My earliest memory of Daddy is watching him plow furrows in our field with an old gray mule named Jack. Jack was not fond of his work and was soon replaced with a little red tractor with huge wheels on the back and a tall metal pipe that puffed smoke as it meandered its way up and down the pasture. I would play happily with my animals while watching his huge tall frame bounce up and down on the metal seat in rhythm with the rumble of the motor.
Then the day would come to plant. Everyone in the family helped. I loved this part even though I was always getting scolded for putting too many seeds in one place. It amazed me when the little seedlings began to sprout above the ground. I could always tell exactly which ones were mine.
The afternoons were another favorite time for me. That was when Daddy fed all the animals. As I heard the old wooden screen door squeak, I knew he would be coming down the steps to find me. “Come on Sugar, let’s feed the chickens,”He would say. He would grab the heavy burlap sack like it was a bag of feathers and pour cracked corn into the old gray pail. I would run to open the wooden gate that led to the chicken house and we would holler, “here chick, chick.” The chickens would come running at break neck speed tumbling over each other in order to get there ahead of the rest. Next were the rabbits with their little brown pellet food, then the cats, dogs and finally the pigs. They took longer because he would first cook the pig slop in a huge galvanized wash tub over an open fire. I was never sure what all he put in that big tub except some ingredients I recognized from suppers we had eaten and a lot of corncobs. It smelled pretty good to me so I could understand why the pigs shoved and squealed as he poured the mixture into the long wooden trough.
Daddy and I had a love of animals in common and he let me have all sorts of orphans he would find on the road including five dogs, a dozen or so rabbits and more than a few cats that had kittens faster than the rabbits had bunnies. He taught me how to love them and to honor them as gifts of wonder.
When I was six we left the farm and moved to California. Daddy was one of the union painters that painted Disneyland castle as it was being built. When the job was finished we returned to Mississippi where Daddy worked at what he loved best, hunting and fishing. I would squat down beside him to discuss all kinds of puzzlement’s in my world, which were many, and he would answer each one as he shucked oysters, throwing the meat in a large white bucket and the shells in a pile that looked like a mountain. The fish odor was pungent in the humid air but I didn’t care as long as I got to ask my questions. When he finished he would ice down the buckets and take them to the fish market.
Sometimes I would get to go to the ocean with him to go “floundering”, as he called it. I would walk slowly beside him in the tide pools carrying the old green kerosene lantern barely above the water as he spotted the flounder and stabbed them with the razor sharp gig. “Don’t kick the sand now Sugar,” he would remind me. I learned the relationship of the moon and tides and what nights were best for fishing. There were always wonders to behold on these “flounder nights” like jellyfish, man-o-war, alligator gars washed up on shore, crabs with their beautiful orange and blue colors and all sizes of starfish. We would fish until almost midnight or until Daddy had enough to take to market the next day.
As the evenings grew cool and the leaves starting falling and tumbling down the roads, fishing season was over. The hunting and trapping season would begin. That was the time we would discuss the squirrels preparing for the winter and watch the summer birds fly in formations heading further south or west. Daddy had a sack of wild birdseed for those who braved the winter and a sack of waste corn for the squirrels that he affectionately called “tree rats”. The over-hang on the back porch would be full of hanging mink pelts on little surf boards made of wood, drying out in preparation to sell to Sears and Roebuck. Every evening he would oil the traps and check them out using a stick to see if they closed correctly. They would snap together with a loud clank that never failed to make me jump. He only trapped what he could sell. It was a balance of man and nature that he honored.
Within a year the onslaught of commercial fishermen and large mink farms forced Daddy out of business forever. He decided it was time to work at house painting full time. He was a perfectionist in anything he created and painting was no different. It made him very respected among customers allowing him to work steady from referrals. The next few summers we traveled back and forth from Florida to California finally settling in Phoenix, Arizona.
Arizona took some getting used to for all of us but soon Daddy had found the best places to enjoy his loves, fishing and hunting. He taught me how to shoot a rifle by the time I was twelve and started allowing me to go on the deer and turkey hunts if Mom went. But, I loved animals too much by then and killing them for any reason just wasn’t in me so I stopped going. However, I did enjoy the fishing trips even though I didn’t fish. It was a time I could be near him. He would always teach me something new just when I thought I knew it all. He would get in his little 17-foot fishing boat at dawn and return with his catch before the rest of us were even up.
When it got too hot to fish he took us for a ride around the lake and pointed out the animals and reptiles that inhabited the sheer canyon walls. He taught me the different varieties of cactus, mesquite trees and river oaks. It was with him that I saw my first cactus wren hovering over a lone cactus bloom. As the day closed he would make a big campfire and marvel at the wonders in the crystal clear night sky. He would point to the big and little dippers, the Milky Way and find falling stars. Right before turning in we would locate the moon and try to be the first to name the correct phase then find the North Star. Then it was off to sleep listening to the music of locust humming and the echo of coyotes howling. Nature was familiar to me; I had no fear of it. Daddy had taught me that.
As my teenage years crested on the horizon, nature began to change our relationship just as surely as it had brought us together. The Goddess started to sing its ancient melody in my Soul and I began to set different priorities like finding a life mate, which included all the prissiness and domestic skills that went with it. I was securely under my Mother’s wing now preparing to become a woman. Even though I loved Daddy dearly, we had different destines to follow.
When Daddy was 78 years old, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and soon a Nursing Home became necessary to keep him safe. My heart broke for him and anger at the injustice of it all swelled up in my throat. When I visited him he saw me as the child I once was. I ached for him to see me as a woman and to play with his grandchildren. Then one day as I was sitting there watching him, something happened to me. My Ego got out of the way of my Soul and saw clearly that this was actually a gift, an encore, to a beautiful time we had shared. I began to appreciate this travel back in time and enjoyed many hours of conversation on nature and animals, fishing and hunting. We would walk outside by the tiny flower garden and watch the catbirds swoop down on an unaware cat or admire a flock of birds flying toward Mexico.
During the fall of 1981, the children and I moved to Illinois for a job opportunity for my husband. Although it hurt me deeply to leave Daddy, I told myself he would always be there and my Mom and brothers and sister would take good care of him. I promised myself that I would fly back next summer to spend time with him. By March I was back, not to watch the birds fly in from their winter homes but to hold his huge weather beaten hand while he lay in the stroke induced coma he had been in for days. I could barely withstand the deep sorrow I felt for this once strong and gentle man. When I was young I didn’t know he never had the opportunity to go past eighth grade, only that his wisdom was beyond compare and that he alone built the bridge that connected me forever to Mother Nature herself.
As I bent down to touch his cheek with a kiss, his eyes opened ever so slightly. Those familiar dark brown eyes gazed into mine and I heard him say, “Hello Sugar”, then he drifted back into his peaceful slumber never to awake again.
He is gone now but the afterglow of his light shines in me as I see the beauty of animals through his eyes and feel the mystical heartbeat of nature through his touch.