My father was a tidy man. He kept his tools in order. Bridles for the horses hung neatly from the proper pegs. He oiled his saddle regularly. Yes, Daddy was a cowboy. During his lifetime, cattle ranching in the Arizona desert wasn't easy. The droughts were long. The rains came rarely. He was no stranger to harsh scarcity. He also was no stranger to boundless joy.
I learned a lot from my father: How to sense the coming rain hours before its arrival. How to cool a branding iron in the sand. How to treat all people with equal respect whether they were convicted felons on parole or United States Senators on the campaign trail. I also learned from him that exuberance can sometimes get messy and that the mess is really okay as long as you eventually clean it up.
It was a particularly hot summer day when Daddy announced that he and I were going to the foot of Yarnell Hill to buy a lug of peaches. Apparently we were going to surprise my mother by bringing peaches home for her to can. I would later learn that a lug of peaches adds up to quite a few pieces of fruit weighing a lot. We would later that day arrive home with more than a lug or two. My father sometimes had trouble putting on the brakes literally and metaphorically.
I don't care for peaches. The taste is heavenly but not worth dealing with the skin's fuzz which leaves me feeling itchy and crawly and altogether regretting that I ever considered eating the peach. Thus I was not thrilled by the news of our outing. Nevertheless he and I climbed into the old Jeep Willys to drive miles on a dirt road swallowing dust to arrive at a paved road to finally wind up on another dirt road, which eventually led us to the grove of peach trees at the foot of Yarnell Hill. A primary challenge to this journey was the fact that the Jeep had no brakes which gave concrete affirmation to my father's previously mentioned challenge with brakes. He was expert, though, at downshifting to brake the Jeep and our arrival at the orchard was without incident.
I hadn't realized that we had to pick the peaches ourselves and thus had nothing to protect my hands from the dreaded fuzz. My father's exuberance over the peach project did little to improve my mood. I felt miserable. My skin seemed alive with the itchy awful fuzz. I hated every peach I picked. Daddy, on the other hand, smiled and laughed and sang with pure delight. When he declared that one lug wasn't nearly enough my heart sank. Nevertheless, I dragged my bucket behind me and we trudged deeper and deeper into the grove until finally, with what seemed to me an obscene amount of peaches, he declared the job done.
We lugged our lugs to the front of the grove where Daddy carefully counted out the correct change. I suspected that the price of the peaches ate up most of the week's budget for food but Daddy didn't seem to care. He just wanted to take the peaches home to his wife - to my mother.
Once back at the Jeep we safely settled the peaches in back of us and climbed into the roofless, brakeless, worn out Army surplus Willys to get situated between the sprung springs ready for the ride home.
For a moment Daddy seemed lost in thought.
Then he jumped out of the Jeep and, laughing, said, "She won't miss just one peach."
In the moments that followed I saw joy as I had never seen it before and have never seen it since. My father took a peach in his hand, studied it for just a moment and then bit in. Juice ran down his chin and onto his shirt. Juice ran onto his hands, under the cuffs of his shirtsleeves, and down his arms. He gloried in the taste of the peach and did not pause until only the pit remained. Finally he placed the pit back in the box with the other peaches as though he needed proof that the peach had existed.
There was no water available for him to wash. He said he'd deal with that later. For him, the joy was worth the mess. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and tidied up as best he could and then, still smiling, got back in the Jeep.
By the time we got back home he hands and face were caked from the dust that had stuck to his peach juice sticky skin. Still happy beyond description, he carried the peaches into the house. My mother was thrilled with the peaches, with her husband's contagious joy and, also, by the fact that her surly daughter seemed almost happy.