When you lose someone, I suspect, there is always a part of you that feels a bit empty but there are times in my life that the loss of my Dad, all those years ago, brings to surface a certain longing that sucks me down this black hole of emotion. It seems to happen mostly during the big life moments. My marriage, the birth of all three of my children, watching my brother struggle with alcoholism. In all of these moments, I have pleaded to have my Dad beside me for help, support, and comfort. And all of those moments have been answered with a lot of nothing. This does not mean I can’t find solace in his memory or even hear his voice being gentle and supportive with that southern twang he never quite lost. I can see his eyes welling up with tears out of joy, or pride, or pain. He was a man full of emotion which allowed this girl to feel normal and loved in all of mine. This last couple of years have been particularly hard in feeling his loss and I’m not quite sure why. It could be watching my own husband reach and pass the age of 51, which was the young age that we lost him. It could also be the struggle with losing my Mom, in a different way, as she battles dementia these last few years. The connection to my past seems to be more and more out of reach and I crave to ask my Dad questions and learn about him in a different way than you know your parents when you’re a child. I was 23 when I lost my Dad, still relatively self-absorbed and focused on myself. I wasn’t ready to really “know” my parents and my Dad and I were trying to repair a relationship that was damaged with divorce and remarriage and a move that put him thousands of miles from where I needed him to be. I was sad and angry but even in those years, all I really wanted was to know that I had his love and support. For as stubborn as I am he did his best to show me, relentlessly, that he loved me. I took it for granted at 15 when he wrote to me regularly. Telling me details of his life in Atlanta and his wish for me to be more a part of it all. He tried calling me all the time but this was before cell phones and we often didn’t connect due to my busy teenage schedule. He did his best under difficult circumstances but I held him in contempt and missed out on being present in the relationship.
I didn’t understand the true measure of his attempts to connect with me until I went to my Mom’s house this summer to stay with her while Frank, her husband, made a trip out of town. They had some water damage that forced all their belongings out of storage and revealed my past in two cardboard boxes. I hadn’t looked at the contents of these boxes for almost 30 years, so I was like a kid in a candy story riffling through all the archives of my high school years. There are mixed tapes, cards from ex-boyfriends, journals and the most precious find of them all, every letter my Dad wrote to me while I still lived with my Mom from 1988-1992. I started to read each one, taking it in like warm tea on a cold winter morning. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I was up most of the night reading each one, crying and laughing and remembering things that happened so long ago it felt like I was learning about them for the first time. I’ve always struggled with memory and this opened up a world that helped me understand just how much my Dad cared and how intentional he was about communication. One of the more interesting finds was a short story that my Dad wrote in 1993 titled “Carl”. I remember him sending this to me in my first year of college and I knew it was about the famous “Carl” in his life. Carl was the son of his foster parents. He had died at the young age of 21 in the Korean War and I always understood, without much information, that my Dad admired him in a way that I couldn’t quite grasp based off of the limited 4-5 years that my Dad would know him as a young child. I also found the oldest book I’ve ever read wrapped in a plastic bag. It was a book I found in the old farmhouse where my Dad grew up. The house was located in the East Texas countryside between towns so small they no longer exist. The title of the book is “Digging for Gold” by Horatio Alger Jr., who died in 1899 so I assume this copy is from the mid-1800s and is falling apart at this point that I’m not sure I could read it now. But I remember reading it many years ago when I was about 12 and bored out of my mind in the quiet East Texas world. I wasn’t able to finish the book during the visit so Sister told me I could keep it. Sister was the woman that raised my Father, since the age of three. Everyone referred to her by this name based on her being the oldest sister of a large family. I only knew her as my Grandmother and didn’t connect all the complicated dots until I was much older. She was gentle and kind and the type of Grandmother anyone would be lucky to have. I’ve been explaining why I called her this for forty years but the details of why Sister and Uncle Fred, as we called my Grandfather, were the keepers of my Dad’s childhood were never clear to me. I knew my paternal Grandmother was mentally ill and I knew my paternal Grandfather was a traveling hat salesman that enjoyed the company of women. So much that he married 6 or 7 of them. But that was about all that I really knew about why my Father was not raised by his birth parents. This photo was taken in 1958 when my Dad was 12 with the people that raised my Dad and his brother Hayden as their own. I will be eternally grateful for their gift of love and sacrifice that helped shape the man that would eventually raise me.
But it wasn’t until this weekend that I took the time to sit down and read the short story, titled “Carl”, that my Dad had written 25 years ago. It’s about the man that he considered a brother because of his kind nature and the connection to the people that my Dad would consider his parents due to his own being absent and unwilling to care for him. The story begins with a scene that’s right out of a movie. My Dad recalling what only a 3-year-old can recall of a night that would alter his life forever. A drive in the middle of the night to Dallas where he watched his “Daddy” hand over his newborn baby sister to strangers after holding her for many hours in one arm while driving with the other. His big brother, Hayden, in the front seat, until they stopped and his Grandpa Tommy entered the car forcing Hayden, at the age of 7, to move to the back with my Dad. They drove for another long distance all in the dark to finally reach a farmhouse where people my Dad had never seen would create a gentle distraction for a crying 3-year old by introducing him to a very gentle man named Carl. The next morning he would wake with no sign of his Father in this new and strange place. It’s a wrenching childhood tale that many of us could never imagine. I think how fortunate in some way that my Dad was so young and unaware of all the details surrounding the need to be sent off to live with distant relatives. I do know based on the few things my Dad told me and the gift of this short story that this moment significantly shaped my Dad and also haunted him for his life. This picture makes me smile as I see my Dad and Hayden strike the same pose that Carl has. It tells the story of admiration and respect in the truest form. Carl was about 18 in this photo but looks much older than that based on a life of working a farm. He would soon head many thousands of miles away to fight for our country in Korea and come home once and then go back to Korea but still only come home once.
Reading my Father’s short story almost feels like I’m in the room with him listening to him tell me for himself. He was a man of words and loved to write. In his letters, I was always taken back by his ability to paint a picture and bring you into his world like you were right there. Reading “Carl”, was this on steroids. There is so much clarity about the details of what had happened with my Dad in those early years. What I don’t hear in the story is the true impact of all these details so long ago. I still yearn to ask my Dad how things made him feel and how he overcame some of these challenges. But I know that ship has sailed so I relish in the moment with what I have. One of the deepest connections that my Dad and I had was our love of horses. I could listen to him tell me childhood horse stories from the farm for hours. When I was 10 my Dad bought me my first horse. A commitment he had made to me a year earlier. A year later we would purchase a second horse and spend hours with these animals caring for them and riding them on the Colorado plains. It was the most magical part of my childhood hands down. He always talked about a special horse, Lightfoot. Lightfoot was Carl’s horse that produced two colts but was quite small very old by the time my Dad came along. But because this horse was Carl’s horse, as a boy, it became the topic and thread for many stories. It was the first horse my Dad would sit on, as you see in this picture, when he was three and he would watch this horse die long after Carl did in the war. Lightfoot was the start of my Dad’s love for horses which would eventually be passed on to me. This part of the story was already known to me since we talked about horses all the time and his love for this one specifically. But somehow reading it in this story brought it back to life and helped me feel close to my Dad once again.
There were many things in the story I didn’t know. I didn’t know that my Dad worked at a lumber yard at 15 or the picture show when he was 16. I didn’t know how gentle Uncle Fred was or how protective Sister was. I didn’t know that Carl was killed by a grenade in a foxhole and I didn’t know he had made it home to visit between deployments, as we would call them today. I didn’t know that during the hardest economic years when the country was funding the war that Uncle Fred would work in a munitions plant to earn wages since the farm was not earning enough to survive. I did know that my Dad was curious and stubborn and one of the best athletes to ever grace the East Texas countryside. He loved many sports but football the most and eventually he would become captain of the high school football team. That’s a big deal in Texas ya’ll;-) I also knew my Dad was college bound as a way to transform his life into something different. In the story, I learned so many things and I imagine I’ll read it another 100 times or so, hoping to pick up on some new information.
I cried a lot this weekend but the tears were of connection and love for my past and some grief for a past that I’ll never truly be able to learn about in full. As I was finishing the 61-page story that’s typed up as a manuscript, I realized that page 60 is missing. This second to the last page which appears to be the entire summary. I frantically texted my brother, knowing he would be the only other person I know with a copy. I asked if he had a copy of “Carl” with fear that it may have been lost over time with all of his moves. He said it was buried somewhere in his closet and he’d dig it out. A sense of calm came over me. Not only because I’m desperate to finish the story but mostly to know that I do still have my big brother who is another connection to a past I can barely remember and our Dad. I felt so incredibly grateful at this moment and a sense of peace washed over me. It’s like my Dad was saying, “don’t worry Shelly, I know I’m gone but you’ve got Mark and Mark’s got you.” I know that Mark and I would give just about anything to have Tommy Stewart back in our lives. He was a great man full of life and volatility and knowledge and argument and energy and kindness and competitive spirit and love. So much love that I know I will always carry that piece with me, forever. But to hear his voice in these 60, almost 61 pages was a gift that I will cherish forever. Thanks Dad.