It was Day 2 of what I like to think of as the Great House Clean Out at my aunt’s, and we were just starting the arduous task of sifting through and sorting closets and dresser drawers. Opening a bureau drawer, I pulled out three copies of an old newsprint-type magazine, one similar to the Auto Traders and boat classifieds I was used to seeing at gas station checkout counters around the area. I didn’t think much of the magazine; that is, until Anne’s reaction.
Standing across the bed from me, Anne asked me to give it to her. Now, Anne’s been my sister for 41 years, and I can confidently say I know when she is acting a little shady. I wanted to know why. She told me to give her the magazines. I countered, demanding to know why. She stuck out her hand, waiting, our verbal tug of war continuing.
As the younger sister, I have spent the vast majority of my life not having the upper hand between us, but the child in me recognized I was holding something that she wanted—any younger sibling’s ultimate leverage—and I wasn’t giving in until she talked.
“There’s an article about Daddy in there.”
A little over 27 years ago, fate would deal my family one of life’s cruelest hands when my father left to go to work one day and simply never came home again. The accident that claimed his life would become one of those stories in our small town that people never quite forgot, and in our family, I don’t think we ever really got over.
Over the years, I would meet people that called my father their friend; in fact, this very scenario occurred just a few days prior at the funeral home. Once the person realized I was his youngest, their thoughts turned, reminiscing about their days playing football (a common theme) or creating mischief (another all too common one), and then, inevitably, their mood turned from wistful remembrance to quiet sadness as they recalled the accident and his death.
Scenes like this one have played out too many times for me to count over the years, yet every time it happens, my heart sinks as the stories turn from who my father was to how my father died. I don’t need anyone to remind me of the details of his accident, and that’s the problem. My memories of my father are almost exclusively centered on his death and not his life.
I was 14 when he died, and I never entirely trust the few memories I play on repeat in my mind because I have never really been sure if they were my own. Stories about my father have swirled around me for over two decades, and the man I knew and the man I hear about have become too blurred in my mind for me to distinguish one from the other. And while I know that he was real and not just a figment of my imagination, there are days where he feels more like a character in a long-forgotten tale than the man I called Daddy.
It would be a few hours before I sat down, alone, on my aunt’s front porch and opened the magazine. The newsprint pages have started to blur, but what I found inside left me simultaneously crying tears of emptiness and a strange sense of fulfillment. Stuart Matthews, apparently the owner of Mechanicsville’s oldest complete automotive machine shop (that’s what the ad above the text said), penned a “Farewell to a Friend,” published a month after my father died.
Reading Mr. Matthews’ recollection of first meeting my father and his subsequent impressions of him as a person did so much more than simply remind me of the man from my memories. They started to fill in the holes for me, the ones I will spend a lifetime trying to fill in. The writer’s reflections on my father’s character aligned with the man I’ve built in my mind, and there is validation in knowing that the man I imagine seems to have existed.
Later that evening, I would have my daily catch up call with Jackee whose razor-sharp memory I have relied on the last 27 years to fill in the details or to sanity check my memories of the days and months in the aftermath of the accident. As I told her about the discovery, the anger I felt at my family for keeping the article from me erupted out. Emotionally exhausted, I started to cry as she explained that there was a concerted effort to keep certain things from me after the accident because, regardless of how it felt, we were just kids when it happened. That even though these small reminders have found their way back to me over the years, the adults in our lives tried to protect me with the best of intentions.
As an adult, I mostly understand why they made the choices they did at the time, but the grieving child in me, the one who has yearned for any shred of information about the man he was, couldn’t help but feel cheated in their omission. That in their responsibility, they overlooked how desperately I needed to talk about him, learn about him, and keep him alive until I could process his death. A feat I have yet to accomplish all these years later.
In a box buried in the bottom of my bedroom closet, I keep the items I cherish most in this world. Alongside the figurine Jac gave me the night before we left for college and Pru’s paw print from the vet after I had to put him down last year resides the two ties I remember my father rotating between each Sunday for church. One of only 3-4 photographs I have of just my father and me is framed and sits in my bedroom, and the only one of my parents together is displayed in my living room where I can see it every day. These small reminders allow me to get out of bed on the days when his absence overwhelms me, and I concede defeat and call Anne when I circle back to things just beyond my mind’s reach.
I don’t know if Mr. Matthews even remembers having written that article all those years ago, but I do know I am indebted to him. He managed to give me—both the 14 and the 41-year-old versions of me—one more missing piece of the puzzle that has become my father’s life. That in the writer’s words, I was able to see him through someone else’s eyes, and in doing so, I have reclaimed one more layer of my relationship with my father—the man I have spent my life missing; the man I barely knew.