Who Was Your Daddy?

 

    June 1939—(Gladys) Clayton spanked him [Gregory] one day for trying to go to plum thicket. He cried, “Don’t whip Mommie’s Baby. She’ll be mad. You’ll make bumps on Mommie’s Baby.”

    Brought a scrap of paper to me one morning as we were cleaning yard and said, “Here’s your government check.”


    Thirteen years later I could venture alone down a long-tamed Panther Row in Bonham to a narrow, not-quite “cafe” where a friendly woman with a broad, round face, and short, curly black hair, knew I’d ask for a delicious-greasy hamburger. Panther Row “in its time” was known for saloons and out-of-sight upstairs transactions. Attending school in Bonham, my father remembered hearing a gunshot across the square; then he was one of the many curious ones who moved toward the Row and filed slowly along, peering inside at the still figure of a man lying on a counter top.


    Or, taking a train from Bonham on a Saturday afternoon to visit a girl in Dodd City, my father was threatened by a group of local boys and told not to come back. Uncle Allie, my grandfather’s first and proudest son, gave him a revolver to carry.

    Nearly seventy years after these events, I was frequently visiting my mother at a nursing home in Savoy. Seeing me so often, a Mrs. Melugin, across the hall, asked,

    “Who was your daddy?”

    “Clayton Hall,” I answered. 

    “I knew him. We dated some.”

    “Oh! when was that?”

    “A long time ago. We were young.”

    “Was he a good boy?” 

    “Clayton was a very good boy, but I’ll never forget our second date. He showed me his revolver.” 

    “Were you living in Dodd City?”

    “Yes. How did you know?”

    My mother was leaning slightly forward in the wheel chair, staring vacantly at the floor. With frail, cupped hands she beat lightly on the chair. I wanted to exclaim, to tell how.... She wanted the wheel chair to move on.


    Trains were still steam-powered locomotives with whistles, pulling just “cars” for me till a “caboose” came by with its look-out turret and chimney, suggesting a warm place inside. Until a long, cross-country journey took me to a posting in the Army near New York City, my actual experience of trains had not been warm, but alarming. Returning from Fort Worth with my daddy and Uncle Willie (he was driving his truck), when we’d taken cattle to the stock yard sale and stayed all night in a hotel, seeing a wild-west movie too, there was, going home, our reckless race to a crossing, which we barely won, so that the engineer leaned out his cabin shaking his fist, I saw looking back.


    From the neighboring Black community over east, Joe Choice’s family had toured Mulberry on the morning after the “cyclone” that made it famous in 1919. And after we’d talked about that April morning, Joe asked me,

    “Who was your daddy?”

    “Clayton Hall” 

    “Your daddy bought two cows from me one time. My daddy hadn’t been dead very long. It was in 1932. When your daddy came to get ‘em, Mr. Crumby was there with his son Pete, and claimed they were his cows. I said, ‘No, Mr. Crumby, these are my cows.’ He kept sayin’ I was sellin’ his cows, and called me a bad name. So I called him a bad name back, and Pete started toward me. I had a stick in my hand, swung it hard, and hit him a’side the head. They backed off. Mr. Crumby was a mean old man. I helped your daddy load the cows, and he took ‘em home.”

    “Was that the end of it?”

    “Yes.”


    The Plummers’ house had been near a pecan tree west of our house. When I was a child it shaded a large wire enclosure. I went one morning to feed the turkeys and found vertically entwined a four-foot-long “chicken snake”. In 1955, the year he purchased part of the Messenger Place, my father was preparing to build a new shed, and said he would cut down the tree. Already its trunk was two feet through, and we argued. I said he couldn’t. He said I had “no respect....” The tree still stands, the shed set back some. He said he was “satisfied,” and I have tried to “forget.”


    My daddy wrote to me in the Army: 


    March 1 [1961] is here. However, February was so much like spring, so unusually warm the fruit trees bloomed out and some flowers began to bloom. Didn’t have much rain. I watered the trees [you planted] once. We bought another hose and it was not much of a job. Winter has returned. Last Friday night it began to rain. Then Monday it rained and sleeted and roads were slick Tuesday.... It was down to 18 degrees yesterday morning, and this morning 16 degrees. That will set things back. But I am sure it will be warm again soon. We will be planting corn by March 20, we hope. I am going to put out 15 acres more Bermuda grass when it warms up again.

    I am planning to do a lot to my new land that was cleared, and, too, I want to have the spring dug out down near Brown’s house and have the water running across the road into a concrete trough. I have been building a cross fence through that field, separating the Bermuda from the grain. I do hope to be able to get a good spring because spring water is the best. I think we can have such an ideal stock farm....

    I am anxious for you to see the fine Hereford bull that I bought at the Ft. Worth Fat Stock Show. He is so fat and pretty.... I have sold my sows, after much discussion from Gary and Mother, so I won’t be working with them—out of the hog business. I will miss having the work to do, but will miss the income too....  

    Bye, Daddy.



     September 24 [1967, Aunt Edna to me in London]  Well, I am sitting here wishing my favorite nephew would let me hear that knock knock on my door.... I do miss you so very much and think of you a lot every time I go in the back yard. I look at the tree you set out for me....

    The boys have gone hunting. Janice has been working on school reports all afternoon. I went to sleep for awhile. Your mother came over for awhile. As usual she is very busy. She is now baking a cake. Hope she brings me a piece....

    Ellamae went to work in a nursery a few weeks ago.... I can tell you, their children love Uncle Clayton. They was real glad when he gave them the pigeons....

    I enjoy hearing your mother read your letters and I am glad you are having a good time and enjoying it over there so be sweet. We love you. Aunt Edna.

    P.S. Your Uncle Allie is about the same. Looks bad. He won’t ever be any better I don’t think....    

           

    November 18 [1978] I see my father living the same pattern of decline as Uncle Allie, who sleeps each day away. Aunt Edna takes a brush and pushes back his thin white hair to arrange his face, but there’s a difference....        


    December 9 [1978]  I am Gregory.  It was a winter day with low clouds spread evenly over the whole sky. We were bringing hay, my father and I, to a farm not far from Bonham where cows waited along the fence. On the way in the pickup we did not try to talk; I was driving. Under the wheels, loose, round rocks made it seem like we might fly off at any minute. My father looked straight ahead.

    The pasture bordered Miss Lila Ellington’s old place. The first time I came, this was the thing I noticed; it seemed strange I hadn’t been here before. Through the years I’d so often heard him speak of “Miss Lila Ellington”. One or two other things I’d heard: How she and an uncle had lost a lot of money buying German railway stock before the war. Then they raised turkeys. After her uncle died, Miss Lila continued to live in her neat frame house, alone, on a gentle hill that dominated the surrounding prairie.

    “I went with tears in my eyes,” my father would always say, “and she helped me when nobody else would.” It was “during the Depression,” maybe when all his cows and his horse were drowned in Caney Creek (1938), and either mules or land or both were in jeopardy. Miss Lila had said, “You wait right here.  Mr. (Somebody) owes money he’s been promising to pay. If I can get it, I’ll let you have it.” And she drove off in her car. It was never a part of my father’s story to say what he thought about while he waited. Everybody knew they were hard times, and my father eventually paid Miss Lila back, but he never forgot what she did for him. Many years later when she was in a nursing home he went to see her. She couldn’t speak and only raised and shook her arms. They said she might get too excited, so my father never went again.

    On this winter day we had put out the hay and were about to drive away. My father was closing a gate. I looked back and saw that Miss Lila’s house had started to burn. A real estate agent from Dallas was getting ready to sell the place again. At first the fire seemed to be altogether contained within the house. A thick plume of white smoke rose from the chimney at the peak of the roof. It rose strong and straight up. I called my father’s attention and mentioned Miss Lila’s name. He kept his back turned and would not look; I thought at first he didn’t hear. Soon the smoke rising was a velvet gray. Fire could be seen at the windows, but the roof still held. Then the smoke became altogether black. Black, black. There was no wind. I had never seen a house catch fire and burn. My father sat waiting in the pickup, looking toward the opposite fence and road that would take us back to Mulberry.

        July 19 [1979] This late afternoon at five o’clock I stood in the cemetery of Telephone, Texas, and looked at a black, plastic name plate for Cassandra R. Hall with the dates, July 16-18, 1979. My mother says it was “giving the name” that made this tiny girl a part of our family. In one of the reports from the hospital, Gary said, “She has ten little fingers and ten little toes, and her little arms and legs are moving all the time.” I had hoped for a miracle. After we got home, Gary called again, and mother told him he did everything he could to give the baby a chance to live. She said, “Everybody did everything that could be done. Sandra, the doctors, the nurses—everybody.”

    “Yes,” he said, “and she did too.”

    In two more days my mother and father will have been married fifty years—their Golden Anniversary. After all the photos, year by year on the day, she wants no observance, no celebration, and she will have her way. “It’s been hard,” she says, then “Be happy. But I don’t worry about it....”


    August 5 [1981]  It wouldn’t be necessary to go by the hospital; his body had already been taken to Bonham. My father died alone. A few minutes after mother left, his heart convulsed.  A special nurse was there. Choking constantly, two weeks had worn him down. She was exhausted. He tried to tell her, “I don’t want to die.” When he could speak again, “...but maybe it’s for the best. Gregory, Gary....” I spent one night at the hospital, held the cup, steadied his head, swabbed his lips and tongue. Choking. Again. I copied out every word that was spoken at his funeral, assigned the parts. Patsy played familiar hymns. Jack read scriptures. A visiting Methodist minister, in a jocund, sing-song voice, read my selections from writings of the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:


“Who Am I? ... As though it were mine to command...

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?...

Struggling for breath....

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness...

ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!”



    The biographer of Marcel Proust wrote, concerning the death of the author’s father, Dr. Adrian Proust, “Perhaps father and son were not so different as they believed. Each disappointed his father....” Better still to know are Dr. Proust’s own words at a prize-giving occasion near the end of his life:


        The emotion I feel on coming to your school sixty years after is something you will perhaps fail to understand, not because at fifteen one is less intelligent or comprehending than at my age; on the contrary I think one is able to understand a great deal more in boyhood. But there is one thing which is a closed book to the young, or which they can only guess at by a kind of presentiment, and that is the poetry and melancholy of memory.