A daughter’s tribute
By Susan Kelly
When I was 7, my father would stroll through the den on Sunday evenings where I was rapt before Lassie, anxious for Timmy’s fate in the well, or the barn, or the field. My father would pause, then say, “Watch: Lassie is going to pull on that rope (or apron string, or gate latch) and everything will turn out all right.” “How did you know?” I demanded afterward, when Timmy was safely rescued. “Because,” he’d say, “I write this stuff.”
When I was 9, my sleeping dog snapped at a neighbor’s child who reached to pat him, and my father gave the dog away. I never forgave him, and he suffered for it.
When I was 11, had a horseback riding accident, and had to have a kidney removed, my father said, “Do not worry your pretty little head. My pal Bynum Hunter lost a kidney in a sledding accident when he was your age, and he’s just fine.” (Bynum lived to be 92.)
When I was 12, and began parting my long hair down the middle, my father said, “You should part your hair on the side.” “Why?” I asked. It was 1967; everyone was parting their hair down the middle. “Because,” my father said, “a middle part makes your nose look bigger.” When I laughed at that, or some other pronouncement he made, he’d say, “You know why you’re laughing? Because I’m right.”
When I was 17, worrying how I’d know when I met the man I wanted to marry, my father said, “You’ll know. When you can barely breathe, can’t stand to be apart from someone for a single minute, you’ll know.”
When I was 19, coming to Greensboro for basketball tournaments and debutante parties, my father would say, “Why not drop by and see Nan?” — my glamorous Greensboro grandmother, who lived in a miniature castle on Kemp Road filled with untouchables. I never dropped by, and he never asked if I did. I hope he forgave me.
When I was 21, I called long distance, sobbing, summoning my father to the phone from a cocktail party because the man I was in love with seemed to be uncertain about our future. “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” my father said. (He fished.)
He was a son of the South, a Greensboro kid, whose own father died when my father was at boarding school. So when textile magnate Spencer Love told him to go into textiles, and a job would be waiting for him, my father went to N.C. State. Frat boy and varsity swimmer, he stayed faithful to “Cow College,” as he put it, even in a family sea of Tar Heels. “Ah,” he’d say, as I packed the car after a visit home, impatient to return to Chapel Hill, “back to the womb.”
For five seasons a year (summer, fall, winter, resort, spring) he went to New York Monday through Thursday, always returning with a present: a Steiff animal from FAO Schwarz, a Broadway soundtrack album (My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, South Pacific), or a wondrous Surprise Ball, countless yards of crepe paper wound tightly around trinkets at its core. When friends from school visited, he’d admire whatever they were wearing, ask, “You pay retail for that?” and examine the collar label. They adored him.
He loved bananas, drank Schlitz and Scotch, and every summer, reread A Summer Place, by Sloan Wilson. He peppered his speech with Yiddish from his time in the “rag trade” or “the dress business” — oy vey — and with lines from movies and songs. “Listen, Mack,” he’d begin a sentence, or, “All this and heaven, too,” when I was elated. “Looks like we made it!” he’d sing out from Barry Manilow, over a triumph, and when sorrow struck, “This too shall pass,” he’d tell me. “Fool’s names, as in fool’s faces, always appear in public places,” he’d remark at the sight of an overpass or bench layered in graffiti. He brooked no backtalk. “Don’t give me that thousand-yard stare,” he’d say during an argument. “These proceedings are over. Period.” Sternness included shaming. “He cannot tell you he’s thirsty,” my father said when he came home one evening and found the dog’s empty water bowl. “It’s a dumb animal.” “Dumb” meaning helpless, dependent entirely upon me.
My father taught me to draw “Kilroy Was Here” cartoons without lifting the pencil from the page. He could waterski and whistle, do the jitterbug and the camel walk and a backflip like nobody’s business. I never heard him argue with my mother. I never heard him utter a swear word. He refused to wear a seatbelt because he refused to let the government tell him what to do, and he dropped his subscription to the Greensboro Daily News the day the paper dropped the “Dick Tracy” comic strip. He refused to buy me a pair of Wallabees because he thought they were Communist shoes, but when I found a three-ring bikini in Seventeen that could only be found in New York, he moved heaven and Earth to get it for me.
Protector. Adviser. Jokester. Teacher. Nurturer. Molder. Thirty years on, for a death that came too soon, here’s my eulogy, finally.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. OH
Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud new grandmother.