I don’t write about him much, but it would feel weird not to note this somehow: today is the 25th anniversary of my dad’s passing. I was 16 then (Frank had just turned 11). I’m 41 now, or only a few years younger than he was.
I don’t have lots of pictures of him worth scanning, but here’s one my cousin put on Facebook. My guess is that it’s from 1975 or ’76, taken in our grandparents’ house in Laurel, Mississippi. Short sleeves and shorts suggests summer, so I’d be 5 or 6, and Dad would be approaching 35 or 36. I probably still have that comic book somewhere, to say nothing of the GI Joe on the table:
He’s missed a lot of cool things since 1986, obviously, but the biggest part is Layla. My brother’s daughter is a complete joy, nearly always bubbly and happy in a way that only a child can sustain, and full of love for her friends and family. She’s gotten old enough that even though I only get over there a few times a year, she remembers and immediately hugs me, and becomes obsessed with Uncle Chet reading stories, or putting on her shoes, or going with her places until I have to come back home (actually, I’m usually just the opening act for Aunt Erin). I of course always oblige. She loves our mom to distraction, and would I’m sure be just as fond of the grandfather she never got to meet. Imagining him beaming over her is the first new pang of regret I’ve felt over his loss in a long time.
We have no real shortage of Farmers — Dad’s uncles produced offspring, one of which even lives in Houston with his family; Dad’s sister has two daughters with children of their own — but his absence leaves a hole in the tree that still seems weird despite the fact that it’s utterly normal for parents to die. It’s sad and breaks your heart, sure, but they’re older than we are; they’ll get to threescore and ten well before we will. The difference is timing. It is increasingly less weird that my father is dead, but it will always be weird that he died when he did, at the age he was, and when Frank and I were as young as we were. It’s weird that neither of us ever got to have an adult conversation with him, about women or football or college or anxiety about Vietnam or any of a thousand other things a guy born in 1940 could talk about. Hell, he went to Auburn for veterinary school; imagine the fun that could’ve produced every November.
I do not idealize my Dad. He wasn’t very good at “happy,” but he was probably better at it than his father was. He held ideas about race in the South that were common to men of his age and class, and probably still are. He worked too much, but he did happen to be very good at what he did, and what he did touched a whole lot of small, furry lives in south Mississippi for the 22 years he practiced veterinary medicine there. Lots of those animals belonged to people who could not pay, or who did not look like he did, and near as I could tell he didn’t care.
He did his best with Frank and I, and taught us important lessons in the time he had. We learned to drive from him, in an old Chevy pickup, and to do a job right, and take care of the tools when you finish. He taught us both to shoot, and to be safe with firearms, to take care of them, too. Above all, his example taught us to love and care for those my friend Igor charmingly calls “quadruped-Americans.” More subtly, his support of the Humane Society showed us how to give quietly what we could when we could, and to share skills as well as money.
He was a good dad, and it’s sad that he’s been gone as long as he has. Forty-six seemed pretty young when I was 16; it’s safe to say I think of it as a whole lot younger now that I can see it from here.