Daddy--little chair big138As always on Christmas Day, a remembrancer of my father whose birthday is Christmas. He would have been 90 today. Happy birthday, Daddy.

Monogram your pancakes

Surviving a loss and letting go is only half of the story. The other half is the secret belief that we will find, in one form or another, what we have lost. And it is that potential, shimmery as a star on a clear night that helps us survive.” – Veronica Chambers

You can’t make pancakes without breaking eggs.” – Spanish proverb

My father’s birthday is Christmas day. He has been dead for 36 years, yet he would still only be 90 years old. Cheated, him and me and my children, and theirs. Dead at 53.

And cheated too because he was born on Christmas Day. Imagine the cheaty cheat you’d feel if your birthday fell on Christmas, especially as a kid—whatever happened to that other day, the one mid-year, where everyone gets together to sing “Happy Birthday” and play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and eat double chocolate layer cake with small sugar trains on top and shower you with gifts and focus on you alone, celebrating the very fact that you were born into the world?

For him, it was all compressed into one relative-heavy day—nothing to look forward to in March or June or August—no, just this one day, his own birth overshadowed by another and, as time went by, overshadowed even more by a large red-suited man with rosacea.

Oh, sure, people would say they had combined your Christmas and birthday present to accommodate both occasions, but I can’t imagine that this convenient fabrication made Daddy feel any better, more special, less cheated.

So, as an adult with a family of his own making, we celebrated Daddy’s birthday at Christmas breakfast—specifically focused on his birthday and marred only slightly, I imagine, by the fact that he had to compete for our divided attention—after all, the loot from Santa was achingly just in the next room (my good lord, man, there’s a General Electric Show ‘n Tell Home Entertainment Center Film Strip Viewer and Record Player waiting for me under that tree!)—and perhaps marred also by the fact that he had to cook it himself. Or maybe he wanted to, always having been known as the best breakfast cooker in the house: grits and bacon, sausage and biscuits with sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, pancakes in the shape of animals or letter with Aunt Jemima syrup. [This was before my stubborn descent into vegetarianism as a teenager.]

I loved those pancakes. No, I adored them. I loved the attention they represented, the personalized creation of batter and fluff, perfectly creating a P and a D in his hand and sometimes a flower or a heart or triceratops or the word “love.”

Grandma would join us, white-gloved to assess the dust; we would put an extra leaf in the table and fold our paper napkins into pointy triangles instead of rectangles, to be fancy. I always thought of it as cozy and realize now that it was actually tight, a table in the small kitchen since we had no dining room, room for only one person to stand and refill juice glasses. Probably my mother dreamed of a house for entertaining the Lottie Moon Women’s Bible Study Group; what she got was a house for raising orange-haired children, giving us the biggest room in the house as a playroom complete with a schoolroom-sized chalkboard for my work as a pretend teacher and eating, instead, at a table pushed up against the kitchen wall. Never mind that the living room sat unused, ripe for space but untouched by human hands, save when the preacher visited.

So, Daddy cooked and we ate, giving him birthday presents at breakfast, wrapped—and this is important—in birthday wrapping paper, not holiday wrap. This couldn’t appear a haphazard, forgotten day, lost in the thrill of that Oscar Schmidt Autoharp and new Bobby Sherman album left by Santa, no.

One of those last birthday (of course, we didn’t know how few he had left), I saved all my tips from working at Joe’s Dairy Bar and bought him a Mickey Mouse watch. Mind you, the crowds at Joe’s on Sunday nights after church were amazingly large (no lactose intolerance among the Southern Baptist crowd), but cheap, so it took a while to save enough for the special edition Mickey Mouse watch with the date on the dial! Imagine! I thought it suited his pixie sense of humor, that crooked smile of his, and he did love it!

When he died, I made sure Mr. Sossoman arranged it on the wrist on top so all those hundreds of people who came to see him in his satin puffy box would smile and nod knowingly. “Yes,” they’d say to themselves, “that Melvin always did have a smile on his face.” The funny, bright red “Merry Xmas” Western bow-tie that he proudly wore with a sly smile to holiday parties is always front and center on my Christmas tree.

That same birthday, I talked Mama into buying Daddy a pair of Lee blue jeans. She balked—“what will people think?”—and I insisted. “He’ll love them. Just wait and see,” I said.

He wore them everyday. He had them on that last harried ride to Intensive Care on Mother’s Day weekend, the unsigned Mother’s Day card we found afterwards in the trunk of his car a most terrible symbol of his suddenly unfinished life and his thoughtfulness, simultaneously.

Daddy went into the hospital that day and only his clothes came back out. I used to see Mama open that hospital bag of his last clothes, closing its top around the whole bottom half of her face, trying to smell him, desperate for his scent after he went underground. I tried to convince her to bury him in those loved, worn jeans and his beloved red plaid corduroy shirt, but she drew the line at the Mickey Mouse watch. A woman knows her limits. I wear that shirt now and perhaps Mama still has those jeans in that bag, taking them out from time to time for a whiff of him, real or imagined.

Daddy hooked a holiday stocking shortly before he died, having been introduced to the wonders of rug-hooking by a wife who was frantic—desperate even, and with good reason—to provide him with a quiet hobby, one that unlike watching Joe Namath wouldn’t involve excitement, anticipation, movement, stress to his heart. If ever there was a hobby like that, I suppose rug-hooking was it, followed only by sleeping.

So, when Christmas comes, like it inevitably does, my sadness at his leaving magnifies: when I see that holiday stocking hung from my dining room mantel, I both smile at his leaving it behind and I weep for the reduction of his life it represents, a heart patient quietly hooking rugs at the very prime of his life.

And yet, I wonder how much my adoration depends on his loss. If he had been living these 25 years, would I have seen things about him as an adult that I didn’t like and he, me? Probably, just as we all do. So, instead, he has been given a special status—that kind of adored position where time stops so we can’t peek under the curtain and see things with which we disagree as often occurs when we age, watching parents and relatives and friends (and self) too closely over time become people we might not want them to be, or be ourselves.

None of us are immune from that disappointment, that change of heart, that realization, that sudden knowing, are we? Perhaps not, unless we die young. It’s not a good trade-off, and it’s a chance I long to have taken, to grow up with him, warts and all. Maybe then I would have learned to incorporate all that new data, that vision of family from grown-up angles, where Grandpa is no longer nine feet tall, but just usual-sized, for example. Perhaps then I would have learned to be forgiving of those foibles, that fall, that shrinkage in estimation—that human reality, the stuff that really is us over time—to resist those impeachment proceedings of others that we’re prone to. As Deming said, “the greatest losses are unknown and unknowable.” Here’s to knowing.

When my stepfather died 23 years after my father, this time I was ready. He asked me to write his eulogy and deliver it at his funeral and I did all that. It was a fine eulogy, I think, one with a satisfying organizing principle, a rhythm to it like all good speeches, a clarifying sense of closure and rounded-ness. I wrote it on a flight beside a Baptist minister; perhaps his denomination was the final inspiration. Writing it had haunted me during those 37 days while he died—knowing I needed to get on with it, yet feeling bad about announcing the end while he was still in process, knowing that summing up a life is an awesome responsibility, but not yet feeling the sense of it, the way it should add up, until that flight. And then it was done. I had realized the parts and the whole. It was a fine tribute, a tripartite homage to the life of a tall man with a Southern accent, a golfer’s tan, and a dark green Lincoln Town Car.

Delivering that eulogy was tough going. Tougher than I ever imagined. In fact, spent by the anxiety of watching me choke on words, one of my mother’s friends said afterwards that she didn’t know how I made it through. “I had to take a Xanax just to get to the funeral,” she explained. Later, at Mama’s house, my brother pulled out a pill bottle, asking if anyone needed an Ativan. (Note to self: after always hiding the occasional wine bottle when my Southern Baptist family came to visit, I suddenly realized that perhaps they don’t drink not because of their religion, but because they’re all high on prescription drugs, so just a shout out to them: no more hiding the Mt Difficulty merlot at my house.)

As I looked out from my pulpit into the church, I saw the sons of my father’s friends, looking just as their fathers had looked 25 years before; their daddies then pallbearers for my father’s casket—the one like Hoss from Bonanza was buried in—and now here before me their sons, spitting images and pallbearers again. In that hot-faced moment of recognition, I wasn’t speaking at my stepfather’s funeral anymore, I was speaking at Daddy’s, saying what I needed to have said then, but was too young to know or say. I’ll admit that I got momentarily angry at all those people who had continued living while he didn’t, including the dead man lying below where I stood. And in that circular moment, I could barely speak; there were moments of real anguish on the part of the congregation (and me), that kind where you feel deeply for the person trying, desperately, to go on, like I felt when Richard Gaylord choked on “God Bless America” that time at the Burke County Fair. There’s a tape of the eulogy; I’ve not been able to listen to it since.

There, there in the front row was the reincarnation of one of my father’s friends—his son, Kenneth, all grown up into him now, the very mirror of his dad. And Ronnie, further back, always true and faithful and representing his recently dead father, having become him. It was suddenly still 1980, that horrible May moment when I reached out like a child to touch Daddy’s casket as he was rolled out of the church, those young 50-ish men in the church for Daddy’s funeral, feeling his loss but even more so, their own sudden vulnerability.

My father’s death at 53 in 1980 is the fulcrum around which my life moves. Or perhaps that’s not exactly it. Perhaps it is a rivet on which things hinge, that holds things together. No, a grommet through which everything else is laced? Yes, since that would imply a hole, I think that’s it. Like Fermat’s last theorem, it will take me 375 years to work it through. I suppose we all have something like that to puzzle through, fill up, patch, lace shut.

Journalist Marjorie Williams died of liver cancer last January three days after turning 47. A writer for The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Slate magazines, as an “act of mourning,” her husband compiled essays of hers in a book entitled The Woman at the Washington Zoo: 

“Having found myself faced with that old bull-session question (What would you do if you found out you had a year to live?), I learned that a woman with children has the privilege or duty of bypassing the existential. What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes.”

Pancakes made into initials—is there any breakfast food more glorious, more personal, more full of sheer, fantastic, lasting love?

Yes, it’s clear what I need to do: I need to buy myself a Mickey Mouse watch.

~*~ 37days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Find what you have lost.

Cook monogrammed pancakes for people you love. Wear comfy jeans and a plaid shirt and a goofy watch that makes you (and others) smile. Celebrate your birthday whenever you get a hankering to.

Hook a rug to leave behind.