My father died eight years ago, and holidays, those special occasions we always celebrated together, are still hard. The gifts he gave me over my lifetime are numerous, so many I can’t name them all. I still have the cards from every orchid he sent, always showing up my husband.
Valentines Day is always tough. My sister, mother and I are still not used to Valentine’s Day without an orchid from him, usually accompanied with a 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 together on the telephone.
When my mother’s subscription to The New Yorker finally runs out, I will be the one to renew it.
Her father had given it to her each year for decades, and the year my grandfather died, Daddy renewed her subscription, trying to fill a void for her somehow.
My father 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 he discovered they had mutual relatives from Marion County, had offspring who went to elementary school with one of his children, or their ancestors had served in the same battalion in one war or another. 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 to the core, and loved nothing more than pulling off a joke. Daddy’s first cousin and former law partner is terrified of snakes; his horror over the very idea of a snake is practically a medical condition. So a few years ago when Daddy came upon an enormous dead rattlesnake, he coiled it up in Zach’s middle desk drawer. I imagine their law firm lost most of their employees, if not the majority of their client base, that day.
My father carried a black comb with him at all times, but rarely used it to comb his hair. Instead he crept up stealthily behind people and ran his thumbnail over the comb’s teeth, making a whirring, electrical sound. His crowning moment came during a crowded handball tournament. My friend had just finished running in the rain and still had his headset on; when he heard the sudden sharp noise right in his ear he thought he was being electrocuted. He hurled the headset across the glass wall and hollered bloody murder as my father beamed.
Daddy’s 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 my father’s eye, and knew we’d been had. My father played this final joke when he was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s.
My father 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 was so. From the first time he drove her over the Tennessee River toward the little town that would be her home and she gasped at the majesty of the mountains and rock cliffs and water, 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 last fall 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 he wanted her to buy something nice for his bride.
His final gift to me was on his last real afternoon. We were sitting in the 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.
“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 my name with certainty and pleasure.
I will never forget that particular gift. Ever.
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Ferris Robinson is the author of three children’s books, “The Queen Who Banished Bugs,” “The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds,” and “Call Me Arthropod” in her pollinator series. “Making Arrangements” is her first novel. “Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity” is a collection of true tales about man’s best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com and you can download a free pollinator poster there. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror.