Ferris Robinson: Remembering My Father

Friday, June 13, 2014 - by Ferris Robinson

This Father’s Day is the first year I won’t have my Daddy.

This was the first year my sister, mother and I had Valentine's Day without an orchid from him, without his handwritten note and his little drawing of a raccoon under his name.

This year, when I woke up on my birthday, I had to go through the entire day without my parents' traditional rendition of 'Happy Birthday' sung on the telephone.

My mother's subscription to the New Yorker will finally run out. Her father had given it to year for decades, and the year my grandfather died, Daddy renewed her subscription, trying to fill a void for her somehow.

My father, Paul DeWitt Kelly Jr., had many gifts. He was smart as a whip, loved a good joke, and loved people. All people. He couldn't leave a gas station or an emergency room or a poker game without finding a connection with almost every person there. Either they had relatives from Marion County somewhere in their ancestry, had offspring who went to elementary school with one of his children, or served in the same battillion with one of his ancestors. He took the time to find out, and along the way, found out about the trials and tribulations, accomplishments and honors, of that particular person.

He was a prankster and loved nothing more than pulling off a joke. His first cousin and law partner, Zach Kelly, is terrified of snakes; his horror over the very idea of a snake is practically a medical condition. So years ago, when Daddy came upon an enormous dead rattlesnake, he coiled it up in Zach's middle desk drawer. I imagine they lost most of their employees, if not the majority of their client base, that day.

Daddy carried a black comb with him at all times, but rarely used it to comb his hair. He crept up stealthily behind people and ran his thumbnail over the teeth, making a whirring, electrical sound. His crowning moment was the time Philip Strang had just finished running in the rain and still had his headset on.  Philip thought he was being shocked when he heard the sudden sharp noise right in his ear and threw the headset and jumped around hollering during a handball tournament at the Sports Barn.

His last good joke got the best of all of us. He was curled up in front of the fire my husband built (his favorite spot in our house), and asked if we'd read about the ocean-borne bacteria that was closing the eastern seaboard.  My middle son was counting the days until his trip to Charleston to see his new girlfriend, and his face blanched when Daddy said Charleston was completely quarantined. Suddenly I saw that familiar twinkle in Daddy's eye, and knew we'd been had.

He played this joke when he was in the last stages of Alzheimers.

He gave my sister, brother and me many gifts, but the greatest gift was how much he loved our mother. My brother called their marriage an epic love story, and it is so. From the first time he drove her over the Tennessee River toward Jasper, Tenn. and she saw the mountains and rock cliffs and water and gasped, saying to him, "You never told me it was so beautiful!" until their last anniversary when his words were so hard for him to find. He took my sister outside and struggled to say, "October 1." He didn't need to say anything more. My sister knew that day was their 53rd wedding anniversary and that Daddy wanted her to buy something nice for his bride.

His last gift to me was on his last afternoon. We were sitting in his garden in the sun, and I could tell something was terribly wrong. I was on the phone with the doctor and she asked if my father recognized me, and insisted I be certain.

"Mr. Kelly, do you know who that is?" his caregiver asked, nudging him and coaxing him to look up at me.

Daddy looked right at me and his face lit up. His eyes shone as he said, "It's Ferris!"

We celebrated Christmas without him this past year. My husband stoked the fire and fanned the flames and it crackled and flared and did all the things a good fire is supposed to do.

But it did not seem as bright and as magical without Daddy perched on the hearth, telling his stories.



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