To write about Daddy is a more ambiguous task than to write about Mama. Daddy and I didn’t have what you would confuse with a warm, sitcom type of father/son relationship. We never tossed a ball in the backyard. Conversely, it wasn’t a violently adversarial relationship. He was my father and I was his son and as such we fulfilled a few of the roles played by such in this culture. I was misunderstood, he was exasperated. It worked out pretty well for us.
Here’s an early memory. I couldn’t have been much older than a toddler. I was fussy, crying and wanting to be with Mama, clinging mama’s boy that I was. I remember Mama carrying me into the living room and handing me to Daddy, who was sitting in his rocker. Clearly, Mama had work to do in the kitchen, and she couldn’t do it with me hanging on her. I struggled to get out of Daddy’s lap so I could run back to Mama.
This event reveals a paradigm for my relationship with my parents. Even when I was no longer sitting in his lap or struggling to get away from him, I always felt a little anxious if it were just him and me together. I would return to Mama as quickly as I could.
I think it is fair to say that we were afraid of Daddy, we being his seven children. He wasn’t especially rough with us, but he was big and loud (due, I later discovered, to a slight hearing deficiency) and just not especially gentle. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
As I write this, I am conflicted because I don’t want to paint too negative of a picture. Let me try to get across a few things via negativa. Daddy was not one to go on rampages and if he yelled, it wasn’t an out of control sort of yelling and there weren’t derogatory names called or threats made. He certainly never threatened or yelled at our mother. He was not a violent man in that regard. He drank a beer maybe half a dozen times a year, usually after a day of especially strenuous farm work (hay hauling for example) or perhaps at a wedding. I never saw him drunk. So as I tell the following story, I want these things to be understood and recognized.
I personally have no memory of Daddy exercising corporal punishment on my person, but the potential for it was always there. I do recall a incident of corporal punishment that my youngest brother (the one directly older than me) received. I was in first or second grade so my brother was in the fifth or sixth grade. Something happened on the school bus that involved a note passed. My brother had written it. I never learned what was in the note, but it apparently was enough to get him into bad trouble. The night my parents confronted him about the note, I was sent to bed (my brother and I still shared a bedroom). I have only the vaguest memories of what I heard coming from my parents’ bedroom so I won’t try to recreate that. I do remember my brother coming to bed and showing me the stripes on his butt and thighs from our father’s belt. I may have cried harder than he did. I know I cried longer because Mama had to come into our room to calm me down. I made her look at my brother’s stripes and asked if he needed to go to the doctor. She assured me he didn’t and I eventually settled down. The only other thing I remember from that night is my brother assuring me that he deserved it.
As hard as it is to think and write about that night, I still have to emphasize that this is the only time I remember my father whipping anyone. I don’t have a sense that punishment was something Daddy relished or else I think he would have found more reason to practice it. Tales from friends’ families, wherein fathers did relish the power of punishment, suggest that I’m right about that. I have more a sense that Daddy wanted us to grow up acting right and punishment was a duty to be stoically carried out. I also recognize that I only knew my father from his late forties onward. As I wrote about my mother, he may have mellowed by the time I came along. Listening to some of my older siblings, they may have experienced something different.
Here’s another story from my first grade year to counter- balance the terror of the previous story. We were the only family with children on the western edge of the Giddings Independent School District. In fact, we were a few yards beyond it, living as we did just over the county line. Mama or Daddy had to drive us a mile or two down the highway to catch the school bus. One morning when Daddy took us — it must have been winter because Daddy waited with us in his pick-up instead of simply dropping us off — I was studying for a spelling test I was to take that day. I was nervous about it because we were being tested on the longest word given to us so far. I still remember the word: family. It was three whole syllables!
Daddy asked, “What are you nervous about?”
I said, “We have to spell ‘family.’ It’s a long word.”
“Ach, that’s not so hard,” he said. “Spell it.”
I spelled it.
“See? You can do it.”
Now, if you read that bit of dialogue with a soft-spoken, Robert Young sort of voice, go back and read it with a slightly rougher tone, tinged ever so slightly with the German inflection of a central Texas Lutheran community. It’s not as warm and fuzzy as it appears in print, but it was Daddy trying to be encouraging. Years ago, I read that someone did a study that showed that children who grew up seeing their parents read grew up to be readers, too. The study stressed that children had to see the parent, that homes wherein parents read, say, in their bedroom, out of sight, had children less inclined to read for pleasure. If this is true, it’s my father who influenced me to become a reader. I grew up in a home of Louis L’Amour and Max Brand paperbacks and one of my strongest images of Daddy is of him in his rocker, reading. Although I never got into the western genre much, I would try from time to time, in an effort to make some connection to Daddy. Short of that, Daddy could almost always count on a few paperbacks for Christmas and his birthday.
In the summer, Mama would take us to the public library and one time, I checked out a rather thick western paperback. I don’t recall the name but I do know I checked it out to share with Daddy. I read a chapter or two, but didn’t get very far into it, but Daddy read it. After I had turned it back in, Daddy came to me and asked if I had read it. I told him I hadn’t and he said he was just wondering because it “got pretty rough in places.” It was one our more soft-spoken moments. He didn’t say any more about it but now I would love to know that book’s title, find it, and read it. What was so “rough” in it that Daddy actually attempted to talk to me about it? I wish I would have had a better relationship with him at the time (how old was I? 11? 12?) and had felt more free to ask what he meant. I really would like to know what sort of conversation we would have had if I had read it.
I felt weak in comparison to Daddy’s strength. I’m talking about physical strength. He was a hard worker, a farmer and rancher when that made enough money, a carpenter when he needed to supplement the farming. I have a feeling of powerlessness in my childhood memories of Daddy. I was powerless to stand up to him, to help him, to be like him, to make him proud of me.
In one of my earliest attempts at journal keeping, I remember comparing my dreams with what my two oldest brothers were doing. They were truck drivers and I wanted to be a cartoonist. Their lives seemed so much more manly than anything I aspired to. I suppose I received mixed messages on this front because I do recall Daddy telling some visitors with some amount of awe and pride in his voice, “I don’t know how he does it. He sits there and can make it look just like in the book.” He never discouraged me from my pursuits, he just never directly encouraged them and I suppose that’s what left me feeling like he was more baffled than proud about my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up.”
I think it’s somewhat common for sons to want to please their fathers. I was no different, so when I did receive even indirect praise like that above, it stuck out in my memory and made me hungry for more. It was a hunger not satisfied in my family. We just weren’t demonstrative in that way. I have a memory of helping Daddy put up electric fence by the hog pens and he sent me to the shed for some particular tool. While I was there, I saw something else that I knew we’d need and brought it too.
“That’s using your head, Sonny.”
That’s all he said and he even said it a little like he was surprised that I would think ahead. Still, I hold onto that brief compliment as if he’d said I was the best son in the world. I can still feel the pride of the moment. If only for that moment, Daddy thought I was smart.
I should say that Daddy had a sense of humor, too. I didn’t always get it because it was a little dry. It wasn’t until I was an adult and tried joking with kids with a deadpan face that I realized this. I have seen on children’s faces the look that we must have had sometimes because we couldn’t tell if Daddy was serious. Add to that his loudness so he sounded like he was yelling all the time, and I’m sure we just seldom got his jokes. I have memories of sometimes feeling really put upon by Daddy and his stupid rules when I would look up and see him with a sly smile. I suppose it was most confusing, because he really was serious about keeping my hair cut above my ears and that I should always wear a belt (in the seventies it was cool not to wear a belt). Still, he had one proverb that I carry with me: “You need a little foolishness to make the day go by.” Probably his best friend outside the family was an older Mexican man and they did a lot of carpenter odd jobs together. I worked with them one summer (my first paying job) and I didn’t always understand what they were saying or doing, but they seemed to have a good time throughout the day.
An embarrassing story comes to mind. I laugh as I think about the one time Daddy caught me masturbating as a young adolescent. I don’t now how I didn’t hear his approach because he had a heavy footstep that could be heard from one end of the house to the other, but he was suddenly at my bedroom door and I hastily tried to cover what I was doing, none too subtly, I’m sure. He didn’t say anything, just had this knowing grin on his face. He told me what he’d come in to tell me and left again. He never mentioned the sexual activity. Then again, we never really spoke about sex anyway.
Daddy was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was in the eighth grade. This caused some tension in the house, some worry, but if my parents were gifted in any one area, it was that they knew how to be nonchalant in the face of deadly situations. I never really understood the seriousness of what was going on until years later. He went through chemotherapy and radiation therapy and a colostomy surgery and even more than a week’s stay in the hospital didn’t impress upon me how serious this all was. I mean to say Mama was good at not letting us worry!
There was a weekend while Daddy was in the hospital that my closest brother and I were supposed to go visit him there. We had been responsible for keeping the livestock fed after school and we certainly weren’t allowed to skip school to go to the hospital. Mama went to Austin everyday to sit with him, but she came home each night to take care of the two sons she had at home and to make sure we were taking care of the farm. Well, both of us boys came down with the flu that weekend so I never did get to see Daddy in the hospital. While we were in bed burning with fever, though, a cow decided to have a calf on the edge of the stock tank on a cold, rainy Sunday morning. There Mama was, Daddy in the hospital, two boys sick in bed, and a cow calving in the water. She got a neighbor to help her with the cow, but it must have been frustrating for her, all her men unable to help her.
I remember being excited all day at school the day Daddy was scheduled to come home. I think I envisioned some sort of heartwarming homecoming, sort of “what if Pa Walton had been away from Walton’s Mountain for a week.” It wasn’t exactly that, but it was about as heartwarming as we got. I ran up to his bedside when I got home and said, “Welcome home, Papa.” (We sometimes call him “Papa” and I’m sure I felt that was more Waltons-like at the time.) He smiled at me and said hi. We had an awkward moment and then I probably went out to do my chores. That was pretty much that.
Daddy survived his bout with colon cancer and lived another ten years. I do think the cancer worried me just enough to make me realize that, despite our tenuous relationship, I did love him.
Daddy died when I was 25. About that time, I was at the end of my first round of struggling with my homosexuality and resolving to become heterosexual. He and I certainly never discussed it as it would be another six years before I came around to discussing it with anyone. As I wrote about Mama, I don’t see him as the sort who would have cut off all communication (whatever communication we had) because of it, but I’m sure it would have been difficult for him. There are times when I can picture him being more bemused by it than angry, but if he would have reached that point, I doubt it would have been his first reaction. Since we never spoke about sex in any context, we may never have spoken about my sexuality, period. It’s hard to project back onto that relationship.
I will close with one observation that mystifies me some. My family isn’t one for nicknames. The names our mother gave her children (and she is the one who named us — Daddy supposedly told her “I can call them whatever you call them”) were the names we were called, period. Whatever that says about our family, there it is.
But Daddy had a nickname. It was one I only heard from his aunts (I had a number of great aunts on Daddy’s side of the family) and Daddy’s younger brother, who gave him the name. Daddy’s given name was Alfred and in our German context it was pronounced something like Ah-fred. Daddy’s younger brother mispronounced it Oppie. (That’s Ah-pee, not Oh-pee like the kid on Andy Griffith.) Apparently, the whole family picked up on it and used it.
I don’t think I ever got to know Oppie. It’s a cute name, a boyish name. Daddy was 46 when I was born, already a grandfather. I just can’t imagine a nickname sticking in our family unless it somehow fits and, to me, Daddy never really seemed like an Oppie.
I wish I knew the side of Daddy that fit the nickname. I wish I saw the boyish side of him that would have made it stick until he died. (When my oldest brother called Daddy’s youngest brother that Daddy had died, our uncle asked in disbelief, “Oppie?”) I can’t help but wonder, had Daddy lived farther into my adulthood, if maybe I would have learned to know this boyish side. If he hadn’t dropped dead suddenly at the age of 71, would we have seen him revert to a childlikeness that would have explained the nickname to me?
I suppose we always would like more time with our loved ones, but 25 years wasn’t enough for me to get to know Oppie.
And I’m pretty sure that’s a loss worth grieving.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.