In Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, author J.D. Vance recounts his older sister’s remorse on the death of their grandfather. She regretted having taken advantage of the Papaw who stepped in to raise them in the absence of their father and the instability of their drug-addicted mother. Conditioned by their shaky beginnings to feel they couldn’t really rely on people, she sobbed over having unquestioningly accepted Papaw’s help and generosity but beyond that, not paying him much attention.
“To this day,” Vance writes, “being able to ‘take advantage’ of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent.”
This month would have marked my dad’s 89th birthday. It’s been more than four months since he died, but years since we lost him due to advanced Parkinson’s. Of all that could be said of Dad, Vance’s definition of being a father is the most apt. My brothers and sister and I were able to “take advantage” of our dad because he was always there. He was always there with my mom — an indivisible unit for 66 years that gave us a rock-solid home, something I only learned in later years that not everyone has.
He was always there in the church, faithfully attending, serving, giving and supporting in many ways.
He was a strong, authoritative presence in our home. One Sunday afternoon, my sister was trying to nap and our brothers were roughhousing in the next room. Annoyed by the noise level, she got up, seized a pair of my dad’s Florsheim shoes and clunked them down the hall until the imminent threat of Dad’s intervention quieted them. Dad’s was an authority I sometimes resented, but which I now realize set the stage for me to have an understanding and trust in God’s rule and reign in my life.
He was always there on the land that was so important to him.
We always had a secure home base to come home to. We knew where to find him. His work as a farmer allowed him to be present in our home at times of day when many dads would have been in the workplace.
He was always there for advice on financial matters, gained through years of experience as a farmer and businessman. I clearly remember a phone call he took one winter evening from someone trying to get him to invest in diamonds.
“I never invest in something I don’t understand,” Dad responded, ending the call. It wasn’t direct teaching, but it was a lesson that stuck with me.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I contemplated buying a franchise business, but first we asked my dad’s counsel. We received a detailed, reasoned, three-page reply in Dad’s distinctive handwriting.
Children are excellent observers, but poor interpreters. As a child, though I feared my dad’s impatience and volatile temper, I still longed for his attention and approval. Neither seemed to ever come and I found it impossible to be content with that. Later, as a young mom, with a home and children of my own, I used to rack my brain trying to come up with an appropriate Christmas gift for Dad. One year, the idea of giving him a gift of words occurred to me. I could write him a letter telling him all that he meant to me and all he’d given me. But frankly, my underlying resentment made it a struggle to come up with anything meaningful. If I said he taught me by example to be a reader, my mind conjured negative memories of him, buried behind a newspaper ,completely oblivious to us kids (until, that is, we raised a ruckus.) I feared he’d see through my attempt, that I was merely putting a good face on a bad record.
Eventually, though, I came up with a page-and-a-half list, from character traits more caught than taught, to happy memories like the soup and crackers-with-garlic-sausage snack we’d have arriving home after a long trip.
The next time he saw me, Dad thanked me for the letter. “It’s nice to know I did something right.” I was surprised at this acknowledgement that he recognized his inadequacy as a father. “If you’re wondering about what to get me next Christmas, another letter would be great.”
He had no idea I felt I’d been scraping the barrel to scrounge up even that one. Yet the next year, I came up with more.
“You expected respect and it prepared me for a lifetime of reverencing God,” I wrote.
“‘Don’t close any doors’ you told me with regard to education when I was contemplating quitting high school.”
And the following year, I found more dad-things to write him thanks for. It got so that I could say these things in person, too.
Just a few years ago, dad overcame his Parkinson’s-weakened voice just long enough to tell me something unusual for him. While I was growing up, he had always opposed my use of make-up or hair colour. (I recall puzzling over the term “hussy.”) And he never complimented my appearance, lest it lead to conceit. But a few summers ago, my 80+-year-old father commented on my new blonde hair colour, saying I looked, “very beautiful!” Now, at 50-something, “very beautiful” was a bit of a stretch. It would have been easy to roll my eyes and reply, “You’re about four decades too late. I needed to hear that when I was 14!” But during that particularly low point in my life it was salve to my wounded soul. Instead of an acidic response, I recognized his words as a gracious gift from him and also from God to encourage me.
When Dad died last fall, I realized all of my bitterness toward him had long since passed away, leaving a genuine contentment and gratefulness toward him. Having children of my own who weren’t always thrilled with my parenting went a long way toward making me compassionate and forgiving towards a dad who didn’t always know how to father. Significantly, I credited the exercise of writing those letters as a turning point for me. They forced me to gain a more accurate interpretation of my dad’s life and fathering than I’d been able to see as a child.
And when I read Hillbilly Elegy, I realized my dad was a great dad. He was a dad I could, and did, take for granted.