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Caroline Watkins
Caroline Watkins

Never did I call my father “Daddy,” much less “Daddy dear,” nor Father nor Pop – just Dad.  The title of “Daddy Dear” actually came from a musical tribute that my sister, Clissy, wrote some years ago.  And this column emerged, surprisingly, from a Facebook post in honor of what would have been his 97th birthday on December 3rd.

I have shed tears at the most unexpected times and places since his death in January 2011 as I have reflected on the life he lived and man he was, which I, in no way, fully appreciated as a willful child and wayward teen.

As I wrote in a previous column, Dad was a “feminist” without even realizing it.  He always believed his girls could do anything they set their heart and mind to.  For me as a child that was showing cattle and playing Little League football.

Later there were my “activities” in which he took great vicarious pleasure AFTER the fact, such as jumping out of airplanes and hitchhiking in distant lands. He took me to my first (and only) Redskins game even though one of his biggest fears was not being able to find his car in a packed parking lot.

Although my vivid memories are not numerous, I do recall my father “Being There” at critical moments.  He took me to the doctor when I stepped on broken glass (I managed to talk Mom out of ALL other, potentially numerous stitches).  I also remember his eyes brimming with tears as he held my sweet Beagle mix, Alfie, in his arms while informing me she had been hit by a car on the wretched bypass that cut through our farm in the mid 1970’s.

It was Dad – albeit jaw clenched – who waited outside the piazza in Florence feeding pigeons with me (at the rather disinterested age of 11) while the rest of my family gazed in awe at the statue of David.  It was also Dad who “cured” me of my on-court temper tantrums at one particular away tennis match.  And it was Dad who attended my college graduation at UVA on an oppressively hot day in May 1986.  Mom came to my cousin’s air conditioned house and waited out the crowd and the heat there. She was, after all, a bit “indoorsy.”

Dad valued honesty and hard work. Oh, and sharp knives (essential in carving country ham paper thin).  He treated everyone with dignity, kindness and respect no matter their station in life or color of their skin.  He didn’t slow down in retirement, but rather seemed to speed up.  Taking not only all 22 of his grandchildren fishing, but on numerous occasions OTHER PEOPLE’s grandchildren as well.  How he loved to fish!

He also loved his garden and generously shared its bounty.  He loved history, geneology and word origins.  And he loved thank you notes.  In fact, he is only one of two people in my life who actually wrote me a thank you note for my thank you note.

He loved maps and birds, especially Purple Martins.  He loved shad roe and Mom’s “killer” egg nog, not to mention my childhood sundaes topped with Cocoa Krispies, peanut butter and goodness knows what else.  He loved the song, Ashokan Farewell and the impossibly energetic Brother James at the Holy Cross Abbey, who collected Civil War relics. He had a lifelong vendetta against thistles, however, as well as groundhogs. And oh how he loved the Clarke County Fair.

He seemed impervious to fumes emanating from all things chemical – Round Up, gasoline, you name it.  The inside of his Jeep reeked in fact – as he, quite literally, used it as a mobile equipment shed. He hardly noticed.

He didn’t really care what he drove either. For years he drove a once peacock blue Ford Maverick, which my sister had painted over with forest green house paint, to the lumber company every day because the car “ran just fine, thank you very much.”

Dad was a relentless optimist.  Everything was either “just fine” or it was going to be. If he were to have described himself in one word I’m sure it would have been “blessed.”

He was a relentless interrogator too.  When we wanted something or to go somewhere, we had to answer his ever-predictable question, both logically and convincingly:  “For What Purpose?”

One of the things he was most proud of was that he sent six children to college.  In fact he choked up telling me just that, well after I myself had graduated. Dad cried AND laughed easily.  Because of that, my wise friend Jude would say that every day was a great day for him.

He delighted in my mother- her intellect, creativity, musical gifts, culinary skills and sense of humor (including her endless pranks). When my father died 9 years after she did, one and only one item was discovered in his lock box at the local bank:  his most prized possession – a love letter from her written sometime after they were married in 1948 and had started a family.

Dad delighted in receiving love and giving it in his own inimitable way – with his family and with his friends and neighbors as well. Perhaps writer Frederick Buechner sums it up best: “Jesus tells us . . . to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our well-being to that end.”

Dad didn’t just talk that holy maxim – he walked it – with both determination and grace. His family, friends and neighbors – which he defined so very broadly – were all beneficiaries of his love and . . . simple goodness.

What a wonderful legacy.

It may seem odd to be asking you to contemplate your own legacy in this season of new beginnings and temporal gift giving, but I’m going to anyway.

What legacy will you and I leave behind?

Things that are fleeting: money, property and, well, things? Or “things” that are lasting: relationships, memories and love?

Perhaps the better question is – with respect to this crucial, precious and unrepeatable LIFE we are living now – I will channel my father and ask…

For What Purpose?

Caroline Watkins

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