This all started with people who wanted me to graph my life map’s peaks/valleys and the encouraging me to exercise catharsis on my blog therapy couch. If you’re here, in many ways, you’ve just been promoted to the undesirable role of “Brent’s Shrink.”
We’re here to dive into my fear of abandonment and those folks who stared at my life map’s first valley said that the death of my dad would be a logical place to start. “But that was nearly 40 years ago. I’ve pretty much moved on.”
[Outwardly] “Okay. Sure.”
[In my brain] “(Expletive) you.”
Just know that you’re diving into a moment in time that shreds context. This means that my mom was predictably happy and a good mom…and my dad certainly had his demons. Big, fat, nasty ones, too. But you know people like I do. Maybe that goes without saying. I’ll delete this paragraph later.
There was one over 40-year-old incident that might shed some light on why having a heart attack of a 36-year-old dad would rip a howitzer hole in my American Dream Norman Rockwell childhood stability:
“EDDIE McKINNEY! DO YOU EVEN CARE THAT OUR YARD LOOKS LIKE THE DUMP?!”
My dad’s steel-toed boots toed the rubber while he eyed the catcher’s signal. He’d traded his hard hat for a trucker’s cap that said “Panama City Beach” on it. The unfiltered Camel hung out the side of his mouth. Pabst Blue Ribbon unironically at his feet. He cut his eyes at my mom on our front porch, then back at the catcher’s mitt. My guess is he didn’t want to balk. He took the role of pitching for both scrubby pick-up teams seriously.
“EDDIE! DID YOU HEAR ME?!”
He came to the stretch, then called time-out.
“Yes, Charlotte. I heard you.” Calm. Matter-of-fact.
Mom’s rant was a high-decibel blur of suburban conformity mixed with some previously unknown marital expectations and, for some added flavor, a bit of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. Or in our case, the Hines’. Al, our neighbor, won the hand-painted wooden daisy Yard of the Month award twice one summer. The trophy was being subjected to my mom’s three minute soliloquy along with the neighborhood 9-year-old kids.
Dad made silent eye contact until she punched herself out. We just stood at our positions. We were kids. It was our last standing order.
“I’m going to ask you a question. I want you to think about it before you answer it because it’s going to tell me what I’m going to do with the rest of the afternoon. So…”
“WHAT’S THE QUESTION, EDDIE?”
“Charlotte, are we growing grass or raising kids?” Calm. Matter of fact.
My mom’s teeth clenched. So did her fists. She turned around and slammed the door behind her. Storm. Displeasure communicated.
“So, fellas, what’s the count and how many outs?” Game on.
This wasn’t the first time our yard had embarrassed my mom or been a suburban faux pas of the highest order. On an earlier occasion, Iron Ed decided to let the grass grow for three weeks or so which I don’t think was that much of a stretch for him. Then he set the mower as low as it would go and cut the best putting green he could right there in the front yard. We embedded an old soup can for a hole. We worked on our chips and putts with little whiffle-ball golf balls.
He had a set of golf clubs he’d picked up at a garage sale but I don’t remember him ever going golfing. Likewise, he’d gotten another set of clubs somewhere and some guy at the steel mill cut them to my 9-year-old size. For the next few weeks the neighborhood kids made all sorts of games involving chipping and putting little whiffle-ball golf balls. And divots, massive divots that only 9-year-olds working on their short game can make.
Not long after that, my dad some how, some way, got me a get-out-of-jail-free card from my mom’s Sunday ritual involving Episcopal liturgy and covered-dish lunch to head to a par-3 course near our house.
He grabbed his pitching wedge and putter and put them in the hatchback of his Buick Skylark. “You may want to grab your five-, seven- and nine-irons and your putter and put them in the back, too.” So I did. I had to ask him which was the six and which was the nine. How are you supposed to know which one the line means?
It took about three Johnny Cash songs to get to the course and/or one unfiltered Camel. We went into what passed for a clubhouse and a guy he called Jelly gave us a scorecard and a small shoulder-bag that held four golf clubs.
I set my ball on the oversized rubber tee set in the astroturf tee box.
“What club do you have? Good choice. Now…Set your feet. Head down. Eye on the ball. Breathe. Arm straight in the backswing and follow through.”
The ball clicked off my sawed-off seven iron and I looked up to see the ball bounce twice and roll just past what passed for the fringe onto what passed for the putting green. “Attaboy.” Calm. Matter-of-fact. He rubbed my head and I could feel the pride he didn’t show.
We both wrote a “3” on the scorecard with the little pencil. I don’t remember any of the other scores that day. I do remember him teaching me all the little things people who play golf are supposed to know. Like who goes first at the next hole or who gets to hit next or not to step where a putt is going to go or when to take a flag out and what to do with it once you do. We laughed a lot, mostly at all the shots I took that weren’t as good as that first tee shot.
“Here,” he’d say, throwing another ball at my feet. “Hit another one. We’ll go get that one in a minute. That was terrible.” He rubbed my head and I could feel the patience he did show.
At some point during the round, I made a comment about how much more fun I was having than if I’d gone to church with Mom. Dad’s involvement with church was the variety that pastors often make fun of from the pulpit. He’d show up on Christmas Eve or Easter or whenever they were taking the family photo for the church directory.
“You know, son, I don’t really feel God when I’m at church. But I can tell you this much…: Out here…Cool spring morning…Walking out here with you..maybe on a charter boat with my friends in the gulf…fishing for Marlin all day…at the river with Nana and Grandaddy…getting up early and going fishing…yeah…that’s where I feel closest to God, and that’s the truth.
…Here. Hit this one. That last one was terrible.”
That was the only conversation I remember about church or God with my dad.
He got a lot right, too.
I wonder how much it influenced me then and influences me now.
And I wonder how much all the conversations that didn’t happen after 1979 influenced me then and influenced me now.