love alive.
Years would pass before I discovered the pure satisfaction that comes from a cup of coffee brewed with fresh ground beans imported from Colombia. Not until then did I find that the taste could indeed be enhanced when poured into a thin china cup — one I could almost see through.
What, I asked myself, might we talk about today if the two of us were sitting, as my friend suggested, in two rocking chairs out on my screened-in porch? What would we say to each other while watching egrets fly overhead and listening to barking dogs somewhere in the distance?
The first thing I'd do is pour freshly brewed, steaming Starbucks French Roast into two bone china cups. I would add a splash of half and half to mine while Daddy, being the coffee purist, would shake his head in disapproval.
“I thought you had better sense than to taint a good cup of java with milk,” he would surely admonish.
I would take Daddy’s hand in mine and simply hold it for a while. I would try to memorize the shape of his long fingers while running my own over his knuckles, his nails and his FBI Academy ring. I would carefully examine both sides of his hands to see whether my sons inherited Daddy’s hands.
After a few minutes of quiet time, I might say, “Daddy, what do you regret NOT doing when you were alive?” Secretly, I would hope to hear him say, “I wish I had hugged you more and spent more time with you.” Most likely he would reply, “I regret not catching that SOB who robbed the First National Bank!”
I would tell Daddy that, in spite of everything, all the missed opportunities that lingered between us, I had loved him deeply. Even beyond that, I respected him for what he was able to accomplish with little formal education. I would tell him how much I admired his willingness to take responsibility for our town’s safety, even if we as a family were often shortchanged in the process. (Maybe I wouldn’t bring that last part up.)
Lastly, I would ask him to put his arms around me and hold me for a few precious minutes. I’d ask him to be my daddy again for just a while. I would say, “Let’s pretend that all the years have not gone by, and that I’m still your little girl.”
I would tell him that he was a good man while he lived and that his family was proud of him and of the difference he made in so many lives. I would try to tell him all the things I never got the chance to say.
I might begin with, “You were so important to me, Daddy, and I wish we had been closer. I needed you to hug me, but you didn’t but that’s okay because you can hug me now, if you want to.”
With the hope of making him laugh, I would attempt 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.
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