Hey, Daddy

I have no pictures of my father to illustrate this post because Daddy didn’t roll like that.

If someone pulled out a camera — and this was back in the day when a camera was a device that required film, not something that showed up on the cheapest of cell phones — Daddy was ghost.  He didn’t make a big deal about not wanting to be photographed, in that passive-aggressive “only take good pictures” of me kind of way.  He would just vanish.

But when you told him he had to be there and had to pose, he would pose like Diddy.

The best pictures we have of my father are from my sister Caroletta’s wedding.  Daddy refused to wear a tux, but agreed to get a good suit.  We took him to Hudson’s (now Marshall Field’s) and let the men’s suit department pick out the perfect suit for him. 

My soon-to-be-married sister knew our Dad’s day-to-day look.  She knew what she wanted for her wedding.  And there was a clear disconnect. 

Wearing a suit wasn’t within Daddy’s normal day-to-day.  For over 30 years, Daddy was a spray booth attendant at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, MI.  This meant he was part of a crew that cleaned the paint spray booths between shifts.  He wore a uniform at work, but paint seeped into everything.  His socks, his undershirts, his underwear, the pants and shirts he wore to and from work, even his shoes, were always covered in paint.  The paint was contagious, and infected everything it touched.  It got onto the seats of his car, onto his skin, and if my mother mistakenly washed his clothes with ours, it ruined our things, too.

Daddy seemed oblivious to the paint.  Mama would yell at him about sitting on the sofa in those paint-covered pants, but he’d do it anyway.  She would cover the paint stains with a cover she’d sewn from old sheets, and he’d sit on the cover.  Eventually, she’d give up.  There was a spot on the sofa that was Daddy’s spot — marked with paint, cigarette burns and the dank smell of unwashed ass — and that was that.  We knew better than to sit there.

Because Daddy worked the midnight shift, he was a shadow member of the household.  He came home from work as we were getting ready for school, and when I got home from school, he would be lying in bed, ostensibly resting, a couple hours before he had to leave for work.  He would really be in there listening to AM sports radio.  If it was summertime, Daddy was listening to a Tigers game, to Ernie Harwell’s play by play.  Sometimes, he’d call me into the room when the Tigers had a rally going, and I’d stand listening with him.  I never sat on the bed because — yep, you guessed it — Daddy’s side of the bed was full of paint streaks and smelled like him.  My mother’s side smelled like Chanel.  In so many ways, this sums up the difference between my parents, and the lifelong differences they had with each other.

Daddy’s presence — the paint, the lack of bathing (he said taking a bath “dried out his skin” and generally did it only once a week, except for special occasions), and other irritating habits too numerous to mention — annoyed my mother to no end.  He kept annoying her long after he was gone. 

As a child, I had few other experiences with my father to balance against Mama’s opinion.  If Mama was an epic, Daddy was a comic strip — digestible in a few panels, yet incomplete.  I can’t say I knew my father as a person.  He was a series of images, lessons and contradictions. 

To the extent we ever connected, it was over sports.  Daddy watched everything, and I would watch with him.  Of course there were his beloved Tigers, his somewhat less beloved Pistons, and the always dreadful Lions.  But he also watched NCAA football and basketball, tennis, hockey, track and field, equestrian competitions, skiing, ice skating, bowling — even curling, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation feed that came across the Detroit River from Windsor.  If it was on television, Daddy would watch it.  The only thing I refused to watch was hockey.  Daddy was a huge Red Wings fan.

Sometimes we’d debate — for instance, the wisdom of going for it on 4th & 1, or Schembechler’s inability to develop a Wolverines passing strategy.  When I was much younger, he would take me to games at Tiger Stadium, but he decided I was “too old” when I became a teenager, and we stopped going.  I’d ask, and he’d say no.  I never understood why.

He was a man of few words, and strong opinions couched in a dry wit that you only realized were funny after the fact.  He wouldn’t just say Tigers rightfielder Willie Horton was a bad hitter, he’d say that he if went to Tiger Stadium and gave the man $50, Horton still couldn’t buy a hit.  He hated Joe Tex so much, he said he wouldn’t go see Joe Tex if the man were singing on the corner and all he had to do was go stand on his porch. 

My sister and I used to have exaggeration contests, each one trying to come up with a more ridiculous, overblown description of something.  We never spoke of it, but clearly Daddy was our inspiration.

My second image is of him reading the newspaper. Daddy devoured the news.  His formal education in Mississippi stopped at 8th grade.  I never saw him read anything but a newspaper and, towards the end of his life, his Bible.  When he read the newspaper, he read every page, from national political coverage to the classifieds.  He’d plant himself at the table while we were eating a quick breakfast, and in his booming, slow bass, read article after article aloud, whatever he found interesting.  We rolled eyes, groaned and complained, but I was one of the few kids in my school who understood Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis.

As I got older, I began to see a more nuanced picture of Daddy than the one I’d grown up with.  He never said anything bad about our mother, in stark contrast to her never-ending diatribe against him.  And the constancy that had made him awkward and embarrassing to a budding bouge like me, was what I came to appreciate as I matured.  Daddy never changed.  No matter how much my mother complained, he did what he was going to do, in the way he was going to do it.  So everyone adjusted. 

Boyfriends learned to sit on that sofa next to my father and watch whatever game my father was watching while we girls got ready, to keep their mouths shut about anything they may have smelled, and talk sports.  They thought it was the trick to getting in.  My father would crack wise, and they’d feel like they had at least one parental ally — because my mother was grim and uninviting, and trying to win her over was pointless.  It could be done, but you couldn’t be seen trying.  They didn’t realize my father mostly didn’t care who we dated.

After he retired, Daddy took for a while to jitneying.  He would drive to the neighborhood grocery stores and hang around to give women rides home.  He never made more than a couple of dollars per trip.  I found it baffling.  We hated getting into that smelly, paint-stained car with my father who couldn’t drive for shit.  I couldn’t imagine anyone paying for the privilege.  We didn’t understand it, and my mother detested it.  Of course, she said he was doing it to hit on women.  It didn’t matter what any of us thought.  He did what he wanted, until he couldn’t do it anymore.

My father got sick and slowed down, but even battling lung and brain cancer, he never wilted, never shrank.  He underwent extensive, complex vascular reconstruction surgery to save his legs from diabetes-related amputation, and wound up losing his six-month battle with lung cancer two years later.  He died two days before his 72nd birthday.  The last time I saw him alive was that Labor Day weekend.  He was leaning on a cane, but he walked around, cracking jokes, being Daddy.  I was told his demise was swift, that his body just shut down as the cancer took it over.  In retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

The easiest of the decisions we girls had to make was what to bury him in.  We buried him in the suit he’d worn to my sister’s wedding.  To our surprise, Dad had gotten into the suit shopping.  The Hudson’s salesman picked out some suits, and Dad tried them on.  He looked good in all of them, but the one that was THE ONE just said YES.  And it was, in fact, perfect.  Even the salesman was shocked by the transformation. 

My father wore a suit like nobody’s business.  He was tall and broad shouldered.  He was an undeniably handsome man.  In that suit, Dad stood a bit taller than his 6′ 2″, looked a little more arrogant.  I thought Dad looked like the guy my mom must have seen when she met him — a man from their Mississippi hometown who would marry her, at a time when circumstances demanded she find herself a husband.

There were minor alterations to be made, a shirt and a tie to buy, but that suit was the one.

Daddy looked so good in a suit, it made me wonder what a suit-wearing life might have been for him.  Even in his casket, Daddy wore the hell out of that suit.

But the enduring lesson of his life is that he was comfortable being who he was, with the life he had.

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21 Responses to “Hey, Daddy”

  1. Tweets that mention Hey, Daddy « Carolyn A. Edgar -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carolyn Edgar, Carolyn Edgar. Carolyn Edgar said: Hey, Daddy: http://wp.me/psOZx-9F […]

  2. aaw1976 Says:

    That was beautiful. Your dad sounds like a force of nature. I am sending you a hug. Anytime I think or write about my father, it hurts like the day I lost him..

  3. Inkognegro Says:

    Im…in awe.

    I am envious of a stable presence like that. I envy BEING one and I envy the memories you recall.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Cheri Says:

    This is a beautifully written salute to your Dad. I could feel his presence and your family experience “all up in” your words.

    Thanks for sharing.

    🙂 Cheri

  5. Gene A. Johnson, Jr. Says:

    Greetings; Thanks for sharing a glimpse of the complexity of your father and probably a glimpse of many of our fathers. If I had the time this would inspire me to write about my father and the complex relationship we have/had. Peace and blessings, my Sister!

  6. pronounced "ahhh" like a sigh Says:

    Gorgeous.

  7. Tarana Says:

    Again, this is really lovely CE.

  8. NoNetTennis Says:

    I appreciate the difficulties you must have had penning this, being conflicted as you obviously were. The entire approach-avoidance spectrum forms a strong undercurrent to the piece, when you aren’t being explicit. It truly was hard writing.

    It was also hard reading about a man who had dreams so suppressed by the cultural mores in place back then, knowing things should have turned out differently, that he chose to adapt same over change as his standard defense mechanism.

    My father, a Tusgegee Airman, like most of the early graduates, was denied any chance of a being a Commercial Pilot. Instead, he was forced to sell used cars to support his family. His bitterness was never far from the surface. Although it never caused outright violence, his abject cynicism often fueled his sense of discipline.
    Eventually he bettered himself in other ways, graduating college, obtaining a later-life Masters degree. Yet, my sense is that he was never truly happy. He wanted to fly.

    And he did fly, Piper Cherokees, Cessnas, etc. He religiously maintained his certifications, readily prepared for a change in the wind. When times did change, he was too old. He scoffed as Marlon Green and David Harris took (legal) turns being the first.

    Funny how Twitter manages to aggregate people in serendipitous ways: My father took me to Tiger Stadium once. Al Kaline’s era. I didn’t really care for it, although I loved baseball at the time. I actually connected more, sports wise, with my Tigers-loving mother.

    The most engaging part of your piece is the pervasiveness of the paint, a metaphor if every there was one, for the smothering permanence of his nature. He, like my father, was what he was. Paint, at first sniff, smells quite acrid, but as your nostrils conform, there’s a sweet harmonic. An undertone.

    Keep Smiling

  9. Onika Pascal Says:

    Wow! You took us from the high to the low…all the while keeping us ingrained on your dad. His posture, his scents, his humor, his being. I loved this. You painted (no pun intended lol) a picture of him that no portrait could capture.

    He definitely ‘stained’ himself into your heart, that you’re able to share this with us.

    This was a beautiful composition of your memory.

  10. Linda Says:

    Thank you for sharing the honesty and brilliance of this post… You should definitely consider penning a book.

  11. Varda Says:

    Carolyn, What a lovely, moving tribute to your father. When you talked about the Tigers, that reminded me, a friend of mine sent out this message, and I thought I’d pass the opportunity on to you:

    Hey Folks,
    My job has some Mets vs. Tigers tickets for Thursday’s game.
    Tickets are $40 and are in the Pepsi Porch section of the stadium.
    To purchase tickets:

    https://www.alumniconnections.com/olc/pub/TNC/events/event_order.cgi?tmpl=events&event=2300242

    This was orginally for an alumni event, but we have a few extra tickets to
    sell…
    If you know someone who is a Mets fan….please pass along this email.

    Cheers,
    Kevin B

    Tickets must be purchased by 5:00 pm on Tuesday!

  12. Karen Says:

    This was touching, as well as humorous, and insightful. Thanks for sharing.

  13. engin Says:

    thans for great sharing

  14. Ann Says:

    Wow, how beautiful is this? I love how you wrapped us up in your father with words and images. I felt as if you were turning the thoughts of him over and over in your mind as you took us along. Thank you for sharing this!

  15. Tiffany In Houston Says:

    What an awesome story.

  16. Taylor Says:

    This brought tears to my eyes, beautifully written.

  17. Why Women Upgrade « Carolyn A. Edgar Says:

    […] in my parents’ house, with its rusting porch furniture, cracked plaster walls and cigarette-burned, ass-stained sofa.  Even if they weren’t uncomfortable, I would be.  By contrast, the North Philly house my […]

  18. sawandi Says:

    Wow…really good read

  19. October Blues « Carolyn A. Edgar Says:

    […] acknowledged, if not celebrated.  The kids and I do Halloween big every year.  But ever since my father died 18 years, his death overshadows the good in […]

  20. Why Women Upgrade | carolynedgar.com Says:

    […] in my parents’ house, with its rusting porch furniture, cracked plaster walls and cigarette-burned, ass-stained sofa.  Even if they weren’t uncomfortable, I would be.  By contrast, the North Philly house my […]

  21. October Blues | Carolyn Edgar Says:

    […] acknowledged, if not celebrated.  The kids and I do Halloween big every year.  But ever since my father died 18 years ago, his death overshadows the good in […]

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