My father was an austere man who rarely showed affection or approval. His communication with his children was usually in the form of directives or reprimands. We regarded him with a respect that was akin to reverence. As I was growing up, I tried to either keep out of his way or not to do anything in his presence that would call attention to myself. Although tenderness was out of character for him, there were moments when he would do or say something that reminded me beyond a doubt that he really did love me, in his own way. It is those occasional times that I recall most often now.
Dad’s serious approach to life was shaped by his Appalachian environment and his Puritan ancestry, both relentless taskmasters. During the later years of the Depression he borrowed funds to purchase the rugged, worn-out farm that had belonged to his grandfather. With dogged determination he began to build a dream on the rubble of circumstances beyond his control, his tools being critically inadequate for the task. Many lean years followed, but if he ever regretted leaving his job in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the farm he never let it be known. The Dad I feared so much as a child I now remember with admiration and with appreciation for his ingenuity and perseverance.
Dad was handicapped by a lack of formal education. His father’s illness forced him to drop out of school at an early age in order to help with the family farm. He completed only the third grade. I remember winter evenings when he would sit by the fire, and with only the dim light of a kerosene lamp laboriously read articles from the Reader’s Digest to my mother as she mended overalls or crocheted. Words he didn’t know were spelled out for her to pronounce. I would wonder at her patience as I tried to focus on my school assignment.
Mother, on the other hand, went as far as possible in the community school, the equivalent of seventh grade. She repeated the last year on her own volition because there was nowhere else to go. She must have felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity to pursue learning. She had math skills that I never achieved. She could give me answers to problems with which I struggled in high school, although she could not tell me how to calculate them in a way that would be acceptable to Miss Hall, my math teacher. She placed a great priority on education and she dreamed of her four daughters going to college.
Dad’s wisdom was of another genre. He knew the names of every tree and wild flower in Southwest Virginia, and he taught us an appreciation for them. He could identify every bird and recognize each one’s song. He knew how to determine the correct amount of lime and commercial fertilizer that would be needed on a given field. He could estimate the yield per acre of each crop. Other farmers often consulted him for advice. He was also a skilled carpenter, self-taught.
Report Card Day was a time we looked forward to with eager anticipation, for that was a time when we knew Dad would be obviously pleased with us. We were all good students, and we looked forward to each six-week report. We followed an established ritual. We would set the table for the evening meal with the report cards beside Dad’s plate along with a fountain pen. When the chores were done he would come in, wash up and assume his place. Then we would file in, take our places quietly and wait.
On these occasions supper was secondary. Dad took time to read every word on each card, to analyze and compare this term’s score with the past one. Sometimes he would make observations such as, “What happened here, Juniper? You fell from 96 in English to 95.” (“Juniper” was his nickname for me that he only used when he was in a good mood.) I would nod my head in solemn agreement, although I could detect the hint of a chuckle in his voice as he would add, “You’d better work a little harder and bring that back up next time.”
After each card was studied thoroughly, Dad would take the pen and sign his name with a flourish. For the rest of the evening we enjoyed a feeling of well-being, for although Dad never said, “Girls, you have done well, and I am proud of you,” we knew that he was. His unspoken approval was worth all the lucubration, and this evening was incentive to work even harder.
I often wonder what my Dad might have accomplished had the educational opportunities he sought for my sisters and me been available for him. It was simple people such as he that the English poet, Thomas Gray, had in mind when he penned the words, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”*
*From “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray, 1716-1771