Tag Archives: parent death

Old Habits Die Hard

As I mentioned in my last post, my father graduated from Mississippi State in 1959. He was a Bulldog fan through and through; so, anytime the Dawgs were on TV, you can bet that he was watching. We would often call each other to make sure we both knew that they were playing and what channel they were on. Neither of us wanted to miss the boys in maroon and white if we could avoid it.

This Fall, it seems like Mississippi State football has been on TV every Saturday in our market. And, every Saturday, I am on the couch yelling for them (and sometimes at them), doing my part as a fan to send winning energy to my team. And, every Saturday, I have to stop myself from calling Daddy to see if he’s watching. During the unbelievable Auburn game yesterday, I nearly called him during the game to see if he could believe that comeback that was going on.

But, he’s not there. And I still weep several times a week because I can’t call him when I’m driving home from work like I used to. I can’t call him about the football games. I can’t call to ask his advice on anything. I can’t call him.

My sister Chele (bless her), my cousin Faith, and Chele’s friend Linda have done all the packing up and moving of Dad’s things. I couldn’t help. I was paralyzed just thinking about it. I feel weak and pretty pathetic admitting that I just couldn’t do it – something so basic – but I couldn’t. When we went over to his house a couple of weeks ago to get the last things out, I started crying two towns over and when I got out of the car, I nearly went down. My knees gave way and grief hit me like a boulder. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was scream. It was horrible.

Dad didn’t have a minister that really knew him well anymore and neither Chele nor I could bear the thought of some stranger standing there eulogizing a man he didn’t know; so, we planned and spoke at Daddy’s funeral ourselves. Chele and Faith chose most of the hymns – all 600 year old plodding Presbyterian hymns that are the songs that stones would sing – and Chele and I both eulogized him. The hymns were heavy, comfortable things that we grew up with, or they would have been if the pianist hadn’t played them in the key of dog whistle. Still, they were songs that we love and that he loved. Then Chele talked about Dad and his Christian faith, about how he loved the Book of Daniel, in particular. I talked about him as my father and my friend. Here is what I wrote to say (although I’m sure I strayed from my script – I always do):

Good afternoon and thank you all so much for coming. Frankly, I don’t know if I can do this, but I don’t want someone who didn’t know my daddy all that well to stand up here and talk about him; so, grab a tissue and bear with me while I do my best to honor this man.

On February 26, 1936, John Larry Doty was born to Luby J and Hazel Doty. That lasted just long enough for one grandfather to find out he’d been named after the other one. Soon after and evermore, he was John David. If you thought his birthday was on the 29th, you’re not alone. He told people that regularly; but, no, his birthday was on the 26th. He grew up in Memphis. Ran track in high school and had the cinders in his knee for the rest of his life to prove it. He finished a pretty ordinary scholastic career and graduated from Central High School in 1954. Afterwards, he went out to California to fight wildfires. He went to college at Mississippi State because they had a School of Forestry and he really wanted to be a forester. Even so, the dean’s secretary, Doris Lee, always said that he never would have graduated if she hadn’t hounded him into it. He would always agree before adding that Dean Doris made the best pecan pies in the world. And he loved pecan pie! Not as much as he loved strawberry shortcake, but he loved pecan pie.

After college, he worked for Mr. Buchanan in Selma, AL, where he and Mother lived when my sister Chele was born. He went back to Memphis to pursue a Master’s Degree at Memphis State and to go into business for himself. That venture was a short-lived one before he got a job with Kopper’s Company and moved the family to Brookhaven, MS, in 1969. He lived there until 1995. In the late 70s, he and some collegues went into business for themselves and formed Monticello Hardwood – a company he worked very hard to help make successful.

I never really understood what he was doing when he would get on the phone after dinner and stay on it, it seemed, until it was time for me to go to bed. I hated that he would do that, but I didn’t understand that he was working so hard for us. Often, I would sit in the hallway, listening even though I had no idea what he was talking about. In those days, when you made a call using your credit card as payment, you told the number to the operator. I listened to him so much that I could recite that credit card number myself – I still can. I was an adult myself before I truly appreciated the work that he did on those calls and his efforts to be home every night for dinner. Some days he would leave before we left for school, but often, he was there for that and he was nearly always home by 7 o’clock for supper. I was an adult before I realized that he would often drive 3 hours and more after breakfast, walk a few miles cruising a stand of timber, then drive all the way home just so he could be home at supper. 

And he loved his job. He loved walking around in the woods, figuring the worth of the timber, but enjoying the peace of it all as much as anything. Most days he took what he called his “jungle food” with him and ate his lunch of Vienna sausages, sardines, cheese and crackers, or (his favorite) a peanut butter and mustard sandwich wherever he happened to be. Often, he would take a .22 with him to do a little squirrel hunting while he was out.

And, man, did he love to hunt! He hunted deer in Claiborne county for decades. He took friends, business acquaintences and even missionaries visiting the church out for a hunt. He taught both my sister and me to hunt (he was more successful with her) and frequently reminded us that you don’t kill what you don’t plan to eat, and you don’t shoot unless you can kill it. You don’t kill for sport alone and you don’t make an animal suffer. He enjoyed hunting at his own camp as well as joining friends at theirs. His annual trip to Pennsylvania was a tradition for him, as well as trips to Kansas with Malcolm Carr, and trips to Utica with Steve Rochelle and Joe Foster. He sure did love you guys. And he loved those trips even after he had progressed from being one of the hunters to being one of the old men who cooks and sits around the fire telling lies. And he could do that, too!

I could always count on Daddy to answer any question that I had. One year, while looking for a perfect Christmas tree to cut, I asked him why some pine trees lose their apial dominance faster than others. Mistake. I got a full-on lecture on soil tables. Another time, I asked him why it was called wolmanized lumber. He said it was because the cells were impregnated with preservatives. And I believed him. Of course, he forgot all about that until he heard me repeat it some years later. He laughed at me! Then I remembered that I had believed him – the same man who had handed me several thistles as a child, telling me to take the pretty flowers inside to mama for the table. 

I say that, but I honestly believe that he did not have a malicious bone in his body. He was a generous man – taking firewood and food to widows in town, inviting friends for dinner, as a deacon in the church, he would go to the store with people who showed up at the church for help on Sundays when he was an usher. He would buy them groceries, diapers and put gasoline in their cars. He was that kind of man. He didn’t talk about it. He did it. He was a good man and a really great father.

Mother was sick after the births of both my sister and me; so, Daddy took care of us. There were times when both of us disappointed him, I know, but he loved us and we never doubted it. He wasn’t quick to say that he was proud of us so it really meant the world when he did say it. And when we told him that we loved him, he just said, “thank you.” Still, we always knew. 

When I was 26, my best friend was killed in a car wreck. Although he lived about an hour and 15 minutes from my house, he was there with breakfast 45 minutes after I called him. I was devastated so he stayed with me for two weeks. Several months after Joey died, I went to the phone to call him for some reason. When I realized that he wasn’t there, I dropped the phone and asked my dad when I would stop doing that. When was it going to get better?! He said then that his father had been his best friend and that, even then, more than 20 years after Pop died, on bad days, he sometimes thought that if he could just talk to his dad, he would know what to do. I can tell you that I suspect that if you ask me that same question 20 years from now, you’ll get the same answer. He was a wonderful man, a great father and a true friend. He is missed already.

Dad on the back row in the far right. The first Fellow of the College of Forest Resources

I don’t think I got those last two sentences out before my tears overwhelmed the Valium.

We went to the graveside, toasted him with a great single malt Scotch that he would have loved – The McAllan 12-Year-Old Double Cask – put our tiny red solo cups in the crypt with him (won’t a future archeologist have fun with that!), and left him there beside his grandmother.

Only we didn’t leave him. He is with me every single day – in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my tears. He was a wonderful man and I miss him.