01 March 2011

Rambling Thoughts on my Father

I’m thinking of my Dad today. He is in my thoughts most days since I came to Jordan. Those of you, my Constant Readers, who are fortunate enough to know Dad probably know that beneath his rough exterior he nurtured a love of poetry. I can’t begin to count the times he quoted poetry to me that he had learned in his school days back in the 1940s. There are two poems I remember him reciting most often. One was House By the Side of the Road:

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Nor hurl the cynic's ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Of all the things to be said about my Dad, I think first and foremost he has always been “a friend to man”. He worked hard, Dad did in his day, sometimes more than one job. But if a family member was facing a crisis or a neighbor needed help “getting his ox out of the ditch”, Dad could be counted on to do what he could to help.

He has strong views on everything and is very vocal about them. But, unlike some I have known in my life with strong views, he will listen to an opposing viewpoint. He probably won’t be swayed, but he respects anyone who has the courage of his convictions, I reckon. I’ve disagreed with him on so many things over the years; we argued, discussed, cussed and argued some more. In my younger years I feared him even more than God himself but I could never bring myself to disrespect him. He said things and did things I thought were so very wrong. As years passed I realized his words and decisions had a lasting impact that made me what I am today. I am a far, far better person than I might have been because of him.

I think Dad’s favorite poem was The Village Blacksmith. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard him recite it I’d be rich as Bill Gates!

UNDER a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

This poem, in my mind, is my Father. Dad was strong and he has the biggest hands! Every one of my friends who has met him always comments on the size of his hands and arms. Making cast-iron pipes for more than forty years will do that for you!

Dad is seventy-five years old now. The years and hard work have taken their toll. Now he is a slight man, but only somewhat stooped. The massive strength is gone and his hands somehow seem smaller. The hair is lighter and the lines in his face deeper, but the eyes are still bright if the memories aren’t. Alzheimer’s has robbed him of many of them, especially the more recent ones.

Dad could always be counted on for a laugh. He knew a billion jokes, but I never heard him tell one that was vulgar or off-color. He loved to pull pranks on people. One of his favorite “victims” was his Mother; Mamaw to us. So many times, especially if Mamaw was in the middle of a story and not as alert as she might have been, he would creep up behind her and lightly pinch the calf of her leg and screech like an angry cat. Mamaw would almost jump to the moon! Then she would shake her fist at him and, through her laughter, tell him she was going to punch him in the nose!

Many years ago, 1965 to be exact, the very day Mother’s Mom passed away. Of course we were all there. I was just a few weeks from my 10th birthday. One of the ladies in attendance asked me to take the trash outside. In those days, we burnt the trash out at the edge of the field. I almost never wore shoes back then; still don’t for that matter, and I went running across the backyard to dump the trash and stepped on a Spam meat can. Of course it slashed my foot to the bone across the arch and the heel. As only a nine, almost ten-year-old boy can do I screamed like the very Banshee. Dad was the first one there. He had to hold me on the ground as I writhed in pain and fear. Well, I thought it was fear. It was only a few seconds later that I learned what fear really was. I heard Dad say to one of the women there “Go over to Mary’s (his sister) house and get me some kerosene.” Oh my god! I knew of only one use for kerosene…to start fires. I had already heard more than one of the women gathered round me say “Lord, he’s ruint his foot!” Ruint? Kerosene? Sweet Jesus help me, Dad is going to burn my ruint foot right off the end of my leg!

After cleaning the wounds with the kerosene and getting the blood flow stopped, Dad demanded bandages and tape and dressed my injuries as well as any physician might have done. After discovering I would be able to keep my foot in it’s place I wore those bandages like a badge of honor. I had been injured in a way no one else round about had been and my Dad had saved my foot!

I miss my visits with him, swapping tales of the “old days”, sipping a wee drop or two of whiskey and sharing a lot of laughs. I miss the advice, both solicited and unsolicited. Most of all I think, I miss his voice.

I love you Dad…

Dad, Mom and Me in 1956

Dad and Mom, Thanksgiving 2008

Dad looks like he's having a laugh on something...

Dad and Mom, 56 years together

Dad, his sister Frances, his grand-niece Sheila


cook said...

Awsome writing Jim brings a tear to the eye

Anonymous said...

I so enjoy reading your blog but today was the best so far! I'm sure you're dad will be proud reading it! KimM

sheila johnson said...

Jim, my beloved cousin! I so enjoy your blogs & the manner in which you write. In my mind's eye, I can see all of past events in the scenery of Wrightsville, as I remember it before the highway addition. I feel blessed to be back home around my roots & my family. Reconnecting with the remaining elders of our clan is better than any ancestry site! You can't get the true grit stories through anyone other than the ones who were there & are still around to share them. I look forward to the day when you come home for a visit so we can ALL get together!! Your dad & mom miss you, as we all do! I love you very much!! Take care, 'cuz'!! XOXO, Sheila "Charlene" Burgess Johnson