Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fathers and Such

Rememberance of my Daddies

The last time that I laid eyes on my Daddy was on April 26th, 1956, the day we laid him in the ground in a little dot in the road called Goin located in Claiborne County, Tennessee. He had died just seventy-nine days shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. He always said he’d never live much past thirty. He’d seen too much during World War II in the Pacific and had never gotten over his pain.

What I remember most about that day in 1956 is Grandma Keck taking me into the front bedroom of her small farmhouse so I could “ say good-bye to your Daddy.” He was all laid out in a dark flag-draped casket with some sort of chiffon cloth pulled over his face so you couldn’t really see him too close. Daddy had been dead for twenty days, most of which was spent lying as a John Doe in the Cook County Morgue up in Chicago, Illinois. Even so he was still tall, dark, and handsome.

Without any conversation Grandma pulled back that chiffon scarf so I could get a look at the Daddy that I barely knew and had seen only a handful of times in the eight years since my parents had been apart. I tried to feel something for the lifeless figure in the casket, perhaps something like love. But the truth is that I didn’t really know the man much except through photographs and my mother’s tears. Grandma said to me, “Now Brenda girl give your Daddy one last kiss.” I was terrified and repulsed but being the good little girl I leaned over his icy cold corpse and pretended to kiss his cheek. Tears of terror, not love, rolled down my face. I ran from the room and out the front door and down the dirt road until my skinny little legs wouldn’t run any further. That was April 26th 1956 – one of the four worst days of my life.

As far as father’s go, I reckon Foister Keck’s intentions were good and that his heart was pure, and in his own way that he loved me. I spent the first two and a half years of my life with him. After my baby brother,, little Jimmy, died, my parents divorced and my family fell apart. Mother lived in some sort of netherworld. Daddy barely ever came to visit me and when he did he would only stay for a short while, leaving some overwhelming, bigger-than-life energy and some presents in his wake.

The last time that I saw my Daddy was when I was six years old. He arranged a visit with me at my maternal grandparent’s home in a place named Stickleyville, Virginia, a mere dot in the road. My grandparents had taken me in when I was two-and-a half years old. Brad and Pearl Castle had done their best by me with what they had in their hearts and what they earned from their tobacco farm. I was always well-loved, well-fed, well cared for, and had the best stories told to me of any child within six states. Grandpa Castle did his very best to make up for the fact that my Daddy had basically abandoned me. Every day he told me that he loved me and that I was a very special little girl.

Daddy showed up in Lee County sometime during the early summer. I recollect this as I had a dark suntan. My hair was white blonde. Daddy remarked that I had legs nearly as long as his, which were really long considering that he was six feet seven inches tall. He said I looked like a blonde Indian. He looked like a real one with his thick straight black hair, dark skin, and eyes the color of chinquapins.

Daddy strode into the sun-drenched yard with a little black dog and a gift-wrapped box in his arms and a big smile flashing his brilliant perfect white teeth. I shyly hid behind Grandma’s white apron as she did her best to reintroduce this stranger to me: “Brenda, you remember your Daddy . . . don’t you?” But I didn’t. He looked friendly enough and he seemed to want to talk to me. He had a great laugh and an amazingly warm smile. He picked me up with his big strong hands and whirled me around the yard till I was dizzy.

Grandma made a big dinner (that’s what we called the noon day meal) for us – Southern food, fried chicken with all the trimmings. She’d killed the chickens in the back yard just before my Daddy showed up. She said she wanted it to be special. In some peculiar way I guess it was. At least no body went home or anywhere else hungry that day . . . or ever for that matter.

Daddy gave me that little black dog and the fanciest doll with her own suit case and lots of dresses that day. Daddy told Grandma and Grandpa Castle that the little dog had had his shots and was a “good one.” It made me feel happy to play with the dog and my dress-up doll. For a little while I felt like I might really have a Daddy of my very own, one who would truly love me and actually be there for me. But Daddy didn’t stay long; then he never did. He had women to see, booze to drink, dances to dance, and other more important people to see. When I asked if he was going to come see me again sometime soon, he just flashed his big smile at me and whirled me around the yard again.

I guess that’s what Daddies do – whirl little girls around the yard.

By August of that summer little Blackie had disappeared. He didn’t even come home to eat. I searched all over the farm for him and went up and down the dirt road between Great-grandma Maude’s house and Stickleyville looking for him. I was heart broken. After about 10 days Blackie wandered into the yard as I was playing with my doll under a make-shift tent made of quilts hanging from the clothesline. I was so happy to see him that I raced up and threw my arms around his neck. He growled fiercely and bit my arm, drawing blood. I screamed and Grandpa came running to the rescue. Blackie growled and snarled even more as Grandpa tried to get him up. Grandpa screamed for Grandma to get the shot gun cause Blackie was “frothing at the mouth.” Blackie crawled underneath the house and Grandpa went after him. When all was said and done that hot humid afternoon Blackie lay dead from a gun shot in the front yard while Grandma, Grandpa, and I had our own wounds to show for his fateful return. Grandpa got out his axe and chopped off Blackie’s head and “sent it up to Richmond” for “evaluation.” For fourteen days we drove over Wallen’s Ridge to the town of Pennington Gap to get our rabies shots in the stomach. It took four people and the promise of chocolate ice cream to get that needle in my stomach day after day. My sense of pain, pleasure, and fatherhood became somewhat convoluted over those fourteen days.

I really wish I could remember something happy and good about my Daddy – something that happened that I could actually say was good and lasting and true and took place with just the two of us. I have a photo of his holding me as a baby. He’s smiling; my mother looks tragic. There are other smiling photos along the way. But I can’t remember. Grandma Keck told me that he loved me and he must have because she would never tell a lie. My mother, Dorothy, assured me that he loved us all better than life itself . . . but he had a peculiar way of showing it. She was always sad about my Daddy. She never got over losing him and my brother.

A few years ago my cousin Linda put together a Keck family reunion back in Goin. At one point she called for the children of the “two dead brothers” to stand together for a family photo. My cousin Susan suggested that the three survivors hold a séance and call in our dead fathers. Linda didn’t find that amusing in the least, but we managed to get a chuckle out of it. In that moment I realized that cousin Linda had spent more time with my father during his short lifetime than I had as his daughter. That realization made me very sad. A day or two later I drove back over Wallen’s Ridge from Tennessee into Lee County, Virginia, declaring to myself, “I’m a Virginian, not a Tennessean.” Perhaps what I really meant is that my father was a Castle and not a Keck – that Grandpa was really my one true Dad.

So on this Father’s Day 2007 it is my Grandpa, Bradley John Castle, whom I remember and cherish. It was Grandpa who told me Irishman’s stories to cheer me up. It was Grandpa who taught me to plant tobacco and tomatoes. . . . took me fishing in the creek . . . bought me ice cream every afternoon at Stout’s Store . . . stoked the fire in my bedroom in the middle of a cold wintry night to keep me warm . . . kept Hershey’s bars for me for a special treat . . . who sat me on his lap and taught me my numbers and ABC’s . . . who insisted I read aloud to him every day . . . who told me how proud he was of me . . . who always had time for me no matter how tired or sick he was . . . who comforted me when my husband was killed in Vietnam. . . . who told me that I was strong enough to be a good mother and make it in the world on my own.

I thank my Daddy for giving me my life. I thank my Grandpa for being the only father that I have ever really known. I’m also grateful that I never got the rabies though I have frothed at the mouth a time or two over the years.

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