N. Barry Carver

© Copyright 2017 by N. Barry Carver

Honorable Mention--2017 Biographical Nonfiction

Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Isn’t it true of all of us that, as we age, we find more of our parents in ourselves?

Sometimes it is an unhappy realization, but good or bad, we recognize that there is some weight to the argument that the apple never falls far from the tree. For most of us, I hope, it is also true that those everyday, throwaway memories with Mom and Dad – and probably just because so many of them were that: thrown away – become precious.

Your own smile, on occasion, may be interrupted by the recognition that you’re observing a behavior that is exactly what your Mom was smiling about all those years ago, and you have only just now gotten in on the joke.

Mom and Dad are long gone now, buried before their time with little more than gravestones to mark their passing. Modestly educated, they were products of their time. To each of the six children that survived them, however, they imparted… I cannot say wisdom… but some sort of common sense that seems far above the national average – as well as a sense of entitlement beyond all connection to any of our present statuses.  It is a wonder.

I don’t think that Dad ever rode in an airplane. I know he “shipped out” to both the Second World War and Korea but I believe, in those days the accent was on ship. Mom did fly once that I remember, but only in the direst circumstance.

By contrast, I have traveled the world freely from the edge of Russia to mainland China, and more than half the fifty states in between – mostly by air. This one point should give you an inkling of just how much my experience and theirs diverge.

And still, I started this note to you with how much we are our parents and, on that point, I’ll share the following moment:

As I’ve written previously, my Dad was, from years before my arrival, an assembly line worker. He helped to build Packards and, when they stopped being made, moved on to building Fords. He worked the afternoon shift and used to get home long after the kids should have been in bed. In his thick workers togs, the color of deep forest and smelling of oil, he would arrive at our tract house in Inkster.

I’m still fond of that house, though the years have been less kind to it than they’ve been to me (and they haven’t exactly treated me as if I have an aging portrait in the attic). It’s still a white sided house with cheery blue trim and aluminum awnings, but time has worn little tear-like trails at the corner of each window, and the roof sags slightly as if it too has simply been asked to carry on a bit longer than should have been expected.

The front porch – just a cement stoop really – has tubes like plumbing pipes holding its cover overhead. These tubes are roughly the diameter of a quarter – and I know this because I, for years I think, popped every quarter I was given down one or the other of them. They are, for all I know, still there and, being quite ancient now, more than likely worth a small fortune. If the neighborhood were not as sour and unfriendly looking as it had become on my last visit, I would have asked to replace those worn supports and split the treasure with the latest occupants. But that’s both another story and something I will never do.

After work, Dad would pull into the driveway, and those still awake (through whatever slippery means they’d managed) ran to the door and waited for that salt-and-pepper crew cut to come in and command us all to bed. Each time I survived the yawning and eye rubbing to greet the old man’s return from labor, I’d bury my face between that dark green collar and a somewhat scratchy cheek.

Just then, when I wrote that, I could for an instant smell the Aqua Velva that he would get from me each Christmas. I’ve just now remembered that, after not using aftershave for many years, this December and without a thought to why, bought myself this very thing and started shaving again.

I wanted the hug, of course, but there was another motive. After the big embrace, I would fish that heavy, double-stitched, pocket on the front of his shirt. It seemed a long way down to the bottom of what must’ve been less than a three-inch, square of cloth. Deep down, like plumbing the depths of a Cracker Jack box, there was something he’d always put there for me to find – a half-dollar, a pack of Chiclets, a roll of Nicco wafers or Lifesavers… something. Once my little grubbers had latched onto whatever was hiding there, I’d throw him another hug or a peck on the cheek and run off to enjoy my prize.

Sometimes my little sister made the long march too. If not tucked away, she’d have to get a share of the booty. Two years my junior, she didn’t comprehend that the extra piece from the Chuckles was the licorice flavored one and that I was not being magnanimous at all by giving her three of the five pieces. When she did catch on, we each got two and left the black, middle one, for the next older brother (who still eats things none of the rest of us will). It must be some sort of large-family Darwinian survival skill he picked up early on.

Maybe it was only once a week… maybe only once in a great while, but it seemed to me that I repeated this ritual with my father night after night in a long parade of seek and find games. As I got older and the tradition came to an end, I often thought of how many goodies I had pulled from that pocket. I still remember all the candy, all the coins, and all the little toy whistles or vending machine treasures that the dad of five others had put there just for me. He always promised we’d go fishing one day, and though I still don’t care for seafood of any kind, I regret that we never got the chance.

It seems fitting that one happy memory brings so many others. I know I did little more than hand wrenches across a space he could easily have reached himself as “we” worked on the family car, but he did pretend that only I could hook the safety light up under the hood properly. There has never been a little boy who wanted anything more than to think Daddy needed his help. I leave it with you that it is a measure of men that they make such small, ungainly hands feel useful, and perhaps wordlessly, train their offspring to work, to take pride in their efforts and to teach without judgment or penalty.

Some time between then and now – and long after our game was through – I returned to the pocket of my father’s shirt and again searched it to the seams to find the bounty I knew he’d always give. It was late in ‘69, as the retired clothes were readied for a Goodwill bundle, and I knew there would be nothing to find. I just wanted the comfort of one more something of him before this too was gone – the fishing trip, a forgotten coin, I would even have settled for the black Chuckle.

But nothing was there, and now, even the pocket is all but forgotten.

The last touch I had of him was the same one he’d had with his father back in ‘66. It is the same one my sons will get and, as hard as that is to imagine, it is an unavoidable truth. It is not some find he chose for me to seek… it is a carved marble marker that his years of military service earned him. It is a cold, white stone that simply carries his name, rank, unit, state and dates of birth and death. On its back, some years later, they added Mom’s name too. It stands, one of thousands upon thousands, surrounding for miles a single flagpole and a flag that stood for a lot more to him than it ever will to me. Some things he could share with me – some he could not. I don’t know if more years would have made us better friends – I just know I’m still mad that we didn’t get them.

That was more than forty years ago, and so many other thoughts perpetually crowd my mind that it surprises me sometimes how vivid a few of the old ones are –especially the ones I’d rather never remember at all. But, however it may sound, I have a very small list of regrets. One of them is that I don’t remember saying “thank you” for any of those treats. Age is tempering that though along with all my memories….

I am now well past the age at which he died and, as God is gracious, I have been given two sons. The youngest is just now to the age where he searches my pocket every time I come in the door, and I hereby vow that he will seldom come up empty handed. I’ll play that game for as long as he likes, and my smile at it is only interrupted by a realization that my father may have also had in this process: It doesn’t have anything to do with what those things in the pocket are – it is being the provider of them. He got the only “thank you” he wanted: me crawling all over him, rubbing my hands on his scratchy face and showing amazement and a crooked smile at whatever he stashed there at the last minute. I put into his pocket more than I ever took out of it – something he could never have explained to me, but it is something he has given me nonetheless. I know this only now that I stand where his shoes have been and I wonder how many of my predecessors have shared this time-release treasure. I hope one day, far from now, that without explanation, my sons will fall upon this last and perhaps ancient boon.

The pocket wasn’t empty.

It will never be empty.

Barry was hit by a car and died on Tuesday, June 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.  We  will miss his  fine stories.

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