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Friday, June 17, 2011

My First Father's Day without My Father

            Like many baby boomers, I have attended the funeral of my father.  He died last October three weeks shy of his 87th birthday. 

At his memorial service, a photo montage sketched the trajectory of his life:  the toddler playing in his sandbox in 1924; the Boy Scout in Washington, D.C. for the 1936 national scout jamboree; the soldier standing in the snow in Montana, where he met and fell in love with my mother; the proud young father holding his babies; the smiling young man in the Stetson; the widower at age 36, standing with his three children; and finally, the elderly man nearing the end of his days. 

I want to tell you a little bit about him, this imperfect man who was my father.    

We grew up in Odessa, in the deserts of West Texas.  My mother died of cancer when I was seven years old, so Daddy was the only parent I knew for most of my growing up years.  It was just me, Daddy, and "the boys,” my brothers Tom and John. 

I was lucky to be the only girl.  Daddy had a tendency to put women on a pedestal.  I was treated a little more gently, a little more indulgently, than my brothers.  Nevertheless, I was expected to meet certain standards.  Most importantly, I was expected to act like a lady.  Ladies didn’t slump.  A lady stood up straight, even if she was the tallest person in the class.  Ladies didn’t use crude language.  Daddy scolded me once for saying, “Oh, crud.”  And heaven forbid that a woman should use a toothpick in public! 

My father, Bill Kimbrough, 1923-2010.
         I wasn't spoiled.  We didn’t have the money for that.  But I do remember one extravagance.  I was 14 years old and my first formal dance was coming up.  I had nothing to wear.  A few days before the dance, Daddy came back from Dallas with a beautiful dress he had bought for me at the Sanger-Harris store there.  Sanger-Harris!  Dallas!  In Odessa, JC Penney was the norm, so this was a special dress indeed.  The dance was one of those miserable adolescent events that most of us have experienced.  The boys milled around on one side of the dance floor, while the girls spent most of their time in the ladies’ room talking about the boys.  I was asked to dance only once that night, by our pastor’s son, and I’m pretty sure his mother put him up to it.  But inside, I felt like a princess.  I was wearing the beautiful dress from Sanger-Harris. 

My father was a lawyer.  He had a storefront office across from the courthouse that he shared with his law partner and best friend, Buddy Rogers.  I've heard people compare him to Atticus Finch, the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are some similarities.  He was a lawyer in a smallish town in the South, a widower raising his young children by himself.  He valued books, education, and character more than expensive cars or clothes.  He was a man of few words, but he meant what he said.  In a place and time when the "n" word was in common usage, we were taught that everyone is worthy of respect.  

Daddy seemed to know a little bit about everything, and a lot about quite a few things.  He was always reading.  He could quote Shakespeare and poets (William Blake was a favorite), but he enjoyed less serious books, too, like the Lord of the Rings series. He also got a kick out of the parody of the series, Bored of the Rings. He tried to hide it from us (he didn’t think it was suitable for children), but we found it and read it anyway. 

 He was always learning, always ready to try his hand at something new.  Over the years his interests included dirt biking and needlepoint, martial arts and mysticism, gardening and Civil War history.  He loved guns and was an award winning sharpshooter, but he had no interest in hunting animals.  He had an active mind.  Even in his last few years of life, he was studying Spanish, swimming, attending a book club, and taking guitar lessons. 

Daddy was an alcoholic.  But at the time of his death he had been sober for some 40 years.  He attended AA meetings at least once a week during those years.  Maybe the AA’s emphasis on a Higher Power led to his lifelong search for spiritual truth.  He read everything from the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao Te Ching to New Age religious thinkers, looking for something he could believe in. 

He had a keen interest in history.  Every Sunday after church we would go out to eat, and over lunch he and my older brother Tom would engage in earnest discussions about the Civil War.  If I had paid more attention back then, I would know a lot more about it now. 

 No matter what our financial situation was, and it was usually precarious, we always took the annual family road trip.   In Yellowstone Park we watched from the safety of the station wagon as a bear knocked open the ice chest and ate up all our food.  We tramped across Custer’s battlefield in Montana.  We gazed up at Mt. Rushmore and saw herds of buffalo in the Badlands of South Dakota.  We drove up Pike’s Peak in Colorado.  Daddy taught me how to fish in a Rocky Mountain stream.  I still remember how excited I was that I caught more fish than my brothers that day. 

In the summer of 1970, just before my senior year in high school, we moved to Austin.  Daddy loved the fact that in Austin, green things actually grew on their own.  He planted everything he could in his back yard in Austin.  Some people might have called it a jungle, even a mess, but he reveled in the lush vegetation, so different from the barrenness of West Texas.  But he took the most delight in the garden spider that appeared every summer.  He kept it fat and happy by tossing grasshoppers into its web and watching as it scuttled over and wrapped it up for a future meal.  Whenever I visited, he led me outside for a demonstration of this. 

Daddy loved music and the arts.  When we were growing up, he dragged us to symphonies and ballets, and eventually I learned to appreciate them.  He could play five musical instruments, some better than others.  In Odessa, I fell asleep many nights to the sound of him playing his guitar in the next room. 

Daddy played the clarinet in the UT Alumni band until he was 80 years old.  Every year they marched at halftime at one of the UT football games.  

He loved bagpipes, too.  He took lessons, practiced, and eventually he became a member of the Capitol City Highlanders Pipe Band.  The leader of the pipe band played at his memorial service. 

In later years, Daddy got back to playing the guitar.  He ordered one custom-made from Spain. He didn’t care about the clothes he wore or the car he drove, but he wanted the finest guitar money could buy. Sometime in his last year of life, he couldn’t remember the chords anymore. But he still went to his guitar lessons, to listen as his instructor played the flamenco songs he loved so much. 

 Daddy loved wildlife and animals. In his last year, when there wasn’t much he could do anymore, he wanted his armchair positioned so that he could watch the birds outside.  He kept field guides for birds and insects by his chair, along with a pair of binoculars.

            The last time we spoke are in my thoughts today.  When I walked into the room where he lay on the bed he would not rise from again, this man with the booming voice and the loud, hearty laugh could barely croak, “I love you.”  I showed him the pajamas I brought for him.  I know he couldn’t care less about pajamas, but he smiled and whispered, “Beautiful.”

This was the father I knew.  This was the man who taught me to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, to feel the joy in the little things, to appreciate the humor and irony in life, to accept the good and the bad.  People always said I look a bit like him.  I don't know about that, but I do know I carry much of him on the inside.  

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