I have a dozen white cotton handkerchiefs, neatly folded and placed in my clothes drawer. Over the last year, though, I have cycled through but five handkerchiefs, rarely pulling out the others. Those five are colored handkerchiefs, inherited from my father. He died a year ago tomorrow.
They have become strange talismans, those handkerchiefs. I would not have expected it of me, this reaction; I do not regard myself as grieving. Given everything that led up to it, my father’s death was a relief. Yet I cannot toss them out. These are the only personal items I claimed upon his death.
We had a problematic relationship. Adopted, an only child, there was never any real connection between us, apart from whatever bond living under the same roof for eighteen years makes. I came to understand him better over the years, but I am absolutely certain he never once understood me. After a while, I didn’t care if he did or didn’t; but at the same time of course I did.
He was a tough man: harsh, critical, with an explosive temper. He bragged he had never read a book, not in his whole life. The only thing he ever did in his school library, so he said, was stash whiskey behind some books. This he generously shared with a teacher or two. He dropped out of high school in 1936, tenth grade. (That would mean that at around age fifteen in a dry county he somehow acquired and stashed booze at the high school. I don’t believe it ever happened, but it was part of his exaggerated “bad boy” persona.) When he died a friend of his told me what he admired most in my father was his moxie, his pugnacious personality. Of course, his friend wasn’t raised by the man.
Along with books, he also eschewed newspapers, so he was a sometimes colossally ignorant man and perversely stubborn in his thinking. The Great Depression turned him into a dour, often grim individual, seeing disaster and financial collapse and “mafia” manipulation everywhere, all the time. To invert what Mark Twain said of himself and his father, I was never amazed between ages sixteen and twenty-one, not once, at how much the old man had learned in five short years.
Dad’s own childhood, the little I learned of it, wasn’t much. Born into the life of a Kansas tenant farmer, he was made to leave home when he was sixteen. If the tale of sharing whiskey with teachers was in any way true, getting tossed out of the house may have been connected with it. But the story I heard consistently was that with two younger children at home, his parents—my grandparents—simply could not afford keeping him around. That would explain his money fears. He took a job as a stable boy at the Longview Farm south of Kansas City, something like fifty cents a day with room and board.
His life was headed nowhere until he met my mother. Her Kansas City family had small but important political connections: My grandfather was a local union president. Dad joined the union with his father-in-law’s sponsorship and became a skilled millwright and carpenter. The singular thing I admired about him, really the only thing, was how he would set out to build a thing and, simply, he would build it. He was one of those rare individuals who could picture a physical thing in his head and construct it from mental blueprints, if it involved fire and iron and steel, a grinder and a metal drill press. He could not explain how he did it. He simply “saw” it and did it.
“He was a man of his generation,” I read once of another father. “He never said he loved me and he never asked about my feelings.” This I suspect was probably the distance between us. I was surprised, chastened, to see his grandchildren—my four sons and three daughters—weep at his funeral. I regret I did not know him as they did; with me he was emotionally parsimonious.
I still cannot account for my attachment to the handkerchiefs. One of those extraordinary little twists of feeling and sentiment we experience upon encountering death, a relationship severed with no chance of repair. No doubt it will pass when in time, as a prayer book asserts, we are granted “perfect fulfillment and joy.”
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Kansas city, Missouri, and online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His third book, Speaking of the Dead, is nearing completion. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
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