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One Man’s Trash

“Naw, let’s just leave it there for now.” Mama said over her shoulder as she washed a plate and arranged it with others in the rack.

I didn’t ask why I couldn’t have it, I just dropped the rusty key back into the drawer and watched it disappear between a crushed matchbook and a small ball of frayed string.

When I was little the drawer by the refrigerator was a mystery. The clanking sounds made as Mama or Daddy dug through it and the strange faces they made when they picked up one item or another, stared and tossed it back, were intriguing. Finally tall enough to open it myself, I’d spent a few minutes running my hand through the odd assortment of things in the drawer. If Mama wouldn’t let me have the rusty key I didn’t dare ask about the torn Queen of Hearts playing card, the bent thumb tack, or the random assortment of colored bread ties. They must really be valuable.

A few years passed before I opened the drawer again. Although it was directly beside the refrigerator, which I opened often, the drawer usually faded into the cabinet. It caught my eye that day so I pulled it open. Taller now, I could see and reach even further into its mysterious depths. I fished out a cracked cigarette lighter with half an old crayon stuck to its side, the words “Burnt Umber” still visible on the crayon’s fragile paper. To the left, tucked behind the microwave’s yellowing owner’s manual, was an old pair of broken sunglasses. With a questioning look I held them in the air to show Mama as she came back from the store with a bag of groceries.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” She maneuvered around me to put milk in the refrigerator.

I looked in the drawer several times over the years, at first to ease my curiosity but later to laugh and wonder how the useless random items spent decades in that sliding time capsule without being thrown away. In my spot checks of the drawer I never saw anything missing and rarely saw anything added other than a few questionable AAA batteries, an occasional dry rotted rubber band, and the cracked cap of a long-gone ballpoint pen.

I vowed never to have a drawer like that in my house.

Years later in my own home I hung pictures one afternoon. When done, rather than take the hammer back to the basement, I lazily dropped it into the drawer by my refrigerator. I giggled to myself when I saw familiar bread ties and an old shoelace already taking up space there. Some time later I lost the key to a small luggage lock. Thinking I’d eventually find it I put the little lock into the drawer for safe keeping. When my daughter’s doll lost a hand I put it in the drawer along with the tiny tire from one of my son’s toy cars. I knew they’d be safe there with the broken pencil sharpener and a feather.

As my kids grew older and taller they discovered my drawer. They caught me off guard the day they asked to play with a broken wristwatch they dug from its contents.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” I heard myself say.

I was always puzzled by my parents’ junk drawer. I was even more puzzled by my own. Why do we keep odd bits of trash? I had locks with no keys, keys to no locks, and I actually struggled one day before throwing away a peppermint I found stuck in the drawer’s back corner behind a broken shoehorn.

My kids are older teenagers now. Will they also collect little drawers of debris when they start homes of their own?  That very thought crossed my mind last year during my daughter’s high school graduation weekend. While she went out with friends, my son and I sat in his room happily chatting about nothing. As he reached into his closet for a guitar, a non-descript little tin can rolled out into the room. Thinking it trash, I picked it up and walked towards the door. He stared at me for a second then nodded back towards the closet as he spoke.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.”

Stuart M.Perkins

 

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Finial Moment

Friends and I enjoyed brunch the other day. Afterwards, I suggested we stop by the local antique store to see what was new…

No one got the joke.

Still laughing at myself, because it never takes much, I held the door for the others as we entered and went our separate ways down cluttered and dusty aisles.

We hadn’t been there long when I saw, tucked between Mason jars and wicker baskets, an old Thanksgiving decoration like one Mama used when I was a kid. It was a turkey with a cardboard head but the rest of it was the honeycomb style that opened and latched onto itself, giving the turkey a big round body. Its cardboard head was bent and its big round body didn’t latch anymore, but I held it up to look at it and wondered whose it used to be, where they might have placed it, and how many kids had ever touched it or crunched it.

“You want that thing?” one friend asked.

“No, I’m just having a finial moment.” I responded.

“Ok…” my friend said. He waited for an explanation.

For years and years, the same floor lamp stood in the same corner of the den at home. It was always positioned at one end of the couch regardless of how the room was arranged. Mama rarely rearranged, so the lamp stood in the same spot forever it seemed. The lamp sported three light bulbs and was about six feet tall counting the huge beige shade. As a kid I thought it was “fancy” because as you turned the switch you could opt for one, two, or all three bulbs to be on. Wow! Poking up above the huge beige shade was a tarnished bronze finial about an inch long.

Under that lamp at the end of the couch Mama sometimes worked crossword puzzles or sewed loose buttons. Daddy would temporarily leave his recliner to sit under the extra light to squint at a roadmap or at the faded date on an old coin. My three sisters and I took turns sitting under that lamp to do homework, color, or play games.

We laughed, argued, and watched television under that lamp. Daddy told stories about his workdays and Mama made sure he was caught up on neighborhood happenings, all under the lamp. That lamp saw holidays and birthdays and every day as soon as it was dark outside it was turned on. It was the last light to go out at night. That same lamp had been there forever and would be there forever. Such a thing couldn’t be replaced.

One day Mama replaced it.

I came home after school to see the old lamp standing beside the trash can. The shade itself, admittedly less beige and torn in two spots, had been smashed unceremoniously into the trash can. Poking up above the less beige lampshade was the tarnished bronze finial. I pulled at the finial and realized it could be unscrewed from the shade. I’d gotten it almost off when Mama walked by on her way to the clothesline.

“You want that thing?” she asked as she adjusted the laundry basket on her hip.

“Yep.”  I said. I removed the finial and kept it.

That was almost forty years ago and I still have it.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve come across that finial, but each time, I’ve held it and remembered countless days and nights at home as a kid. That little finial sat in the same room with me and my family as we celebrated happy times, cried over sad times, or did absolutely nothing but be with each other one regular old evening after another.

Photographs are wonderful, but to hold an object in your hand that has the power to bring back so many memories is a gift. We should accept those when they’re given.

I have several boxes full of items like the finial. Sometimes I go to the boxes just to have a finial moment with one object or another.

When I hold a tiny porcelain giraffe I think about Nannie in her chair by the window. She’s crocheting and smiling because someone’s walking up the path under the walnut tree coming for a visit. Her rolls are almost ready in the oven and my aunt Dessie will be over later to fix her hair for church tomorrow. Nannie had a hundred houseplants and for years the tiny porcelain giraffe stood in the dirt under her Christmas cactus. When she gave me the plant I got the giraffe. The Christmas cactus died long ago, but I kept the tiny giraffe and when I look at it I see the plant blooming on Nannie’s table.

Three little magnets I keep in the box remind me of Granddaddy. When I was a kid he used those magnets to show me “magic”. He’d put one magnet on the dining room table and ask it to spin, which it did wildly for him but not for me! I never thought to look for him holding the other two magnets in his hand under the table, close enough to make the third one react on the tabletop. He could make two magnets stick together or make them push apart, all at his command. It was magic to me. Even when I was old enough to know how he did it, I played along. The satisfied grin he gave after each performance was enough to keep me playing dumb forever. One day he called me over to the swing where he sat chewing tobacco. He “taught” me the trick, swore me to secrecy, and gave me the three little magnets.

The jagged little puppy tooth I keep makes me smile. The collie we had growing up was a good friend to us all and I still miss her, my first dog as a kid. We got Mitzi as a puppy and for thirteen years she watched me and my sisters grow up. She walked Mama and Daddy back and forth to the garden and she was gentle towards the many smaller animals that came and went through our house during her time. As a puppy, she lost that tooth in the kitchen one day and before Mama could sweep it up I took it to my room. I remember when we brought Mitzi home and I remember when we buried her. A thousand fun times are recalled when I look at the little tooth that once gnawed my hand while a tiny tail wagged.

My boxes are full of items that spark “finial moments” for me. The hinge from a gate by the barn, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, a pocket knife, and a simple brown rock are just some of the items. All hold stories and images stronger for me than any photograph could trigger. I remembered these things as I talked in the antique store that day.

My friend listened to me go on as I stood there with the old Thanksgiving decoration in my hand. Several times his eyes glazed over, boredom I’d assumed, so I cut my story short. As it turned out he wasn’t bored, he was remembering…

I leaned over to put the broken turkey decoration back on the shelf as I wrapped up my story but before I could stick it back between the Mason jars and the wicker baskets my friend took it from my hand.

“You want that thing?” I asked

“Finial moment.” he said, and headed to the cashier.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Maybe That’s Why

Almost home after a day of errands with Mama and Daddy, my sisters and I were crammed into the back seat of the car. For a second we didn’t know what Mama meant when she spoke to Daddy in the driver’s seat.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said.

We in the back seat jockeyed for position to get the best view through the windshield up front. We had to see who “he” was.

“He” was a dog.

The little blond dog trotted ahead of us right in the middle of the road. His fluffy tail, with long strands of blond hair trailing in the wind, curved up towards his back. He paid no attention when we passed but as we turned into our driveway he followed.

Daddy came to a stop in the driveway and so did the little dog. Through the window the dog and I stared at each other. He sat.

“Why’d he come here?” asked one of my sisters.

“Who knows.” Mama answered.

I leaned forward to poke my head between the two sitting in the front seat.

“Can we keep him?” I asked.

From the front came their synchronized “No.”

I offered a follow-up. “Why?”

“We already have a dog.” Daddy said as he opened her car door.

“Don’t touch him!” Mama yelled when I hopped from the car and walked straight to the little dog. “You don’t know what he might do.” she warned.

I talked to the dog as I approached. He wagged his tail before slightly baring his teeth. I stopped. He wagged his tail again then flopped to the ground on his back, bared his teeth even more, and appeared to squint.

He hadn’t snarled. He had smiled.

For that reason, Daddy named him “Smiley”. For a reason I don’t recall, I named him “Chip”. He never answered to either, but we kept the dog we couldn’t keep.

Chip was by my side constantly. He waited on the back porch when I went inside, followed me around the yard, and walked with me across the field to my grandmother’s. Our connection was instant and he acted as if I’d had him forever. Whenever I came home from being gone he’d squint, smile, and drop to have his belly rubbed.

Chip even followed me to the pasture where I picked blackberries. It had been a good summer for blackberries and cousins and I picked them by the quart for our grandmother who sold them and gave us the money. I’d picked blackberries all summer to save for a new bicycle. The one I wanted cost a hundred dollars, a lot of money at the time. I had so far earned ninety-four dollars but Chip’s arrival had temporarily slowed me from picking. I was back at it, excited that I’d almost reached my hundred dollar goal.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said. “I had to get him out of the road again today.” Though normally by my side, whenever I was away Chip was seen walking in the middle of the road as he’d done that very first day. We sometimes caught him doing that at night.

The little dog had been at our house for maybe a month when Mama woke me up early one morning. “Something’s wrong with Chip.” she said.

I went outside to find him lying on the back porch. He didn’t stand up and the gash in the thigh of his left hind leg was still bloody. He’d have to go to the vet but I knew I had some money saved and I made it clear I would pay.

Daddy drove me to take the little dog to the vet and lectured me all the way. This is what happens when you have a dog, now money will need to be spent, the dog should have stayed out of the road, and on and on. He was mad that I’d spend my money on a stray dog. At the time I didn’t recognize his “anger” for what it really was. Disappointment. Not in me but for me. I’d worked and saved towards a goal and after almost reaching it this had happened. He thought I was being stupid.

I thought he was being heartless and I told him he’d never had a heart when it came to animals. It was a very rough argument.

The vet supposed Chip had been hit by a car. The little dog left the vet’s office with a shaved leg, several stitches, and a drainage tube dangling from the wounded area.  I left the vet’s office minus ninety-four dollars. I never knew what Daddy paid in addition but I’m sure it was plenty.

For the next two weeks I cleaned the drainage tube and waited for the next vet appointment. All went well and the tube and stitches were soon removed. Chip was energetic as ever. The only sign that anything had even happened to him was the shaved patch on his leg where the hair had just started to come back.

The next morning he was gone.

We searched the neighborhood, questioned everyone we saw, and in morbid reality we checked the ditches. No sign of Chip. We continued to search for him off and on for a few weeks before deciding he’d simply run away like he’d done from the people before us.

“Why’d he even come here?” I asked.

“Who knows.”  Daddy said.

Weeks passed and although we didn’t forget about Chip, we stopped looking.

I was in the yard when Daddy pulled in the driveway and told me to get in the car. He thought he’d seen Chip. We rode less than a mile down the street before entering another neighborhood. Two small girls played in a sandbox under a tree. Lying beside them in the grass was a little blond dog.

Daddy parked and we got out. I walked towards the dog, still unsure. He happened to wag his tail when one of the girls giggled and I saw the long blond hairs wave in the air.

“Chip?” The same dog who had never once answered to that name sat up instantly. He stood and walked slowly towards me. It was him.

He squinted, smiled, and dropped in front of me waiting for me to rub his belly.

A man came from the house and started talking to Daddy. As I rubbed Chip’s belly I heard Daddy ask questions about the dog. Apparently they’d had “Buddy” for eight years and he’d been a good dog, never leaving home, but a while back he suddenly disappeared for a month or so. When he came back he looked good but oddly one of his legs had been shaved.

Daddy explained all of that.

Funny too, the man went on to say, but Buddy never walks in the middle of the road anymore. He used to do that all the time.

“Why’d he go to your house?” the man wondered out loud.

“Who knows.” Daddy answered.

I was still rubbing Buddy’s belly when he stood and casually walked back to the sandbox where he wagged his tail at the girls before lying down again in the shade. Daddy walked over to where I stood and we watched Buddy roll onto his back, inviting the little girls to rub his belly.

I felt no sadness really, just a surge of happy satisfaction seeing my Chip, their Buddy, back where he belonged.

Daddy and I got in the car and sat for a minute. He watched me, to gauge my reaction to the situation I suppose. When he realized I felt pretty happy, he felt pretty happy too. I’d grown up a little maybe and I think he noticed. Under his breath Daddy said “See ya later, Smiley” and watched the little dog over his shoulder as we drove away. I noticed that.

Daddy and I hadn’t had much to say to each other since the bad argument on the way to the vet that morning some weeks ago, but we talked all the way back home.

“Yep.” Daddy said as we turned into our driveway. “Who knows why he ever came here.”

I wasn’t sure either why a dog that had never left home in eight years would follow us into our driveway, cause an uproar for a month, then go back home.

Then again… Daddy learned I’d grown up a little, I learned my father had a heart, and Buddy learned to stay out of the road.

So maybe that’s why. And that’s enough.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday I’d like to acknowledge the obvious individual…Mama.

She still laughs remembering Daddy’s funny stories. He artfully told his silly tales and endless supply of jokes to keep everyone entertained. Daddy could be truly funny and Mama was the first to laugh. After sixty years of marriage there’s no doubt she’d heard his material several times over but Daddy loved to see people laugh and Mama wouldn’t have him disappointed. She loved him and laughed hard at his jokes, chastised his colorful language, and coyly prompted him to repeat her favorites. Daddy enjoyed making others laugh and Mama happily served as the perfect straight man even if she occasionally found herself the brunt of his playful banter.

An aunt grinned and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy’s vegetable garden was perfection. His weedless rows were straight, well-watered, and produced profusely. He playfully bragged about having the first tomato, prettiest butter beans, or biggest peppers. Mama joined Daddy in the garden every morning to sweat alongside him ensuring enough was grown not just for her to freeze and can, but for Daddy to have some to give to others, which was a great source of joy for him. Daddy was proud of his garden. Mama, knowing what it meant to him, faithfully assisted. Ice tinkled in Daddy’s water glass as he rested in the shade and jokingly scolded Mama for missing a squash. She wiped sweat from her face and went back to pick it, playfully cutting her eyes at him.

A neighbor visiting at the time smiled and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy didn’t buy a lot but what he bought was top rate and built to last. When Mama needed a new washer it was a great one. A new dryer? Nothing but the finest. If Mama needed this or that then Daddy bought her the best. One Christmas he surprised her with a brand new car. The perfectionist in Daddy compelled him to give advice so Mama was reminded to keep the car full of gas, to let him know if it ever sounded odd, acted odd, or gave her trouble. She patiently allowed him to finish knowing it was how he showed he cared. She grinned and slightly rolled her eyes a bit when he was done. He grinned back.

My sisters and I watched their comical interaction and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

In all that Daddy did, and he did a lot, Mama was there to back him up. Daddy was a perfectionist but giving, rigid but generous, and a serious provider who enjoyed nothing more than a sense of humor. He and Mama were together for sixty years, raised four kids, and saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were a powerful pair when they needed to be, a comedy duo when the occasion arose, and always surrounded by family and friends. Daddy was unique and Mama supported that uniqueness. It dawned on me over the years that Daddy was free to be Daddy because Mama was Mama.

Daddy died almost two years ago now. His vegetable garden is no more, fewer friends stop by Mama’s for impromptu visits, and though we still laugh it’s not with the frequency or intensity it was when constantly bombard by Daddy’s zany tales. We all miss him, but Mama surely misses him the most. Friends and family do still visit Mama and inevitably they talk about Daddy and his garden, his jokes, and all he did for Mama.

One visiting friend recently asked Mama, “How in the world do you live without him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Why Would I Eat Fruit Cake?

It wasn’t even Christmas when Daddy finally made the fruit cake. Every time I’d go back home to visit, Mama and I would listen to Daddy discuss his plan to make it, the vast amounts of ingredients required, and how delicious he knew it would be.

“You like fruit cake don’t you? he asked when he finished telling me the amounts of nuts and dried fruit he would have to add to what I considered a hideous waste of good sugar.

“No.” I answered, making the same face I would make if asked whether I liked road kill.

“If I make it you ought to try it.” Daddy insisted.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked. “It’s full of unnatural blobs of neon green and red rubber things.”

“You ought to try it though.” he repeated. I pretended to vomit and he laughed as he got up to go outside.

When he left, Mama grinned and said, “You would not believe the production this fruit cake has turned into. If he’s told me once, he’s told me a thousand times how he’s going to make it!”

Weeks passed and each time I visited or talked to my parents on the phone, the fruit cake became the topic of conversation. I’d actually forgotten about it though when I called one night. Mama answered the phone and I asked my usual “What are y’all doing?” She normally responded by telling me Wheel of Fortune was on or my aunt and uncle were visiting. That night though, she whispered into the phone.

“He finally made that dog-gone fruit cake today.” she said.

“Is he going to send out announcements?” I asked.

“I declare I wouldn’t be surprised.” Mama said laughing.

On my next visit home Daddy met me at the back door with a fruit cake tin in his hand.

“Want a slice?” he asked as he wrestled the lid from the tin. “It’s pretty ain’t it?”

“Beautiful. If you like to eat rubber fruit.” I said laughing.

“Want a slice?” he asked again as he shoved the tin under my nose, insisting I smell the cake.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked with a sigh.

“You ought to try it though.” he said seriously. “I made it.”

I listened as he describe precisely how he had made his beautiful creation, the work he put into it, how delicious it was, and how he didn’t understand why anybody would not eat fruit cake. He bet he could eat the whole thing in a week.

He didn’t.

Unfortunately, fruit cakes last for several eternities so it was there every time I went back home to visit. Daddy would go to the spare bedroom where he kept the tin and unwrap the cake for me to see how much he’d eaten and to tell me over again the entire process involved in making one.

All while I fought back nausea.

“You want a slice?” he asked.

Why would I eat fruit cake?” I responded, hoping I’d finally conveyed my complete disgust.

Daddy grinned knowing he’d turned my stomach. “I made it though, so you really ought to try it.” he said again.

This pattern repeated with each trip back home. Daddy would disappear down the hall to the spare bedroom only to return with his fruit cake to show me the progress made on eating it and to ask again if I wanted a slice. On one occasion he was lying in his recliner and simply looked over at me to ask, “Want a slice of fruit cake?”

“Sure.” I said.

He didn’t hear me at first but as it registered with him what I had said, his head whirled back towards me. “You say you do?” he asked.

I laughed. “No. Why would I eat fruit cake?” I actually detected a tiny sign of disappointment on his face.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I thought people only ate fruit cake at Christmas.” I wondered if I should give in and taste the awful thing, if I could force myself not to recoil at the sight.

“You can eat a cake any time you want, you know.” he said grinning. “But yeah, most people eat them around Christmas.”

“Ok then.” I said. “I’ll eat a piece on Christmas day just to say I tasted it, but don’t worry about saving me any if it seems to start going fast.” I added sarcastically.

“I reckon there will be some left.” Daddy said grinning. “I made it, so you ought to try it.”

We never discussed that fruit cake again. In March of this year Mama had to have knee surgery and she suffered complication after unbelievable complication. Daddy threw himself into taking care of her, the house, and yard. All of these months later, Mama is still unable to walk. Later in the summer of this year, Daddy’s own health issues began to worsen.

He passed away in August.

It has affected the family in ways I’m not sure we know how to articulate and process. In spite of horrible complications from her knee surgery, Mama continues to slowly improve. Losing the man she was married to for sixty years hit her hard but she is tough and will persevere, even with the holidays and all of the memories they will certainly stir up.

I remembered the fruit cake today. I think the rest of it is still in the tin back in the spare bedroom wrapped up just as Daddy would have left it. I told myself I would find it and try a slice on Christmas day.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked myself out loud as I thought about that silly cake that Daddy was so proud of.

Because I told Daddy I would. He made it and I really ought to try it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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