My first memory of my father is a visual one. I am a toddler and I am sitting on the floor behind the brown chair in the living room. Before me are two polished black shoes and two very long legs clad in khaki. Those long legs would often make a bridge between Dad’s favorite green chair and its matching hassock and we children would try to crawl under him without being caught. It was a favorite after-dinner game.
Dad raised chickens for a living. In the army he’d been responsible for training the carrier pigeons that flew messages from platoon to platoon. His peacetime job involved several hundred chickens, a brooder house, a long hen run, and a slaughter shed where he killed and dressed the birds for market. The farm was lost first to a flood that left hundreds of carcasses across the yard and garden. Dad restocked, only to learn the chickens were diseased and this second setback cost him the farm.
The years that followed were difficult. There were four children to feed and a mountain of debt. For a while, Dad worked the night shift at a lime kiln. By day, we children had to be very quiet so as not to waken him while he slept away the sunny morning hours. We spent a lot of time in the abandoned chicken houses, running races down the long hen run or roller-skating on the cement floor of the brooder house. On weekends and sometimes after school, Dad took my brother and me hunting. We ate whatever was in season—rabbit, duck, partridge, grouse, venison. He loved to fish as well as hunt and fishing season often found us knee deep in some cold stream, angling for a few trout for dinner. We never went hungry.
In the 1950s, Dad went to work for the Post Office as a rural route carrier. Before the law was passed that would not allow a mailman to carry passengers in his car, we sometimes rode with him, helping to deliver phone books or shovel snow from mailboxes. Dad was good at his job. He liked people and never passed up a chance to be helpful, often delivering messages and meals to shut-ins. The people on his route paid him in kind. Every Christmas, he would come home with dozens of gifts from grateful patrons.
Dad wasn’t much of a gardener, preferring ball games and evenings with his friends to digging in the dirt. Still, every spring he worked with my mother to plant tomatoes and peas, squash and cucumbers, and long rows of string beans. Sometimes he and I would take the big dishpan, fill it with bright green pea pods, then sit together under the maple tree to shell them for dinner. We would hunt for morels in May, gathering hands full to sauté in garlic and butter. He knew where every stalk of wild asparagus grew.
We owned an old push mower and summer evenings would find him cutting the lawns. I loved to follow along behind him, watching the grass fly from the whirring, clattering blades. When the chores were done, he and my mother would play baseball with us on the front lawn. Using trees and doorsteps for bases, we hit and ran, yelling and laughing until it was too dark to see the ball.
Years after marrying and moving away, and years after my father died, I moved back to the old family homestead. I worked in the garden, remembering those long ago days when Dad and I planted vegetables together. I followed in his footsteps as I mowed the lawn or searched for wild asparagus along the roadsides. Often just at dusk, when the fireflies began to twinkle and the last of the light was fading, I thought I could hear him calling me to come in. His presence was just a memory but it is a memory that pervades the very fiber of my being.