An Open letter to Dad
All these wonderful stories about all these Coxes and friends. Well, here are my thoughts about you. I guess one of my first memories of you is in a characteristic family tableau. You had just brought Mother and the newborn John home from the Mt. Olive Clinic. Mother is lying in the big double bed and you are sitting in a rocking chair holding Johnny. “Go wash your hands,” was your immediate command when we all tiptoed in and wanted to touch the baby. We dutifully filed into the bathroom and were then allowed a brief caress, I remember gently touching his foot because he was asleep. You were feeding him his bottle and noticed that he had fallen asleep. An unceremonious thump to that same sweet little foot I had just ventured to touch, and he was awake and taking his bottle again. I have another memory that had to have been shortly afterwards because it was during Hurricane Hazel. The electricity went off and stayed off for many days. When it first went off I was very worried about how Mother was going to warm up Johnny’s bottles. You, with your typical ingeniousness, solved that problem right away. You somehow connected a coal burning stove to the fireplace and we were all snug again with a place to cook and warm up those important bottles.
It seemed to me you were always building something. That family picnic table in the side yard was meticulously built, John has informed me. It was built of solid cypress and the nails and screws were countersunk and capped with cypress plugs. I have a distant memory of your building a large platform in the pecan tree beside the picnic table where we kids had many adventures. You made things work in ways they were not originally intended to. The washing machine motor fan for one, and when I needed training wheels for Laviece’s outgrown bike you didn’t even consider going out and buying ready made ones, you made them out of wheels from a cast off wagon. Your biggest accomplishment was building the house we grew up in. That was before I was born but I’ve always understood you did a lot of the carpentry work yourself, with the looming deadline of having the house finished so Mother could bring home her fifth child to the new house. When we were kids Jimmy always had a special claim to the house because he proudly maintained it was built for him. I do remember when you built “the boys room.” Your growing family quickly outgrew the house you had so recently built. An addition was needed. You decided to insert a large room over the garage. I remember Mother steadfastly calling for the room not to be elevated so it would be on level with the rest of the house. But you would say, “But Mary Gwin, I have to elevate it, I have to have my workshop.” I’m afraid that particular argument is one of the few I remember your winning with Mother. You kept your workshop with all its fascinating tools. I remember I wasn’t allowed to go down there unless you were with me. I remember watching with wonderment as you manipulated your buzz saw, your power drill, your sander. I also get a very familiar feeling even now when Baxter has to go to the hardware store to get this exact drill bit, or that exact screw before he can start any project. But I can do little jobs around the house, too. I feel entirely comfortable using a power drill and hand saw. Whenever I figure out how to do some little thing so it will work right I get the feeling I watched you do something similar long ago.
You were definitely never the “absentee father” one hears about. You took us everywhere you could. We played down at the store many, many an afternoon or evening. I remember the prohibition that we couldn’t play on the feed or flour sacks, (might split them), we couldn’t play on the paper products, (might crush them), and we couldn’t go in the cigarette room, (the only reason I could figure out at the time was that the chewing gum was in there too and it might prove too much of a temptation). Also, we dared not go near the old elevator for reasons I didn’t even consider pondering. But the rest of the store was open territory. How we ran up and down the aisles and pushed each other around using the hand trucks and the float. And how dirty we were when we got home. Mother must have been desperate for some peace and quiet to send us down there with you knowing the monumental task bath time would be when we got back! I also remember going with you out on your “route” during the summer when I was out of school. As I remember you would only take one of us at a time, and to spend a whole day, alone with you was a very special treat.
One time Mother must have complained about us kids making so much noise while she was trying to take her all important afternoon nap. You must have determined that we were mostly coming in from out in the yard to get a drink of water. So you told us we couldn’t go into the house for an hour after lunch, and you installed a water fountain on the spigot at the back of the house. It was the wonder of the neighborhood that summer. Kids came from far and wide to drink out of it. Another thing you did was to alleviate the problem of so many dirty drinking glasses by putting up a paper cup dispenser in the corner of the kitchen. It had those paper cone cups which required a holder. And you got us each our own holder. Mother wrote our names on them with fingernail polish. One more word on how strongly instilled in us that Mother’s nap time was sacred. When I fell off Eyssel Franklin’s pony and broke my arm, it was during Mother’s nap time. I ran home, saw that her door was closed, and sat down in the hall, crying as quietly as I could until she woke up. Of course, when she came out of the bedroom and found me she was horrified that I hadn’t woken her up and she immediately rushed me to Dr. Shackleford.
One place that I thought practically “belonged” to the Cox family was the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. We went there innumerable times. Sometimes we’d make a full day of it. We go swimming and rowing, have a cookout at the picnic grounds, then go hiking. Other times we’d bring a picnic lunch, then swim, and finish with hiking. Sometimes we’d go just for the hiking. There were several hiking trails which always seemed fresh no matter how many times we followed them. But the main event was to climb the cliffs. (I understand that’s not allowed anymore.) I remember at least once anyway that you tied us all together with a long, stout rope. There we were, a string of seven little mountaineers with you at the head. We safely made it to the top on that and many other occasions.
The Cliffs was only one destination on our frequent Sunday afternoon drives. We’d all pile into the old station wagon and get into our assigned seats. Johnny was in the front in between you and Mother. Gwin Lee and Betsy occupied the short middle seat with Gwin Lee by the window (the better to see and read her book). Laviece, I’m afraid, had to sit on the step that was the passageway to the back seat, but she got to sit beside Betsy. Jimbo and Buddy got the two windows in the “way back seat” and I was stuck in the middle between them. (By the way, the station wagon was my particular possession because you and Mother bought it the year I was born.) We had many destinations aside from the Cliffs. One place was Calypso. We’d ride around and see all its sights topped off with a view of the house where you were born. From there we’d ride out to Virginia Johnson’s house. What a fascinating place it was. It’s pre-Civil War, isn’t it? The house was surrounded by cow pastures. It was fun to lean over the fence and fear that a cow might come near. There was an operating hand pump in her yard. That’s where I learned about always leaving a jar of water when you finish so the next person can prime the pump. Her attic had cow skulls in it. (Why, I can’t imagine. To fascinate us kids maybe?) She had a real pulley, weight driven grandfather clock in her hall. There was a full size suit of armor beside the clock. Another thing we’d do on those Sunday afternoon drives was take a tour of all the artesian wells in the area. We’d get out at every one of them and sample the water. You told us we were supposed to remember how each one tasted so we could compare them, but I never could remember from one stop to the next. One of our frequent destinations that had an artesian well was Uncle Hedley’s Cabin. That was a great place to go. Sometimes we’d take provisions and cook hotdogs over a fire inside. Many times we’d just hike around in the woods, sample the spring, and check out the cotton growing nearby. Another memory of our Sunday afternoon rides was storytelling. We’d beg, “Tell us a story, Daddy!” You’d say, “What do you want to hear, about when I was a little boy or World War II? You all vote.” So we’d shout out our votes and you’d begin. One of us for sure, the one sitting up front right beside you, got the beginning of a healthy appetite for family stories on those Sunday drives.
None of us will ever forget our famous camping vacation to the NC Outer Banks. I remember the sleeping arrangements on that trip. It was very similar to the station wagon seating arrangement. You put up two tents with a cooking tarp in between. At night you took the two back seats out of the station wagon and you and Mother slept there. Johnny slept in the front seat. The two tents were the girls’ tent and the boys’ tent, sort of. Gwin Lee, Betsy, and Laviece slept in one tent and Jimbo and Buddy with me stuck in the middle as usual, slept in the other. I was pretty young at the time and don’t remember a lot of the details but I do remember some highlights, for us kids anyway. One day when we went swimming we got into an oil slick and Mother had to scrub us off with kerosene. One day we walked along the beach and some ship had dumped half pint containers of sour milk which had washed up on shore. We had a wonderful time stomping on them. I found out how sour the milk was when Jimbo stomped and sprayed milk all over me. You put an end to that little activity then. I remember riding the Cedar Island/Ocracoke ferry over there, it seemed we were “at sea” for a long time crossing the Pamlico Sound. The high point of the trip was going to see “The Lost Colony.” But what is more memorable than the play is when we got back to our campsite. It was late at night and I think it might have been raining. We had a place beside the tent where you parked the station wagon; you had two boards you had brought along expressly to park on so the station wagon wouldn’t sink into the sand. But someone had moved into the campsite beside us while we were gone and parked on your boards! You were not pleased. Then they had the audacity to yell at us to stop making so much noise as we disembarked and got ready for bed. You muttered something under your breath to the effect, “If you hadn’t parked in my spot....” We all wanted to yell in chorus, “Nasssty break!!!” (a favorite expression at the time). But for some unaccountable reason you forbade us. The next morning we broke camp in an approaching “nor’easterner.” How you got all that down and packed into the racks on top of the station wagon and the little trailer behind, I don’t know, but you did. You and Mother had cooked every meal we had eaten so far on the camp stove, but that morning you packed us up and we took off. But we had to eat breakfast somehow. You found a diner, Polly’s Kitchen, open for breakfast. I remember Mother saying, “Oh, Zach, we’re so dirty and a mess, we can’t go in there!” And you said, “They’re used to serving fishermen right off the boat. We can’t look any worse than they do.” And we went in. I’m sure that is the first time I actually ate breakfast in a restaurant.
One thing you passed along to all of us is your interest in and desire to know more about every conceivable topic. One year on Christmas morning sitting on the mantel (you built) was a set of books from the American Museum of Natural History. It was for all of us. I loved those books for years to come. They fired in me a still abiding interest in natural history. (Betsy gives me Natural History magazine for my birthday every year to this day.) I remember more than one occasion your reading aloud to us from The New Yorker or Saturday Evening Post some article you thought it was important that we learn from. I was only kid in my elementary classroom who knew about plate tectonics or the bathyscaphe Trieste and its journey to the bottom of the Mariana’s Trench. My first taste of classical music came from your listening on Sunday afternoons. I can’t remember exactly how it worked, but it involved listening to two radios tuned to two different but concerted stations, and the music was in stereo! We had to be very quite in order to remain in the room when you had set all this up. I just loved that, usually it ended with just you, the older girls, and me in the room.
The years have flowed by. What a wonderful father you were to us seven kids. What a wonderful father you are to us seven adults. I remember your saying after Mother died that you had to now love your children and grandchildren enough for two. And you’ve done it. How we all cherish you. I remember your often said remark, “Why do you think I had seven children? So I’d have a big audience for my stories.” Well, we’re still your audience, and we love the stories.
Mary Wooten Cox Smith