He sits in his usual chair at the kitchen table in the predawn darkness. The light overhead bathes the scene in golden light. His head is down, as though he is studying his own reflection from the surface of the coffee in his mug. The cigarette between the fingers of his right hand spools a white ribbon of smoke that blends with the rich smells of coffee and frying bacon–my Daddy lifts his head when I enter, and his dark brown eyes greet me. He is neither happy nor sad, but content. He says, “Good morning, little girl.” He is the only one who ever will call me that.
My relationship with my father was full of contradictions. He did not like to be called father. He preferred “Daddy,” but as a former Marine and a high school principal, he commanded respect. He was not physically demonstrative. He hugged with one arm only, and I do not remember a time when he ever kissed me, not even a peck on the forehead, but my favorite picture of us together is from when I was a little baby, still pink and bald, and I am squeezing his neck. He is smiling.
Though he was not physically demonstrative, I don’t mean to imply that he did not show love. His shows of affection came in other forms. One way he showed great love was through his lavish, superb gifts. He not only gave gifts of value, but he chose those that would perfectly satisfy the one he wished to please–a rifle for his little brother, perfume for my mother, a music box for me. He also showed his love with his attention.
My Daddy’s attention was better than anyone’s. He saw not only what a person was doing or making, but what that person could do and make. He could watch a student and see all the things that student would someday be able to do, all those future possibilities. This gift made my Daddy a special blessing to many people who were hurting, lost, and confused–people rejected by others, tormented by doubts. He saw the artist, the musician, the teacher, the builder, and the leader. He offered them reassurance that they could and would find a way through the spreading wilderness and eventually locate their joy. This made them cling close to him at times, made them beg for attention, made them proud to call him their teacher and friend. I admit I would sometimes experience the keenest point of jealously where he was concerned. After all, he was my Daddy, not theirs. Why should he put so much energy and attention into their lives? Why didn’t he behave like the TV fathers who came home and seemed to have endless time and energy to spend on their gorgeous children?
Now, obviously, I am glad he was the man he became. He left too soon, for me, for everyone in my family. We were none of us ready for, or resolved to, his going. So be it. Years later I read the letters he wrote before he was any kind of Daddy, letters from his days in the Pacific. In only one of those letters did he describe any event in the war, and that letter was written on Iwo Jima. When I think of all he did, and carried, all those years–the memories too horrible to discuss, the needs of all of us (my mother, my brothers, me), the burdens of thousands of teachers and students–I am deeply grateful and humbled. He was the best man I ever knew.
He liked to give people Indian-style names, too. He called me Squat Low for quite awhile.