The Stories We Tell
My father passed out of this world into the great beyond in March of 2015, just over a year ago. There are still days when the sorrow creeps up on me with quick hot tears. I thought about him on Sunday, when my husband roused me from my mood for a quick bite to eat at the local brewery in Bennington, Vermont.
We sat at the bar, because it’s that kind of place. Next to us was a couple visiting from Massachusetts. We struck up a conversation, and I soon realized that they grew up in my hometown. So I told them, “I’m Bill White’s daughter,” because most people from Dalton, Massachusetts knew, or knew of my father. He was the mailman on the eastern end of town, a volunteer fireman, and an EMT.
The man next to me grinned. Apparently, he knew Dad quite well; his family home was on my father’s mail route. “Your dad often used our bathroom. It was one of his designated pit stops. In fact,” he said, “your dad would write notes on the toilet paper and roll it back up.”
I laughed, recognizing Dad’s prank of leaving a narrative for the next user—an Irish trick he often practiced. There were others, as well: wrapping a toilet roll in fancy Christmas paper and gifting the most important member of the family with a useful item. Or rehanging the paper so it rolled the opposite way—under, rather than over, or vise-versa, done for a laugh or a smart comment, but mostly for the high story value involved.
We chatted on when the best tale yet emerged. It seemed this man’s father, named Mack, had an old pick-up truck, which my father asked if he could borrow for an errand.
“Sure, sure,” Mack replied.
So off went my dad, leaving his band-new truck in Mack’s driveway. When he returned, Mack asked, “Why did you need my truck when you’ve got a shiny new one of your own?”
“Mack! Don’t ya know? I needed to pick up a load of manure for my garden. I wasn’t going to use my new truck for that!”
The stories will live on and that is their value, that Dad will be remembered for years beyond his death, not so much with sadness, but with a smile and a laugh, and possibly, the shake of a head.
My father was a complicated, audacious man, with a big heart and high ruddy cheeks, always with a great joke or a prank. He was revered and loved by many in his Dalton and gave much of himself to the town as a firefighter and an EMT. He lived a useful life, capable of extracting accident victims from battered vehicles, and delivering love letters to girls in hair curlers.
But as a child, he was myth to me, although I told people, even back then, that I was his daughter; I understood early on the cachet in that statement. They smiled, then told me some story about my father the hero, my father the prankster, but he was also a man who took out his anger on the family dog, and his children, too.
He didn’t want us to make the same mistakes he made, and understood the dangers of daily life. He exacted tough consequences for any infraction; he was not skilled in reasoning or the ways of complex human behavior.
Then again, fathers of the 1950s were inclined that way. The majority of those new fathers were former sailors and soldiers who witnessed too much trauma “over there.” PTSD was not well treated, and only the most severe cases were diagnosed as Shell Shock or Combat Exhaustion, the syndrome recognized since the time of Herodotus. But war was needed and life was harsh.
I have often wondered what my father witnessed during World War II. He was a signalman on a landing craft, the USS LMS 449, ferrying soldiers from troop ships to islands in the Pacific, where the war raged. I suspect he saw mere boys, like himself, cut down. He must have felt helpless. There was nothing he could do to fix any of it. Maybe that was why he became a fireman and an EMT. It beat standing on the sidelines.
Despite my father’s wanting to save me from myself, I have stumbled many times, and at best, there are stories to tell. Tales that connect each of us to our humanity: erring and telling of our failure, or redemptions; the hows and whys of our carrying on in this brief life. This is what I can do, and hope that my scribblings illuminate the darkness. We all want to push back what we endure in this life.
But this I know: When the stories about Dad stop, then he’ll truly be gone.