My father was born on June 14, 1913—Flag Day. Each year, when he was still alive, he’d drive down the main street of our small town and point to all the flags flying and say, “They’ve put the flags out for my birthday again.” He took great pleasure in saying this; it was just a little joke that delighted him.
Of course, anyone who’s read my work already knows my father was a man with plenty to be bitter about, but he was also a man who was eager for happiness. He was always on the lookout for something that might please him. He was the man whose own carelessness had resulted in the farming accident that cost him both of his hands, but he was also the man who could be quick to laugh and to enjoy the company of others. He could whip my legs with his belt when I misbehaved, and he could call me “honey,” and pet my head with the curved edge of his prosthetic pincers when I needed comfort. He was, simply put, a man of contradictions. To be perfectly frank, there were times when I thought I hated him, and I told him so, and there were other times when I loved him dearly.
Perhaps, above all, he loved farming his land. I’m still mystified over the fact that when I was starting third grade, he gave it up. My mother had lost her teaching job in our native southeastern Illinois, and upon my father’s insistence, she looked for another school. Arbor Park School District 145 in Oak Forest, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago, ended up hiring her. My father leased our eighty acres, and we moved five hours north. My mother told me after he was dead that he thought we needed the extra money, but she said she thought we’d have been all right without her teaching salary. I’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, but I do know he gave up something he truly loved for the sake of his family.
I never saw him happier than I did when, six years later, my mother retired from teaching and we moved back downstate. He was back in business as a farmer, and though the work eventually demanded more from his body than he was able to give, he gave in reluctantly at the end. His heart, diseased, simply wouldn’t let him go on.
I’m thinking about him on this day before his birthday. If he were still here, I have no doubt he’d make the same corny joke about the flags, and I’d allow him that pleasure. When I was younger, I couldn’t appreciate the burden he carried with him after his accident. How many times did he berate himself for not turning off the power take-off before trying to clear the clog from his picker’s shucking box? How many times did he relive the agonizing minutes with the snapping rollers mangling his hands before he could attract the attention of another farmer passing by the field? How often did he wish he could go back in time and make a different choice? Still each morning he put on his prostheses and he got to work.
I think of him every time something gets hard. I think of what he always told me when I said I couldn’t do something: Can’t never did anything. He taught me determination and endurance. He gave me fire. He also showed me how to take pleasure in the smallest things. All of this is necessary for the life of the writer. We keep going in spite of all that stands in our way. We keep going because we love what we do. We find things to delight us even in the darkest times. When we fail, we try again. The trying makes us better. It makes our writing stronger. It makes us stronger. There was pain and suffering and sorrow in my relationship with my father, but there was also the repeated attempt to be a better father, a better son. We didn’t always succeed, but we kept trying, and who can ask more than that?