Friday, June 12, 2009
I Never Sang for my Father
When I first read the play, “I Never Sang for my Father” I remember I cried. What was going on here? I never cry. But something about that sad story of a boy who never got to finish his business with his father brought tears to my eyes. My father has been dead for over 40 years and I still carry around a lot of grief because we never got to finish our business. Maybe that’s where the tears come from. I still have a lot of things I have to say to him.
I would like to tell my father that the tree he planted on the day I was born brings me joy to this day. My parents had been married seventeen years. Doctors told them there would be no children. Then, out of the blue, I came along. And, on the day of my birth, my father knelt in front of the little four-room white clapboard mill house that would always be our home, and planted a tree. It was an oak. I don’t know what he thought as he dug in the ground, carefully placed the sapling, watered the little tree and stepped back. When I visit my hometown I still drive by the old house. I stop the car and look up. Towering above the little house, stretching toward the sky is my tree. I thank my father for that gift.
I wished I had told him how sorry I was that he could not hear. When he was a little boy, way out in the country his ears ruptured. The family lived on a dirt road miles and miles from doctors. They tried home remedies--but nothing worked. Much of my father’s hearing never came back. So he could never hear me easily. Communication was hard for both of us. Often I grew frustrated that he could not understand me. I wonder now how hard it must have been for him to try to decipher sounds that usually came to him garbled and indistinct. I now know why he hated crowds. He just couldn’t hear what was going on in the group. I now understand why he kept to himself and people thought he was a loner. I would like him to know I now understand something of his distance and his solitude.
I wished I had told him how much I appreciated how hard he worked. He moved, like so many others in the deep South from farm to city where he worked in a textile mill. He worked there from age 21 to age 65 in the same mill. I wish I had told him I have wondered how hard it was to get up and go to the same job year after year, decade after decade. Little money. Little appreciation for all those years of hard, tedious sometime twelve-hour shifts. No vacations. Nothing to look forward to but another week and another year in the mill. I wish I had told him how amazing I think it is that he never complained about his lot in life. He never grumbled about what he did not have. He stayed. He brought home his paycheck. He kept the family together. Our little nuclear family would not have made it if he had not done what he faithfully did.
I wish I could tell him how much I appreciated the legacy of lack of prejudice he left to me and to my brother. He was Foreman in the mill in Georgia from the 1930’s through the early sixties. Every black person who worked for him admired Mr. John. They knew he would be fair. They knew he would be honest. They knew he was a man who always treated them with respect. I would like to tell him what a rare gift he gave me—the great gift of looking beneath a person’s skin color. He didn’t learn that in school—he only finished the seventh grade. But he treated every one the same because it was right.
I never told him how much those long walks in the woods on Sunday afternoons meant to me. We had no car. We had little money. The only day he was off work he would take my brother and me up to the hills along the river. We didn’t say much. We just walked and explored the neighborhood. We found strange-colored rocks and arrowheads and caught frogs and watched snakes slither. I still remember those Sunday afternoon walks.
I don’t think I ever told him that I remembered the day his thumb got cut off in the mill. Later when the insurance money came, he bought my brother and me whatever we wanted. I remember I chose my first wooden box of oil paints. I would like to tell him I still have that box high up my closet. It is one of my most favorite treasures.
I know now why I cried when I read the story about the boy who never got the chance to sing for his father. Life slips away from us all. I never got to say some of the things I wanted to say. But on Father’s Day I remember a man named John who was my Daddy. He is gone but I remember the gifts he left behind. There was little of material worth—but a treasure of memories and a legacy of richness that I will take all the way to the finish line.