Daddy lives in a quaint house in the same bucolic town, on the same country road, next door to the house in which he was born and raised. There is history there. His history. It dances in the rustle of the leaves on the grand oak that's stood sentry on the front yard since before he took his first breath, rolls on the hills he's walked since his days as a little boy -- colors the sunset that's settled each night, like a glorious picture show, just beyond the front porch, more than eight decades old.
This is his home.
It didn't always feel like mine.
Daddy moved there shortly after my mother died, in search of the love, familial bond and comfort he needed when his wife of almost 40 years went away home. I remember the first time I visited him there: the tiny, two-bedroom house was nothing like the abode my parents made for my brother and me in Long Island -- a sprawling, two-story, three-bedroom dwelling with a two-car garage, a formal living room and a finished basement. Mommy insisted all the rooms be white; she believed deeply that color was meant for sofa pillows, bedspreads and tchotchkes on étagères, never walls. She also insisted that living room furniture was for company, not for grubby-handed kids or adults prone to just lay around. Mostly, everyone retreated to their own corners of our place.
It was Bettye's house. Bettye's tastes. Bettye's rules.
Daddy's house is different, though. The walls are a shock of red, gold and baby blue, and, with just two small bedrooms to work with, the place to be is the living room, whether family or guest, friend or foe. It is there that Daddy holds court: He serves snacks and drinks there, debates whether the Mets will ever have a place in the World Series there, folds his laundry there, naps while watching thrillers there. He is the ringmaster of his single-man circus. He's got his own way of living, his own way of entertaining, his own way of being -- a delicious sight to behold.
At no time was this more apparent than the first holiday we celebrated at Daddy's place. With my pots and pans and cooking appliances crowding the suitcases in the trunk and my two overly excited kids in tow -- the girls are, without a doubt, Papa Jimy's biggest fans -- we drove six hours from our place in Atlanta to what I was sure was going to be a cold, sterile affair I'd have to put my "mom back" into as I sought to reconstruct my mom's dinners, which were always these grand, elegant, lush affairs. In my mind's eye, I couldn't envision an easy, relaxed celebration. All I could see was hard work: planning and shopping and plenty of cooking to do, the proper dressing of the table, slaving in service to the guests, without so much as a bite of food until everyone was well into their second helpings. See, orchestrating the holiday festivities was always my mother's domain. What did Daddy know about entertaining guests beyond sitting at the head of my mother's table, waiting for someone to pass the turkey, cranberry jelly and dinner rolls?
As it turns out, Daddy knew plenty. When we walked into his place for the first time, we were jolted not only by the color and warmth of the place, but the work he'd already put into our first family affair without Mommy. Smoked turkey legs and collards, hand-washed and cut, already were simmering on the stove. Yams, sliced and dressed with copious amounts of brown sugar, butter, orange slices, cinnamon and nutmeg, sat on the counter, waiting their turn while four graham cracker-crusted sweet potato pies bubbled in the oven. The refrigerator was stocked with everything a home chef would need to dress a festive table for 10: ingredients for a decadent 11-cheese macaroni and cheese (Mommy's recipe), cornbread stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, roasted lamb shanks, and Cornish hens with giblet gravy because, as it turns out, Daddy is not a fan of turkey. Who knew?
There was no stress.
I didn't have to try to step into my mother's size 10 shoes in a desperate attempt to recreate her magic. Turns out, Daddy had a bit of his own fairy dust, and he took great pleasure in wearing his own shoes -- doing things his way, in his house, as we created a new standard for holiday celebrations with our family.
I learned so much about my father that year -- more, truly, than I had during the course of my lifetime with him. See, Daddy's always been a remarkable man with a huge heart. His hands tell the story -- those thick fingers and wrinkles and scars, and especially the calluses, speak to me. Remind me of how he always used his hands for the helping and the healing all the same. They are, and always have been, an intricate part of meeting the needs. If the boiler was broken or the faucet was acting up, it was those hands that coaxed the heat and water back to life. If the car oil needed changing, it was his hands that would stroke all the lugs and bolts and hold the pan that caught the crude. Little kids, whether familiar or strangers to our driveway, could always count on those hands to fix a flat or an errant set of brakes. Always, he'd do these things with that laugh. Deep. Strong. Loud as thunder.
I live(d) for that laugh, and always count(ed) on those hands. I'd fold my hand perfectly into his palm while we strolled through the mall, knocking back strawberry ice cream cones and handing over checks to pay bills, and picking up tools and "man stuff" for the shed in the backyard. I lived for Fridays, Daddy's day off. Best believe, riding shotgun in his Eldorado was where it was at.
It was our time.
And I watched his hands -- waited for them to give me the lessons. They weren't always obvious, but they never disappointed. This much I know. From them I learned honor and trust and patience, responsibility and truth and appreciation. Hard work. Selflessness. Struggle.
But with Daddy's first holiday as a widower, I learned something altogether new: that my father is capable of being his own man, with his own ideas and his own, independent way to just ... be. No longer is his role black and white: it is filled with color and light, and assures me, by example, that the only thing that is constant is history. The rustle of the leaves. The setting of the sun. The rolling of the hills. They stay the same. But life changes. It breathes as eagerly as those who choose to live it. Daddy didn't settle in. He grew and morphed and continues to daily.
And so I embrace these new memories. The reminder that life is for the living. And I thank Daddy for the lesson. For that blessing.