My father died before he was sixty-five, in the early 1970’s from natural causes that remain a mystery to me. At the time I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have, partly because I was awash in the sea of uncertainty which might and did engulf a young man from my peculiar background thrust into the wider world of social and spiritual upheaval which was America at that time, but also because for a long time I could not grasp that Preacher Millsaps was dying. The father whom I left when I moved to Atlanta at seventeen had been a robust man of sixty who could outwalk and outwork men half his age.
I remember the instant I realized he was dying. I was riding with him in the big Plymouth, and for the first time ever he was driving slowly and carefully on open road. This from a man who once passed an Ellijay policeman on a double yellow line because the cop was poking along with traffic lined up behind him.
(My father had little respect for wealth and power in themselves, only the means by which they were attained if he deemed them praiseworthy. He paid the ticket eventually, but not until we had visited half the merchants in Ellijay, all of whom he seemed to know, to protest what he saw as an abuse of power.)
There on the road between Madola and Epworth, I realized that my father, since the last time I had ridden with him, maybe the year before, had grown suddenly and dramatically old.
He, of course, saw what was happening well before that day in the Plymouth and, I see now, completed some things he thought he needed to do. In those last few years while I was away, in and out of school, he, sometimes with my help, but more often alone or with my brother-in-law Jack, went into the mountains and disassembled two snake-infested log cabins, one built in the 1880’s and one in the 1840’s by an ancestor named Stepp, transported and reassembled them into a single house on farmland he owned in Epworth.
He sat in the back yard and with a hatchet split cedar shingles from trees he had felled, then recreated the type of roof that would have originally topped the cabins. The chimney was made from rock which he hauled from the creek, evaluating each piece for fit. The floors and ceiling were the same wide boards from the original houses. The leftover chestnut boards were used to panel a kitchen he built onto a house he had built in the 1930’s, and in which my mother would live for twenty years after his death. (She covered the chestnut with yellow wallpaper, over her children’s protest, because it brightened up the room. It was, after all, her house and her kitchen.) Later, after the house was assembled and he was unable to do heavy lifting, he returned to the chair in the backyard and with a hatchet and knife separated from hickory logs long, thin strips of wood which he wove into bottoms for straight-backed chairs for his cabin’s kitchen.
A couple of years after my father’s death, I lived for a year in the cabin Preacher Millsaps willed to his son. Five years later, the money I got from selling it to my sister enabled me to afford law school.
People sat outside Lebanon Church in folding chairs at my father’s funeral, listening to the service over loud speakers. I remember that by force of will I did not weep, because my father hadn’t at his mother’s funeral because, he said, she was gone to a better place. I remember my Aunt Myrtle saying of the seminary-schooled preacher who delivered the eulogy, “Grover Jones said Wallus was a jane-yus, said there’s no telling what that man could’a done if he’d had an edjacation.”
Although I experienced tremendous grief at my father’s death, I have sometimes felt relief that we were spared the conflict that surely would have arisen from my lifestyle choices, that the only time I know he felt ashamed of me was that day on the Little League field, but that is self-serving speculation on my part.
There was a year or so in my early twenties that I was so depressed I can now remember little about the period other than where I lived and worked. During that time my father appeared to me in a dream. In the dream, I am sitting on a park bench with my head in my hands, distraught. My father, who in the dream I know to be dead, comes and sits beside me and I tell him that I don’t know what to do. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I know it’s hard son, but I can see you’re doing the best you can.” I don’t know where dreams come from, but I know I held onto that one like a talisman, a lifebuoy.
Now that we’ve killed off our hero; it’s time for this story to end, and exercising my perverse sense of symmetry, since we started back in Chapter I with John Lennon’s spoken intro to the Beatles’ last L.P., (“in which Doris gets her oats”) I opt to end with a paraphrase of his closing.
I’d like to thank you on behalf of Preacher Millsaps and meself, and I hope we passed the audition.