Family Secrets

In an earlier post, I wrote about my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. I had planned to write more about him and his life, but found it too painful at that time. This week, I have missed him even more than usual, and found myself wanting to write more. Sometimes I feel guilty writing about him, and not my mother, with whom my relationship was more complex. Such parity was highly valued by my parents, and unfortunately, I find myself constantly aware of when I am not successfully demonstrating it. From which dog I need to pet more, to gifts for children during the holidays, I am painfully aware of keeping things “even”. But his birthday is coming up. And I am missing him. Dad rarely talked about his childhood. My mother told me it was because he didn’t want us to know about the pain he had experienced. She told me never to ask him about his childhood, but if I had questions, I could come to her. Most of the details to follow come from those conversations with my mother.

My father was proud to tell people that he grew up in “God’s Country”. For him, the farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas was just that. It’s a testament to his optimism, even his stoicism. During my only visit there, I was struck by the oppressive heat and high humidity, and it was hard to imagine what it must have been like to do physical labor in such a climate. Walking from the car to the cabin where he grew up and back again, I was covered with ticks. And when visiting his mother’s grave, a black widow spider was spotted climbing on the stone. But to him, it was paradise.

He was born in 1929, the year that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. For the next sixteen years, he would live in the kind of poverty that reminds me of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”. His father raised hogs, along with a small amount of cotton and grain sorghum. There were also sheep. Dad was responsible for the care of the sheep. He liked to tell the story about how one day, he was sitting on top of the fence, singing to them. Assuming he was alone, he sang without abandon his favorite song, telling them, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray”. Hearing something behind him, he looked to see a group of neighbors, watching and smiling at his song. I think this experience may be why I never heard him sing out loud. Ever.

My grandmother was the schoolteacher in the one room schoolhouse nearby. Dad was a fast learner, and loved to read. Encouraged by his mother, he read every chance he got. His father had firm beliefs about what boys should spend their time doing, and it wasn’t reading. A violent man, he frequently beat Dad, calling him a “sissy”, and shaming him in front of others. His attitude was not unusual in Arkansas. The year my father was born, an average of 6.9% students graduated from high school in that state. In the rural south, young men were expected to stay home and help with farm work. My father’s school attendance was a violation of cultural norms and his father’s strict family rules, and the abuse directed toward him occurred on most days. I met my grandfather only once. His home had no door, and no windows. It had four rooms – the kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom. My grandfather was wearing a sleeveless, stained t-shirt and baggy blue jeans held up with suspenders. He was drinking a cup of coffee. We were introduced, but no conversation followed. I wasn’t aware of my dad’s history with his father, and it was hard to understand why my grandfather offered no affection – so unlike my father.

As a child, Dad was very close to his younger brother. He taught Robert Lee how to read, and shared information about how to care for the animals. There was a creek running through the farm, and it was a favorite swimming “hole”. The boys enjoyed it despite rattlesnakes they often saw near the water. One day Robert Lee became ill with pneumonia. After weeks of bed rest, he was well enough to go outside on the first warm spring day. Dad couldn’t wait to swim with him again, and together they spent the afternoon in the creek. A few days later, Robert Lee became ill with a recurrence of pneumonia. This time, he was unable to recover, and sadly he died only a week after the swim.

Alone with his cruel father following Robert Lee’s death, Dad was anxious to leave the farm. He graduated from high school at age fifteen, and moved to a small nearby town. At sixteen, he was that town’s school teacher, following in his beloved mother’s footsteps. After a couple of years, lying about his young age, he joined the navy and was a Chief Petty Officer until the war ended. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill, and went to college, where he studied agriculture and large animal biology. He went on to graduate school and earned his PhD in nutrition and food science.

My father worked for the same large corporation until he retired in the late 1970’s, following a heart attack at the age of 50. He finished his career as a senior vice president for one of the largest corporations worldwide. He and my mother returned to “God’s Country”, where he remained until my mother’s death.


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