What a daughter learned: What a father taught
As I sit here, January 22, 2006 is fading into history. It is doing so in the normal manner; light begins to dwindle, cool air replaces warm, the sun slips behind a mountain cuing stars to twinkle and the moon to take over. A night like so many others.
Yet it is one I have dreaded to see come and now dolefully bid farewell. It isn’t the day itself that has caused such emotional duality, but what it represents.
It is the one year anniversary of the day we buried my dad, the last of those first anniversary dates that all mourners mark the year after losing a loved one. After tonight, I will no longer lament “A year ago at this time…” Instead I will fall into the verbiage of those long gone: “Back when dad was alive…”
The pain of such a loss has been at times unbearable. This is nothing unique. All of the “If only we’d gotten him to a doctor sooner” or “If only they’d found the problem sooner” that torture the soul of those left behind rip open wounds barely healed over, racking a broken heart with guilt and burdening a spirit with desperate thoughts of turning back the hands of time, if only for a moment.
But my dad deserved better than that. He would be in pain at the thought of my pain, because that is the kind of man he was. I don’t think I ever asked him for help in anything that he didn’t try his best to give, or wish he could if he was incapable of doing anything. His voice was usually tinged with compassion and apology for what he couldn’t do. That always touched me so.
So as this final anniversary ticks away toward finality, I will end it with a more fitting tribute to a man whose life mattered, at least to a daughter who watched, listened, and learned.
Dad was a southern boy, through and through. Raised the redneck way, he loved guns and hunting, swimming holes and alligators, pulling pranks and playing war. Born during the depression and raised during WWII, he first fell in love with the Navy at Jacksonville Beach. The large ships never left him, nor he them. They bred in him a desire for a Navy career, which he attained briefly as a young man.
He was raised by a family who had a strong lineage in southern history. Being raised as a Yankee by him and my mother in the northwest, it was hard for me to fully grasp the fervent southern loyalty of his family. They puzzled me; often hard to understand in speech, even more confusing in their friendly admonition that the south had won the war. Dad had a love/hate thing going on with his heritage. He loved the reunions, the barn dances, the word usage that only another good ol’ boy could possibly understand, boiled peanuts, sugar cane and maple syrup, and fresh watermelon from his grandfather’s farm—but only the heart. The rest went to the hogs. He had a wonderful sense of humor, something I’ve noticed seems far more prevalent among Southerners than Northerners. So full of southern pride, his first words to my mother were, “I hear they teach ya’all up here that the North won the war.” Everyone in the south knew “the war” had nothing to do with the one America was currently fighting. So long as a drop of southern blood flows, “the war” will mean what it means even in the middle of Armageddon. It makes me smile every time.
But there were sides of the south that left Dad cold. While he was raised in a family who had owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy, and who raised him to fear “coloreds,” parents, cousins, and extended family who said “nigger” with the same ease they said “boy howdy!”, he did not like the use of the word, and rarely used it himself unless he was quoting or telling a joke. His family wasn’t necessarily using the word with malice; it was a word used for generations like so many other words, and in the beginning, had validity. In fact, if I listened closely, his families’ rendition of the word sounds far more like “niggra.” This makes sense if you know anything of the history of the word.
I once listened to a lecture on the roots of this modern day pariah. There are many who claim its origins are the Latin adjective niger, which means black, but this speaker said it had its roots in something far less formal. Given the normalcy of illiteracy among so many at the genesis of America, it should be no surprise that “niggra” was merely the southern dialect way of pronouncing Nigre, which according to this speaker, was the name of the river where most of the slave ships would pick up their “valuables.” When the advertisements for slave sales were posted, it wasn’t unusual for them to note something along the lines of “Fresh from the River Nigre.” Hence the southern drawl would speak of these “Niggras” because that is how they thought the word Nigre was pronounced. It doesn’t justify this most hated of all words, it simply tells a curious people how such a thing came about, as with most eventual perversions, in an innocent manner. I don’t know how much of this is true, because the spelling and pronunciation of some of these words have changed since the time she was speaking of, but it certainly sounds plausible.
Regardless of its beginnings, it became a word that meant far more than a ship’s landing point or a race of people. This was a side of southern life that left Dad cold. He remembered the white lines down the middle of the bus, the colored bathrooms and drinking fountains, the whites only restaurants. One story he told me always stood out in my mind. One day at the local five and dime, he was browsing through the toys and candies, fondling a quarter and trying to decide what to buy. The shopkeep waited on a woman, because in the South, etiquette dictated that women are waited on first, then men, and children last. That was just polite, and had been engrained into my dad since birth. Respect for elders was never up for debate.
On this day there were four people waiting their turn: the white woman, a white man, my dad, and a sweet black lady that everyone knew and liked. Of course my dad obediently waited while the adults went before him, but was stunned when after serving the man, the clerk turned to him and said, “Are you ready?”
My dad froze. He turned to look at the black woman he knew. She was his elder and a woman; why wasn’t she being waited on first? He pointed at her, his mouth unable to make the “Ladies first” rule he knew by rote. But the clerk took the small toy from his hand, completely oblivious to the childish, ignorant faux pas. My dad had never seen a child waited on before an adult, and he continued to look at the woman. She must have felt his confusion and seen the red hot shame that was creeping up his neck, because with the class and decorum of a woman who knows what is wrong with the situation but cared more for the feelings of an innocent child, she quietly whispered, “Go on ahead now.”
My dad didn’t remember how he got out on the sidewalk, but he always remembered how he felt. This was wrong. The message was loud and clear: woman, then man, then child, and then colored, and something deep inside a boy not yet a double digit age churned with the dull ache of a great rudeness. In that one day he had been taught the double standard, the unspoken hypocrisy of rules for whites and rules for blacks, and he hated it. So when I would come home from school and ask him about Little Rock or Civil Rights or Civil War, he would get quiet and teach me in a way I would never forget.
That didn’t mean he supported everything blacks did. He recognized the wrongs that our society had heaped upon a people simply because they looked different, but that went both ways. Equality, he taught, means you also have the responsibility to accept criticism when it is warranted, and this was an area where blacks have too often dropped the ball. Too many want only the good stuff equality provided, but none of the responsibility for said equality. While he taught me of the evils of enslaving one’s fellow man, he also taught the wrong of the Watts riots, the Black Panthers, Luis Farrakhan, and those who think it’s alright to defile whites but blasphemy to call blacks on such duplicity. He despised bussing because it was a law of force, and as he said, “You can’t legislate love.” He felt that forcing people together was more likely a recipe for contention than cohesion, and while he had friends from just about every race on the planet, he was quick to point out that it was by choice, not by force. Force, after all, had been the plan Lucifer put forth before the War in Heaven, and the plan that
God—and the rest of us—soundly rejected. He felt that too many of the hippy generation of blacks were behaving exactly the same despicable way he’d seen too many southern whites behave. Wrong was wrong in his book, and that book was written in both black andwhite.
Dad knew history and loved it. To get to know him and to get him to like me, I spent multiple Saturdays on our family room floor, watching VICTORY AT SEA and WORLD AT WAR with him. I knew more about WWII by the age of 12 than I did about Andy Gibb. He was constantly reading history books, red marking pen in hand, taking notes and writing in the edges, and the only books he read more than those on WWII were the scriptures. He loved our Father in Heaven with all his heart, and studied Him with a ravenous hunger. This combination of knowledge and love made him the best teacher I’ve ever known.
When I came home from 11th grade history one day and ranted at him about my humiliation during our Civil War lesson, he wanted to know why. I pointed to the Confederate States of America badge hanging on the wall of our family room. “Kirklands owned slaves and fought for the South. I slide down in my chair in class, hoping that no one in there knows that your family did that!” It was true; I had felt shame at being not just white, but southern.
My dad looked hurt, but in classic style taught me again. “Yes, we owned slaves. Not our finest moment, but not quite the evil it’s made out to be.” He showed me a will of his great-great-great grandfather. He turned past the section that divided his land and worldly goods to the pages that referenced his slaves. I read as my ancestor carefully divvied out his slaves to his children. If this was supposed to make me feel better, it had failed miserably.
“Look! Dividing up his slaves like pirate booty!” I could feel my Politically Castrated education rolling to a boil.
“Read more,” he said quietly.
I did so. This man was careful with his slaves, stating that they were to be distributed equally among his children, the only conditions being that they were not to be separated from parents or children, and that they were to be treated fairly and kindly as he had always done. I looked at my dad. We’d watched Roots together only a few years earlier, and the horrible scene of Kizzy being taken from Toby had always disturbed us both.
“So he kept the families together and didn’t whip them. He still treated them like possessions.”
This time he said nothing, pressing the document toward me yet again. I rolled my teenage eyes and sighed heavily as I read the paragraph before me. “In regard to my favored slave, Big Black Tom,” it began.
“Dad!” I cried out. “Big Black Tom??? For crying out loud!” I couldn’t help it; I just had to smile. It was just such a stereotype. Dad had to smile too. He usually found a way to make something uncomfortable into something palatable.
“That’s how they spoke back then. It wasn’t meant to be cruel.”
I knew that. I mean, my relatives even referred to me as “boy.” It was just how they spoke.
I read on. Big Black Tom was to go to Grandpa’s oldest son, and was to be given a portion of his land for his own inheritance. “He has been my friend all my life, and has been faithful and true. That is why I leave him to you, son, and expect you to both treat him as he deserves and seek out his knowledge, for he will run things better than you can.”
My face felt red. This man had been more than Grandpa’s slave; he’d been his friend. It didn’t justify slavery in any way, shape, or form, but it did show a side to the south that I had never, ever seen before. I turned page after page, learning that unlike other slave owners, the Kirklands did not have separate cemeteries for their slaves; they were buried together, master and slave—and apparently, friend and friend. I went to the genealogy box, pulling out papers that showed slaves taking on the Kirkland name, a name from Scotland and exclusively white until it came to America—to southern America.
This was the way my dad often taught me. On one of those documentary Saturdays while watching about John F. Kennedy, I asked my dad if he had been a good President.
“Some people thought so,” he quietly replied, going back to watching and learning. While I knew that my dad was no fan of the Kennedys, he always allowed me to choose what I would believe. That meant he would teach me right from wrong, but not propagandize, so that when my moment of truth came, my choice would be just that: my choice.
He always tried to be fair, and loved a good laugh. When he was Deputy Director for Job Corps, he dealt with many troubled inner city black youth, for whom the summer spent fighting fires in Cottonwood, ID was often a last chance. Never once did he refer to them as anything other than young men. He was delighted in the 1970’s when he watched “Smilin’ George” Foreman fight. He loved to tell about the summer that George had spent in Cottonwood, still struggling with who he was and where he was going. I remember mostly how he would grin and say, “Yep, that name fit him. He had a nice smile.”
Dad saw the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, as he stepped out into his morning paper route. Even from El Paso, the flash from Alamogordo lit the sky, and was later explained as an “ammunition explosion.” He was thrilled when his love for history caused him to find out that he had witnessed this all important moment in history in that brief, child-time instant.
Dad loved deep fried food, hated vegetables, was an avid gun collector, always wanted to be a pilot—even after he gave up being a Navy fighter pilot for his family’s sake—gave up hunting when he had to kill a deer up close and saw big tears roll down its eyes, loved America and its warriors, despised hippies, femmies, and commies, and gladly fought in our first war against communism. He supported the need to hunt so long as you used what you shot, believed the caribou could handle us drilling oil in Alaska, cheered when the nation of Israel was restored to the earth, loved our heritage through Israel’s son Joseph, lost his best friend in Korea, suffered from terrible asthma as a child and breathing problems that dogged him until his death. He hurt me at times, but probably less than I hurt him. Neither of us deserved it, both of us knew better, and I hope we’ve both forgiven and been forgiven. I have no doubt he has.
He cried when he saw the children in Romania, raged at the horror of the Holocaust, and marveled at the birth of each grandchild. He loved the law but hated lawyers. His head was bowed in humble prayer as often as it was flung back with a hearty laugh. He loved TV and reading, spending the bulk of his time in the depths of the History Channel, the Military Channel, A & E, FOX News, the Discovery Channel, and local news. He never missed a daily paper, read every magazine that worked its way into the house, and was reading new books on WWII up until he went into the hospital. He spent his last months waiting on my mother, who was also in the hospital fighting for her life after a diabetic reaction sent her falling down the stairs, shattering her leg and putting her in the hospital from the end of August 2004 until the night before Dad’s funeral. Every day he would go to her side, sitting and reading when she was sleeping, talking and praying with her when she was awake. He did this selflessly as his own health ferociously deteriorated, placing him in the hospital with my mom for the last six weeks of his life. When he was told on January 4, 2005, that there was no hope for recovery, and that he only had a few months to live, he was at peace with it, telling me, “I can’t hold on much longer, but it’s OK; I’m not afraid.”
He really wasn’t. He held on for 12 more days, saying final goodbyes to old friends and family. On the morning he died, he waited until my brother showed up to say his goodbyes. Dad waited for the final words from the last of his children to let him go, then sat up, took his oxygen mask off of his face, and quietly died. Seventy years of an extraordinary life ended with little fanfare.
And now I am down to the last hours of this final one year anniversary. It has turned out to be a night like no other. I have smiled and laughed as much as I have cried while writing this; I guess it’s kind of like life. We smile, we laugh, we love, we fight, we pray, we hope, we believe, and eventually, we die. The best we can hope for is that it wasn’t all for naught. Dad’s best will remain just that: best.
On June 29, 1934, Robert Talmage Kirkland was born. On January 16, 2005, Robert Talmage Kirkland died. On January 22, 2005, Robert Talmage Kirkland was laid to rest. And on January 22, 2006, Resa LaRu Kirkland finally let him go. In between all of those dates were the days that really mattered, the days of sharing and learning. What he taught me then I now teach to my sons, knowing someday the cycle of parent and child I experienced with Dad will befall my sons when they say goodbye to me. Teacher to student who becomes teacher to new students. What a wonderful cycle; what a wonderful teacher.
What a wonderful life.
Keep the faith, bros, and in all things courage.
“Published originally at EtherZone.com : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”