December 26, 2017

my inscrutable daddy

There's a pronunciation of "daddy" that is particular to the area of North Carolina where I live.  We say "dead-ee," with the emphasis on "dead".  My wife had never heard this before moving here and I think it still amuses her, especially when I get exasperated with the man at least ten times during any family get-together and say it loudly and plaintively.  "Dead-yyyyyyyyyyyy, god damn it!"

The man is a walking paradox, as peculiar a mixture of curious, infuriating, brilliant, culturally stunted, intentionally provocative, stubborn, and scientifically inquisitive as you'll find on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.  Enigma.  That's the word.  He grew up poor in a blue-collar family in a small town.  His own daddy left when he was nine, and my kindly but formidable Grandma worked as a nurse at the hospital and reared four children by herself after his departure.  My daddy and his slightly younger brother were thieves, liars, outright hooligans.  They endured weekly church, but forged their morals and principles among the neighborhood kids, their places in the pecking order firmly fixed.  


Yet in this setting, my daddy grew up to become a good man.  He taught himself to play the guitar and practiced until his fingers bled.  He dropped out of high school at 16 to work because of the family's poverty.  He was a breakfast cook at a truck stop.  He walked to and from work each day.  On the weekends, he played the guitar in a band at sleazy dives around the county, for under-the-table pay.  


His prize possessions at age 20 were a 1976 Stratocaster and an old algebra textbook.  He never got that far in school.  In this day and age, his intelligence would have been identified early-on and he would have been fast-tracked through some advanced academically gifted program, provided with opportunities and steered toward becoming a research scientist or senior electrician or structural engineer.  He is a drop-out and has done blue-collar jobs all his life because of it.  He has no problem with this worldview and his place in it.  There is a perverse, twisted pride there.  


But while he toes the party line of believing universities are assembly lines for wrong-thinking people, the man values knowledge over most things in life, second only to hard work.  He watches documentaries for fun.  He worked with me in early childhood every moment he could, teaching me algebra, reading me fables from a tattered omnibus collection that was missing its cover, and securing a beat-up old upright piano with some of the band money so he could teach me to play.  In between those precious spare moments, he rose before the sun, commuted, and then worked 12-hour days, welding mobile home frames and coming home exhausted, eating dinner and falling asleep in a recliner.  His hands are permanently calloused and scarred.  On weekends, he took correspondence courses in electronics and learned new country music songs for the band by sitting in front of the stereo with a 45 and his guitar.  He listened twice and then knew how to play the song.  He used to read everything he could get his hands on, before his eyesight betrayed him.  My daddy is over 60 now.  It is said that he has been through at least nine pairs of cheaters over the past few years, but accidentally loses or breaks them within a week of purchase, so he's given up on reading, even large print.  He prefers the documentaries to books now.


We try once in a great while to have dinner together with him and my stepmother, but it usually takes the form of Christmas dinner each year.  He brings a grotty 24-ounce coffee mug from a gas station and drinks black coffee the entire time, requiring several refills.  He goes outside onto the porch when he needs to smoke.  


He came to hear Messiah this year.  It was his first symphony.  He sat in the audience in the ornate concert hall and left his ball cap on the entire time.  He didn't know better, and wouldn't have cared if he had.


I'm his only child.  I think he likes the curses-like-a-sailor version of me better than he did the Christian straight-laced version from years ago.  To him, I'm more relatable now.  I'm more like his co-workers.  I rolled up the ankle of my right pant leg and showed him the socks my wife had tucked into my stocking.  He smiled and said, "I'll be damned," which is his stock response to anything when he doesn't know what to say.  Our politics and social beliefs are still diametrically opposed, and he used to enjoy pushing my buttons until I got angry, but in recent years he's figured out that we have a much better time of things if he refrains.  I feel sorry for him.  I think it was his favorite pastime.  


We sat down to dinner yesterday at 2:00, which is when a 1:00 dinner in the South begins.  We have an annual impulse to feed him something he's never had before, to make up for his having to eat my Grandma's desiccated turkey growing up, an experience not unlike masticating slightly damp sand.  We've served duck once, Cornish hens, good ham, a fair amount of prime rib with Yorkshire pudding ... and this year, a tenderloin.  My wife fretted over possibly ruining the tenderloin.  My daddy insists each year on our serving asparagus.  We introduced him to asparagus and now he can't get enough of it.  It's an exotic vegetable to him.  So my wife made asparagus bundles wrapped in prosciutto this year.  He had never had prosciutto, either.  We want to give him everything he never had growing up, the things that have never existed for him in the grocery store over all these years because they are for Other People.  


The tenderloin was perfect.  "I'll be damned," he said after the first bite.  "This is real tenderloin.  I mean, actual real tenderloin.  Damn.  Why'd y'all spend that much?  I know what they cost!  Mmh."  I said, "Shut up and eat.  Merry Christmas."  My wife said, "Here, Tommy, pass the sauce for the meat," handing him a bowl of fragrant port reduction with caramelized shallots and bacon.  "God damn, that's good," he said with his mouth full.  He tucked his left arm under his right, trying not to be obvious while he slipped a bite of tenderloin to one of the dogs.  My wife scolded him.  He tried to look innocent.  "What?  What did I do?"  My stepmother stayed quiet and just shook her head.  We pulled our Christmas crackers and wore the paper crowns while we ate, then adjourned to the living room for gift-opening.


All of the gifts were gift cards, except for a PBS documentary for my daddy.  


He writes the best Christmas cards.  He writes in blocky print and always puts something witty, ironic, touching, and sappy to the point of satire.  They are one of the places where his intellect shows.  My daddy, the scientist, the engineer, the professor hidden inside a shirt with his name on it and steel-toed work boots.

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