Memories are curious things. They are living, breathing entities that are sometimes factual and sometimes not. People and events, past, present, and future may often occupy the same space simultaneously in memories. What I remember compared with what you remember may be different or similar. And what we remember may be different or similar to what actually happened. Memory is often unreliable. But at times it is all we possess, given the absence of any written history. As the privilege of written history is most often reserved for royalty, and not for hillbillies and Delta dwellers like us.
Sitting with my 91-year-old father at Christmas, I took the opportunity to ask him a series of questions. My mother called it an interview, which is certainly one way to describe it. I thought of it more as an attempt at a conversation. An effort to probe his memories about instances that, at least to me, remain a mystery. I hoped to learn things that I did not know about my Dad. Things that did not occupy my memory of him, but rather his memory of himself. I got lots of facts, several names I did not recognize, and a few that I did. Instances and events that he recalled, and near the end of our talk, a rehearsal of his recollections of World War II and the events leading up to the conflict along with the implications of that and other geopolitical brouhahas. A couple of the stories were funny. Most were stories that I had never heard, involving my Dad and his brothers.
For instance, on one occasion my Dad and his brothers convinced some neighboring boys to smoke cigarettes of rolled cow manure, a commodity that was always in abundance in our locale. “It was so funny” Dad recalled. “Those Pate boys were always wanting a cigarette, so we gave ‘em one.” At this point Dad spoke in more hushed tones as if he didn’t want everyone to hear what he was about to disclose; “They couldn’t keep those cigarettes lit, so we gave ‘em some of the manure filling and told ‘em it was good as chew. We made ‘em eat hot shit! Ha, Ha!!” At this point my Dad is laughing mischievously as if reliving the moment. Profanity is extremely rare for my Dad, if for a moment we have transcended the father and son relationship and are now old buddies discussing some frat boy shenanigans. In that moment we are equals.
He tells me a few stories of his uncle, who had our last name as his first, but reveals a nick name I didn’t know about, “Pork chop, had walked off the county farm and the law came to pick him up!” My great uncle Loyd was a career ne’er-do-well, who actually shot and killed a man in a drunken brawl. My Dad recalls this incident. A day I also remember from my childhood. I was playing outside, when my Aunt Jenny came running from her home. “Loyd done shot a man!” she exclaimed. She ran inside to use the phone to call the police. I watched the lights and the figures of policemen run about at the end of our gravel road. Uncle Loyd went to jail for manslaughter. I remember when he went away, and I remember the day he came back.
My Dad then fast forwards to the end of Uncle Loyd’s life, again a day that involved me, many years removed from the infamous murder. By this time, I was an adult. It was a hot summer day, a Saturday, and Dad and I had been working all day to clean up the property around Loyd’s mobile home. It occurred to me later in the day that we had not seen Loyd at all, unusual for him, especially considering we were busy around his home. Dad asked me to go in to check on him, I did so reluctantly. Calling out his name as I moved stealthily towards the bathroom, where I saw him, or at least his backside fallen over into his bathtub. I left and told Dad what I had discovered, Dad went inside and confirmed that Uncle Loyd was dead. He was buried with the $3000.00 he was apparently counting when he died. I preached his funeral, I didn’t mention the murder from years before or his consistent drunkenness. Instead I talked about how Uncle Loyd liked to give out candy, loved hunting and fishing, and liked to glue shiny trinkets to rocks. His house trailer was full of them when he died. I held one up and showed one to the small collection of friends and family that had gather to remember him. I concluded with prayer.
I asked Dad a specific question about another death in the family. “Do you remember the day your dad died?” Dad responded,“Yes, I was about six years old, he died after getting his tooth pulled.” “Who told you he died?” I asked. Dad thought for a moment, then said, “No one, I just knew.” This sounds unfathomable to me. How does a six-year-old just know their dad is dead? I probed for details, there were few that came. My grandfather Jessie Lee Loyd, had a tooth pulled, blood poisoning set in and he died days later, leaving my grandmother, still a young woman, to raise five children on her own. I did learn that the dentist paid an unknown amount of money to my grandmother for some time to come as recompense for her husband’s death. I heard about the selling and purchasing of property, the clearing of land, evacuation during the Mississippi river flood of 1937, and other moments hidden away in the memories of my Daddy. “How is it that you got along, Dad? Who told you what to do or how to do it?” I asked. After a moment of reflection, my Dad responded, “I guess the good Lord taught me, I don’t know?” A Good Lord indeed.
But what was seemed to be absent in these memories were an excess of feelings. My Dad has never been an emotional person. I can recall him crying once. When he was sixty-six, following a heart attack, he requested that I baptize him. When my Dad came out of the water he cried. Absent that event in my mind, I can’t recall any other moments. I sure he has shown emotions, perhaps to others, but this is the only time that I could remember. Even when my father was angry, there were few moments that I can remember him ever lifting his voice. If quiet is an emotion, my Dad mastered it, or at the very least mastered the art of repressing those feelings. But of late, Dad seems to relish in the feelings of laughter and joy, peppered with frustration that the world no longer so quickly and easily submits to his desires.
And during this conversation there was lots of joy and laughter, and Dad is anything but quiet these days. Perhaps the longer we live, the more we seek to share with others? We all want to remember and be remembered. This conversation and others I enjoyed on Christmas Day are now committed to my memories. Memories that I will continue to share with future generations. A good moment, good memories with a good father, and a Good Lord indeed.