A Fine Family--"I remember Dad"
When we were very young, long, long ago and far away, we would wait for Dad to come home from work. The front door would open; he would come in from the dark, a tall, broad shouldered man with dark hair, usually balancing a box on his shoulder. We would crowd around him, clamoring to know what was in the box. It seems he always said, "cackleberries."
We screamed with delight and danced through the living room, announcing, "Dad's home!" When Dad came home, exciting events were sure to follow.
His was the hand of justice: "Just wait until your father gets home, young lady or man" as the case might be. This threat was invoked by Mother, usually only towards the end of a long day of dealing with our many and manifold iniquities. He was almost always just, listening to us plead our cases
and handing out punishments well suited to the crime. His years of assigning KP duties in the Marines stood him in good stead as we found ourselves doing extra duty, weeding the flower beds, doing dishes and hanging out laundry. There was a rumor among us troops that we were just a conscripted labor force, and would have to do these chores anyway, no matter how we behaved. There was, however, sort of a grim satisfaction gained by working out our guilt by the sweat of our brow, in good Protestant fashion.
There was the plus side as well, because Dad's arrival meant we could eat, first and foremost. We would all sit down to supper around the long table, pray,
and then pass the food around. The "funnest part," as we would say, then began. Dinner at our house was not a time where we wolfed down the food and rushed away to watch TV or talk on the phone. Instead, everyone would get a few moments to speak about their day, the triumphs at school, the comic misfortunes of others, or the gross miscarriages of justice in the classrooms. Dad, Mother and my Grandmother Oliver would discuss the latest news or important events in the community.
These were good times, as we observed and learned the art of conversation, or the art of competition, perhaps. In any case, we learned to present a narrative, state facts, not gossip, and the value of verbal exchanges. The only rules were concerned with politeness and accuracy.
After supper, we would do homework, or if school were not in session, Mother or Dad would read to us. Mother chose poetry or stories, and Dad usually read some article on nature or science from one of the many magazines that came to the house. He would read a bit and then explain and answer questions about the material. We were all good readers in the family, thanks to this early training. On Sundays after lunch, Dad would "read" the "funny papers" to us. He even read the comic strip, "Little Henry," which had no dialogue. His explication de texte was my first experience in literary analysis. It has served me well in my own teaching career. We would cluster around his oak-framed armchair, standing on each other's feet, peering over his shoulder to get a glimpse of the cartoons as he read them aloud. As we jostled for space, some of us would stand on the heater, or "heaterader" as we called it,
behind Dad's chair. They made a great perch for viewing the funnies, adding both height and warmth.
It seemed that Dad added both of these elements to the family environment, along with humor that to us seemed even funnier than the comics did. We loved his jokes and stories and felt that his method of disposing of the last biscuit after dinner by having us draw cards for it was the height of after dinner fun.
We did not have a television, but we never lacked for entertainment. Though Dad disapproved of television, rightly calling it a wasteland, he did take us to the movies on occasion.
We saw the filmed version of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, in Raleigh, though I slept through the last act. I remember Dad waking me up, saying, "Look, Don Giovanni is descending into hell." Once, we went to the local "drive in," an outdoor movie theater
to see "The Living Desert," a wonderful film which transported us to another world, and gave us an understanding of the concept of an ecosystem with all its delicate interactions.
It is to Dad that I owe my interest in and appreciation for the natural world. It was Dad who opened up the wonders of nature on hikes around the park on Sunday afternoons. We learned to identify poison ivy, ticks, and chiggers that lived in Spanish moss that draped the trees around the countryside. He showed us the variations in our own ecosystem, with hikes and climbs on the Cliffs of Neuse,
and incidentally taught me physical courage that gave me the guts to climb mountains in Colorado and in my own emotional life.
We had a science lesson every time Dad had a chore to do. I learned about the internal combustion engine as he repaired the lawn mower. We looked at the stars on summer nights; all of us lined up on blankets, peering up at the heavens. We made a trip to the only planetarium in the region in Chapel Hill to learn about the galaxy. He read to us about the storms and winds that streamed from the sun into the solar system. He helped me make a cloud chamber and a motion acceleration timer for my physics projects. He spent many dollars on encyclopedias and other science books for us to read. He helped us form the basis of life long habits of scientific inquiry and research methods. Various family members went on to study science in college, Betsy, in chemistry, Zach in physics, Jim in psychology, and John in engineering, and even I did a minor in botany.
However, Dad gave us more than science lessons. He was a historian as well as a scientist. We toured the Civil War battle fields, searched for Indian arrowheads in local fields, and spent many Sunday afternoons riding around the area, while Dad told us stories of what the world was like when he was a boy. We made an amazing trip to Williamsburg and Jamestown, in the 1950's and toured the historic sites.
We all have continued his interest in investigating the past. Betsy collects fossils and always scopes out the local area sights and takes visitors on tours, John is writing, collecting and editing a family history, Gwin is a keen local historian and helps conserves history in her work as a librarian. Though I teach English, my research work is with 15th century historiography. Jim is creating a journal of his stint on the Grand Jury, Zach is compiling a family genealogy, and Mary recently has made a number of field trips with her son's school class and has recorded the events. We are all the richer for that sense of continuity to the past. It has added a recreational and intellectual dimension to our lives.
However, the most valuable aspect of Dad's legacy to us was that of the importance of family. He and Mother gave us a sense of solidarity, of belonging, and of love. They created for us a web, long before the World Wide Web came along, that connected us together as human beings. I remember him saying to me not too long ago, "I know some men were just not interested in their children, but I always thought my family was important and interesting." He always had time for our projects, interests, and needs. We always felt we mattered in the larger structure of family.
We are his direct heirs in this realm of family solidarity. We all gather at the beach each year for a family week of vacation. We get together on other occasions as well.
Jim and Ruthann entertain us all, cooking Thanksgiving dinners, as often as we can come to Atlanta. Mary, with Baxter, hosts annual family parties for Christmas and New Year's. Zach and Evelyn have us for countless dinners on New Year's day and family birthdays. Betsy and Frank, whose generosity in sharing their home for years to family "tourists" who come to DC to sightsee,
and their Chesapeake Bay cottage to all comers, is legendary in the family.
Even we in Brooklyn do our part, though we have tiny, one bedroom apartment. My husband Paul is amazed with the amount of family who comes up to see us. He says he has had more company in the last six years than he had in lifetime before he knew me.
I believe our record was set last summer, with Zach and Evelyn in the living room, on our camp beds (which filled the entire room), and Robert on the cot, with his head in the kitchen and his feet down the hallway. We learned about hospitality from our parents and their families who gathered together at holidays and who entertained each other all the time.
Dad and Mother spent their entire adult lives creating a terrific environment for their children. I may being seeing my childhood through gold tinted glasses, but the evidence in the lives of all of us children gives testimony to the work that Dad and Mother did to make a family. They gave us great gifts, love, fun, and a sense of adventure that has made the best part of us all possible.
Laviece Eugenia Cox Ward, Ph.D.