A dad called Mama

Showing his children the wonder of Florida's shaded lakes and curious insects, my father taught me the nature of unconditional love.

Published June 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On Sundays my father did not linger in front of the First Baptist Church in Chattahoochee, Fla., like other men. As soon as he stepped outside the big, white doors, he jerked his tie loose, lit a cigarette, then herded my brothers and sister and me down the sidewalk to the Plymouth where we waited for Mama to finish socializing. Walking into the house, he shucked his suit and finished cooking the Sunday dinner he'd started before we left the house that morning. Sometimes, after dinner, he and I drove out to his office where he worked on his bug collection. He was an entomologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, but this collection was a personal project. I was 9 years old, his only child patient enough to indulge him on those sleepy Sunday afternoons.

He sat across from me in his dusty office pressing the crackly bodies of insects into soft wads of cotton lining a shallow wooden box. Pale sunlight washed into the room. On a coal black Smith Corona, he used two fingers to type the insects' Latin names onto thin white paper: Photinus pyralis, Bombus pennsylvanicus. Those were the same two fingers and the same typewriter on which he would type my essay on Virginia Woolf when I was a sophomore in college, because I refused to learn how to type, because I thought if I did learn how, it would doom me to a life of secretarial work.

He pulled the paper from the typewriter, cut it into strips, dabbed a bit of glue on the strips and placed them next to the insects. Then he lowered a plate of glass over the bugs and bent forward, admiring his work. He liked to gaze at these bugs, to tell me the exact spot of shade in the woods where he caught each one: next to the Flint River, Bainbridge Landing; Mosquito Creek Bridge; Boat house, Lake Seminole. Looking at his face as he murmured the names of places, I imagined he heard a humming, felt the damp heat of the hot yellow summer, saw the cool green of leaves.

Eventually he decided to turn his vision into substance; he had to have the leaves, too. So he began walking in the woods collecting plants: ferns, flowers, weeds, even plants that grew underwater in Lake Seminole. These he dried and pressed between rough pieces of paper right beneath their Latin names. One summer morning, my father took us kids along on one of those walks through the woods at Faceville Landing. We passed a waterfall and he noticed a tiny plant, its leaves a variegated green. This I've never seen before, he said, stopping to bend over the plant. He plucked it from the earth. Something about that, my father plucking the tiny plant from the soil, made me think of him as an Adam. After all, he discovered the plant, I thought; no one had ever seen it before. But it already had a name -- trillium -- and once we saw the first one, we saw another and another and another. Still, every time I saw one, I'd think, there's that plant my father discovered.

But my father wasn't an Adam. He was a child like my brothers and sister and me -- he was as astonished at the natural world as we were, or maybe we were astonished at the natural world because of him. When my sister and I were knobby-kneed, flat-chested little girls, my father took us for rides in the back of his government truck as he cruised down the river road. The air was cool, fragrant with the delicate scent of pink mimosas. We laid flat on the cold metal bed of the truck, looking at sky, clouds, trees, the world above our town. We played a game of guessing where we were by looking at the lacy branches of the trees. We could always guess our grandmother's street because oaks dripping with Spanish moss grew together over the road like giant fingers twined together, blocking out the sky. My father drove us all over town as light faded and we looked at the world over our heads, changing right before our eyes, a world we never really noticed when we were upright.

Years later, my father arranged with a government pilot to take me up in a little Cessna. We flew into the same blue sky that hovered over my sister and me on our truck rides, then sailed out over a shimmering Lake Seminole, then back over town, the airplane buzzing like a giant bumblebee. From my perspective Chattahoochee looked insubstantial, the buildings blocky and small like buildings in a play town. I put my hand out, covered the whole thing from one end to the other. I knew I didn't belong on those narrow streets, couldn't make myself fit between the lines, and I knew it was OK. My brothers and sister and I were the only kids in the neighborhood who knew what an Akdes aegypti was, who let mosquitoes bite us while we looked closely at the markings on their legs and wings, trying to decide to what species they belonged.

Just as I learned there were hundreds of types of mosquitoes, I learned there were many different types of fathers: Sonny Burton, handsome and clean-cut, Bobby Holt, hyper-masculine, mean as a pit bull; Henry York, chief cop, benign and wise like Andy of Mayberry. These men fit into the parameters of the popular conception of "manhood": good looks, a willingness to fight, a sense of authority. Then there were the fathers who beat their children, fathers who drank, who ran around on their wives. One father even cruised the public restrooms looking for men.

Unlike any of those men, my father wasn't stand-up handsome or a fighter or an authority figure or an outlaw. He belonged to the species of men raised by women. All men come from women, but my father had been surrounded by female flesh his whole life. He never knew his own father, who'd shot himself in the head when Daddy was only 6 months old. He had one brother and three older sisters. His mother was a redheaded fireball, a judge in Coffee County, Ga. She fathered Daddy as best as she could -- even giving him a job as her clerk -- and he in turn mothered us, peeling potatoes for dinner, shucking corn, snapping beans, churning ice cream, washing our clothes, whipping our asses, carrying us in his arms. My sister called him Mama.

Daddy was also shaped by my mother, a dreamer stuck in a less-than-ideal reality -- raising four children in a small Florida town known for its mental institution. My mother was clinically miserable in fits and starts and we rode her moods the way you ride in a car that sputters and jerks along. I often wondered why my father stuck by her but I know it was because she was beautiful and passionate and she could be charming when she wanted to be. The combination of being raised in a family of women and living with my mother convinced my father that women, especially unpredictable ones, ruled the world.

In fact, I probably have my mother to thank for the close relationship I developed with my father. Some days I was so overwhelmed by the anxiety of living with her that I couldn't make it all the way to school, even though it was only a block from our house. One morning I walked along behind my brothers, lugging my red plaid book satchel, trying to be excited, but a feeling of dread kept rippling through my stomach. Then all of a sudden it was like a big torrent of water gushed out of nowhere and knocked me over, carrying me back down the hill toward our house. I ran as fast as I could back to the house, back to Mama, my feet pounding the ground so hard my knees hurt. I ran up to the big sliding glass door at the back of our house and pressed my face to the cold glass, banging and crying till my knuckles bruised.

Mama didn't take my panic very seriously. She finished what she'd been doing, then casually slid the door open and let me fall into the room. Then she called Daddy home from work to come and take me to school.

First he drove me uptown to the dime store. The door opened with a jingle of bells. He guided me to the toy section, walking across the creaking floors past Mrs. Bevis with her black cat's-eye glasses and her rows of Sugar Babies and Black Cows. He didn't say a word. I picked up a blue wooden yo-yo and he paid for it, then scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the car. He drove me to school, then we walked together down the halls, the smell of floor varnish heavy in the air. I wouldn't let him leave. He sat in a tiny wood chair across the table from me in Mrs. Ball's first-grade class, cutting flowers out of red and yellow construction paper with little kid's scissors, until Mrs. Ball whispered in his ear and he left without me even noticing.

I didn't notice a lot of things my father did for me until after he was gone. He died when I was 21 years old. But in that short time he managed to put some ideas into my head, to shape the way I viewed the world. He set up spelling contests between my brothers and me. Once I got a nickel for spelling "tiger." I still remember how superior I felt to my brothers, how important the word "tiger" seemed -- it was like conjuring the wild animal itself. My father encouraged me to show off with words. At the supper table, while plunking an ear of corn onto my plate, he would ask me to spell words like "lackadaisical" or "photokinesis." I went on to become a spelling-bee champion. I could spell words I'd never heard before, could figure out their meanings from the Latin roots. I felt possessed as letters lined themselves up inside my head. Letters led to words and words led to sentences, and by the time I was 5 I was reading all by myself.

Once I got over my fear of actually making it up the street to sit in the first-grade class, my teacher would take me upstairs to humiliate the fourth-graders, making me read their history book to them. I decided I wanted to be a writer. Not because I'd read volumes of Shakespeare, but because words felt natural to me, like breathing air. I never struggled with them. Teachers complimented me; the local paper published an essay I wrote about a fishing trip I took with the Boy Scouts. My father thought I should be a journalist. He didn't mention typing.

One Saturday morning when I was 18 or 19 years old, living on my own in Tallahassee, I was lying in bed asleep, my girlfriend twined around me, when I felt someone looking at me. I woke up and there, in the crack of the bedroom door, was my father's face. He had come to take me grocery shopping, something he did once a week. I got up, dressed and walked out into the dining room and hid behind a newspaper as I drank coffee. He didn't say a word about what he'd just seen. He took me out and we bought groceries, and then he took me to lunch. We never discussed that moment, which must have been one of discovery for him. Maybe the women in his life had prepared him for the idea that women do what women do. His mother had prepared him for Mama. As a county judge, she came into contact with all sorts of people and she told Daddy that she expected people not to behave the way most people thought they would. And Mama had prepared my father for me, for the idea that anything could happen at any time. She'd already figured me out.

Daddy must've taken those lessons to heart. Later that year, when my girlfriend broke up with me and ran off to Mississippi, I was devastated. Somehow I talked her into a reconciliation. My father offered to drive me out to see her. On the way, maybe just as we hit Mobile, Ala., he gave me the only piece of advice on love I'd ever get from him: It doesn't matter who you fall in love with, just make sure they are intelligent.

I have lived nearly half my life without my father, but he has managed to stay with me. I am a parent too, of three boys, and on those days when I am my most pliable and most genial -- when I say to my oldest son, OK, OK, I'll drive you to St. Marks to see the dead alligator -- I feel like my father must have felt. He had four kids begging him for Popsicles, or rides in the country, begging him for something: Daddy, do this, do that, and he, always, like a gentle bear, did his best to comply. When I am standing on the edge of that brackish pool of water, my oldest son measuring the gator off by walking next to him, wondering aloud what caused that alligator's death, my 3-year-old squirming in my arms, screwing his face up at the smell, but unable to take his eyes off the great dead creature lying beneath the palms, I understand why my father was so compliant: He liked being led by curious children to mysterious places.

I always feel my father's presence out of doors, whether my sons and I are hiking or walking along the Apalachicola River looking for pottery shards. My boys have inherited their grandfather's eye for odd-shaped rocks and funny-looking plants. They drop to their knees in the woods to look more closely at bugs crawling through the grass, and I stand aside, looking at their curved backs through my father's eyes.

These days I take my sons out to the baseball field to bat and play catch. Baseballs smell the same way they did 30 years ago, when my father used to take me and my brothers and sister out to play: red clay, leather, neat's-foot oil. My boys are barefoot and I am my father, pitching slowly, telling them to keep their eyes on the ball, telling them, keep your eyes on the world boys, keep your eyes wide open.

By Lu Vickers

Lu Vickers lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

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