I remember a conversation with my father that must have happened when I was about three or four years old. The memory has the hazy-around-the-edges quality of a dream, and if challenged, it's possible that what my mind has so carefully constructed and returned to again and again over the years could collapse in a moment. But since my memory is generally reliable, I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt on this one.
I must have been praying the typical "God bless Mommy, and God bless Daddy, and God bless . . ." of most childhood prayers. Or I could have been chattering away about people who loved me. Either way, I know I had made my way through a list of the people who came most easily to mind when my dad interjected.
"You know who really loves you?"
I must have blinked. I think I might have said, "He does?" even as I was thinking to myself, "Of course he does!" Didn't he romp through the house on all fours giving me pony rides on his back (complete with whinnying, I might add)? Didn't he let me curl up next to him in his recliner while he read me story after story after story? He even did voices when he read, making Lambert the Sheepish Lion come to life there in a small living room in West Texas. As I ran through these things in my head, I realized my dad was right--Dad Loy REALLY loved me. I started walking taller whenever he was around.
My grandfather was the youngest in a big Texas farming family that somehow kept their land through the Great Depression. He once broke his arm falling off a horse while working cattle and had to sit out a football season to let the injury heal. He walked country roads to a one-room schoolhouse before attending the high school where he met my grandmother. It made him cringe for her to tell it, but the story goes that she once went to a basketball game with another boy, and my grandfather had someone call the boy outside over the loudspeaker and then punched him to let him know that Patsy would not be going out with him again. That story captures more passion and violence than I would have guessed him capable of; by the time I knew him, he was a balding accountant who wore tan coveralls around the house and ate mustard on his biscuits every Saturday morning.
Dad Loy served me Coke with breakfast in the morning, and if he paced while I drank it because he thought we would be late to school, I forgave him his anxiety (we were usually a half hour early; I can't think of a single time we were late). He regularly drove more than 20 miles one way in the early morning and again in the afternoon to take me to and from the rural school where I attended sixth through eighth grade. I loved when he picked me up because he would stop at the convenience store around the corner and give me a dollar to spend: 50 cents for Chili-Cheese Fritos and 50 cents for a can of Coke. He never commented on my selections, and he never asked for a sip.
On the second and fourth Friday of every month, he would pick me up while my grandmother picked up my youngest brother from his school on the other side of the district, and we would converge at their house and have dinner before loading into the van modified with a lift for our middle brother's wheelchair. Then we would drive to a meeting spot halfway between my grandparents' house in Abilene and my dad's in Fort Worth, switch drivers to complete the journey, and do the same process in reverse on Sundays. I spent many, many hours of my life riding shotgun next to my grandfather. Most of the time I read a book or looked out the window, lost in my imagination. Sometimes we talked. I tried, in the way of a soft-hearted girl who had read Charlotte's Web at an early age, to convince him to stop hunting; he patiently explained how the deer population would overrun the farmers if hunters didn't do their part to keep things in balance. I didn't realize until later how hunting trips gave him time together with his friends in the mysterious world of men and all things masculine, nor did I register the importance of the skill and daring of the hunt and the stories around the campfire afterwards. I still hate seeing the pictures of the deer they killed, but I understand the ritual a bit better now.
Dad Loy gave up smoking because I was allergic (I'm sure there were other reasons, but I that's how I remember it). One day the Marlboro Reds were just gone, and that was that. I remember a time when a six-pack of Budweiser would dwindle one at a time until it was replaced the following week, but that stopped one day, too. I never saw another beer in his refrigerator or in his hand. He liked his burgers well done plus about ten minutes on the Old Smokey. He lit sparklers for me and sat on his porch and churned peach ice cream on the Fourth of July, and he and I ate Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies every night I ever spent at his house.
My grandfather did the dishes every night; I can't think of a single time my grandmother took that chore. For years before he let her talk him into buying a washer and dryer, he would take their clothes to the laundromat around the corner and wash, dry, and fold them himself. I loved when he would take me along because he would let me play in the rolling basket between loads.
I went to see my grandparents a lot when I was in college, and Dad Loy was usually the one who noticed my car inspection needed to be updated or my tires were low and made sure I was in good shape before I left again. Every time I visited, he called me into a separate room and slipped a $20 bill or two into my hand and said, "I'm sure you can think of a way to use this." He continued that routine long after I passed into adulthood, and I always hugged him and told him I appreciated it.
Dad Loy didn't come to my wedding because he was recovering from heart bypass surgery. He was close enough to the end of the recovery period and doing well enough that he probably could have managed it, but if the doctor said "six weeks of rest" and the wedding was during week five, well, there was no discussion: it hadn't been six weeks since the surgery. After my grandmother had a stroke, he took care of her in their home for more than a decade. He kept track of appointments and managed complicated medication regimens and dealt with bodily functions that must have embarrassed both of them at first, and he did it all with a quiet tenderness that made me rethink my understanding of love.
Dad Loy is the antithesis of anything showy or flashy. He is a worker, a saver, and the embodiment of three important P's: practical, prepared, and prompt. The motto he proclaimed with almost religious fervor for years has been, "If it is to be, it is up to me," and he is a true believer. I tend more towards the "It takes a village" approach, but I respect the way his life shows the wisdom of self-reliance, initiative, and hard work.
When he gets frustrated in a conversation, he simply says, "Well . . ." and holds up a hand like a cyclist signaling a stop, and all discussion is over. I've only seen him angry once: my cousin and I put some powder with laxative properties we bought at a joke shop into my youngest brother's cherry limeade (I still contend he should have known better than to drink anything after we volunteered to make a special trip to get him something from Sonic). When Dad Loy found out, he raised his voice to me for the one and only time I can remember; his disappointment that I would do something so deceptive and foolish still makes me shudder with guilt.
My grandmother died this past March, and he took it in his usual stoic way. His mind is slipping now, gradually picking up speed, but he knows exactly how many days have gone by since her passing. We have the same conversation over and over again--the younger cousins counted eight rotations of one particular dialogue with me at Christmas--and he sometimes confuses me with my sisters or cousin or even my oldest daughter.
When I talked to him this morning on his 90th birthday, I thought we were in one of those moments when he said, "Remember when Emily was just a kid and went to New England and grew up? Can you remember that?" I thought at first he was talking about my oldest daughter, who was five when we moved to Connecticut and 14 when we moved back. Then I realized he WAS talking about me, and more than that, he nailed it. I did grow up during my time away. I hope he is proud of who I have become, in spite of the Yankee tendencies I've picked up that surely must make him cringe.
My father was right all those years ago. My grandfather--the man who watched the weather for Connecticut so that we would have something to talk about when I called; who is one of the least demonstrative people I've ever met but whose face (or his voice when on the phone) never fails to light up with a smile when he sees me; who never once let me ring the doorbell at his house because he was always watching through the dining room window for me to arrive; who in the midst of dementia and all that goes along with reaching such an advanced age can still pull me up short with how well he knows me--that man REALLY loves me. Thank God for him and for his 90 years on this earth. I hope he's around to watch me grow up some more.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.