My father had to learn adult lessons as a very young child. His father ended his own life in 1939, when the Great Depression hit, leaving the family with staggering gambling debts for his widow to pay off. My grandmother worked hard to pay off these debts by being the solo operator of a small French café in Southwest Louisiana. My father was eight years old at the time. He worked to help his mother out with household expenses. He swept out the “picture show,” as it was called back then, for 15 cents and shined shoes on Saturdays for meager wages.
My grandmother later showed me a picture of a snazzy car, my father’s first, for which he paid cash at age 15. Dad always seemed to find a way to prevail against all odds. He had a strong sense of faith, courage, and belief in himself. He used to talk about how much fun it was when he had money to see one of the picture shows. He took a baked sweet potato for a snack. Later, he would carefully select the recipient of the potato skin, which he would send flying through the air when the show was dark. He would clap his hands together and bend over with laugher as he retold these tales of old.
My father was killed tragically in 1999, just after he retired. After the funeral, my mother asked me if I wanted anything of his. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes. All I want, if no one else does, is his old shoebox that he used to shine shoes when he was a little boy.” The shoebox, with its faded, blue-painted sides and well-worn shoe rest made shiny by years of use, now resides in my closet. When I am sad and miss my Dad greatly, I visit the shoebox. I run my fingers along his initials, L.D., carved in the shoe rest, and I remember him. One day, my daughter Colette found me sitting on the floor in my closet, staring at the shoebox. She just sat down with me, wrapping her small arms around me. Neither of us said a word for a long time, but when we left there, I felt renewed and loved. Colette stayed close to me that evening. She asked if we could go do something fun, so we did.
When I feel overwhelmed, I go to the shoebox and remember all the adversity my father overcame to become who he was: someone of courage who was never too busy to offer an encouraging word, a bit of mischief, or a kind deed. He used to send me to my uncle’s lumber yard to buy striped paint or square nails when I was but five years old. He once encouraged me to plant a small carrot patch. I could hardly wait to pull up the carrots with their bushy bright green leaves that promised beautiful orange roots hidden underground. Lo and behold, was I ever disappointed with my carrots. They were all gnarled like arthritic fingers. I heard laughter and saw my dad in the window, laughing loudly at my carrots and me. He told me they were crooked because I didn’t plant the seeds standing upright. Of course, I took his advice and replanted them to little avail, but I was the one who laughed the second go-round.
He has always been an inspiration to me, but it seems that after his death I am very aware of my need to emulate this person I called Dad. When I feel I cannot face the challenge before me, I picture that small boy shining shoes, and once again I know I can “move that rubber tree plant” by the grace of God. Yes, I tapped to that song as a child, on stage in a purple satin costume and silver tap shoes laced with matching purple satin ribbons. Even now, I sing that song when I need a bit of positive self-talk, and lean on those memories of my Dad when I feel weak.
It really stung that I never got to see him one last time. I remembered the last time I did see him: I’d spent hours selecting just the right Christmas gift for him instead of starting the six-and-a-half hour drive home to Louisiana. How I wish I would have spent those extra hours with him instead.
I really got tired of crying at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected places. Why in the world did I burst into tears when I parked my Jeep before going shopping at Kroger? It was downright embarrassing. I knew I had to do something different. I bought the red racing bicycle of my dreams because my Dad loved red and loved exercise. I’d ride and cry until I either broke the chain going up a hill or absolutely wore myself out. Then there would be the very long ride back home. I would finally quit crying about my broken heart, totally distracted by the killer pain in my thighs.
Being my Dad’s daughter, I rode as fast as I could and set a goal that seemed impossible: to ride the Multiple Sclerosis ride of 175 miles in only two days. I raised a lot of money because I guilted the neuroscience doctors with whom I worked, putting names to all the patients we’d taken care of for the last several years. On the day of the race, I had only two goals: to not be last and to not fall down. I did it and had a blast! Each rider’s age was written in black across their left calf. A guy with a linebacker build less than half my age kept trying to draft off me. He was a silly boy to think that was aerodynamically possible and to think that I’d let him try it. Heck no, that would never do. It was easy for me to climb hills, so I waited until I saw a climb ahead and rode up alongside him. “Ain’t happening,” I told him before I raced up the hill. I crossed the finish line, dismounted, took a seat in the grass, and sipped on a cool bottle of water. I almost got tired of waiting to see the linebacker finish the race. I mean, what did he do? Take a nap? I checked the time and place board: he did finally finish, but I beat him by a mile. It was then I realized my Dad was still in my heart that day. He had pushed me through that race, and pushed me into cycling in the first place. I’d made a whole new set of friends in the cycling world, and my Dad was to thank for them.
My daughter Colette was only three years old when my Dad died, yet she has so many characteristics of his, including his sense of humor. I delight in every time she does something he would have done or makes a joke he would have made to get a smile. I love that man and miss him every day, but I also see him in little ways all around me.
Happy Father’s Day to the best guy I know.
Your forever daughter,