Happy birthday, Dad

My father would have been one hundred and two years old today.

I grew up with an older dad. When he was my age, I was not yet two years old. I have a brother two years younger than I am. What would it be like to begin to raise a child at 50? He’d married late, at 43. For seven years he and my mother had tried to conceive, with no success. Then, as sometimes happens, the long and frustrating wait was suddenly over, and within three years of his 50th birthday he had two young boys to raise.

He worried about being older. He worried about a lot of things, truth to tell: were we warm enough, had we had enough to eat, did we have enough money for the Scout camping trip, did we know how to be careful, especially around water (he’d had a nephew who’d drowned at Myrtle Beach, and the death haunted him, then doubled the haunting when he had boys of his own). But I remember that he worried a *lot* about being older. Once we’d grown to our twenties, he fretted that he hadn’t played ball with us enough, and I knew from that just how intense his worries had been.

Sometimes we’d run in the yard, throw the ball back and forth, get nutty. I remember how quick he was on his feet, though most of the time he moved at the same pace all the other adults did. He could always catch me, though he never pursued me to punish me. It was always in sport, as I remember it now. He was a bit grouchy, often, sometimes outright grumpy, but when he decided to play the fool he carried the part off with panache. I remember one Christmas Eve, coming home from the Lutheran midnight service where we’d had real wine at Communion, unlike our usual Baptist grape juice. My dad carried on all the way home and insisted we should open our presents as soon as we got into the kitchen–which we didn’t, of course, because we never opened presents before, oh, 5:30 or 6:00 on Christmas morning. And he hadn’t had more than a thimblefull of wine, anyway. But for whatever reason, he felt the spirit, and he got goofy, playful, wacky. My brother and I laughed until the tears ran down our faces. So did our mother, come to think of it.

My father was usually the one who gave me my bath when I was a small child. As he dried me off, he’d talk about the mysteries of how blood circulated through the body, of how the stars were so numerous and tiny and far away, of how George Beverly Shea could make such a massive sound with his voice as he sang. He’d often talk about how he “studied” something, by which he meant “wondered at it.” Sometimes he’d talk that way about special effects or trick shots in movies. “How do they get a picture like that?” he’d ask.

I never knew whether he was as naive as he said he was. He might have been: he was raised on a poor subsistence farm on Jennings Creek in Botetourt County, Virginia, the youngest of five children. His father was older when he was born, too; in fact, my Grandfather Campbell, whom I never knew, was born in 1867, just two years after war in Virginia had subsided, and not all that far away, at least by Texas standards, from where Lee had surrendered to Grant. On that farm where my dad was raised there was no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilets. I saw the house once. It was more than a shack, less than a house;  a cabin, I guess. The porch sagged, just as you’d expect. I remember the cabin had about four rooms, and that the room at the back was full of bees. No one had lived in the house for decades, but no one had disturbed it either. My father knew the way back. I don’t think I could find it myself, now.

My dad loved school and did well in it. A couple of his report cards survive. He was a great reader. When I knew him, he read the newspaper every day pretty much completely, except for business and sports, two subjects he never showed any interest in that I can recall. He followed world and national news closely. And he loved to read the funny papers, which is what he called the comics. On Sundays, my brother and I would sit on his knees while he would read us from the funny papers. We’d always marvel together that Barney Google rarely appeared in the comic strip that still bore his name. Seems Snuffy Smith had taken over.

Loving school wasn’t enough for the youngest child, though, and after sixth grade there was no more local schooling for my father. His brothers went further; one went to college and became an engineer of some kind. But for some reason, probably because he was the baby and the last to leave home and loved too well by his parents, my father stayed put. He went to sixth grade twice so he could stay in school one more year. And then that was that. For about a year before he died, my father would tell me that he wanted me to hurry up and finish my Ph.D. so he could call me doctor. I did, and he did, though I’m not at all sure he knew what a Ph.D. was. But I’m not sure he didn’t, either. He could surprise you that way. I remember one night playing Trivial Pursuit, the kind of game he’d never play. He wasn’t much for board games of any kind. A quiz game would be even less interesting. But he could surprise you. The question came to him: who was leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin? I was dismayed, figuring that my father would quit in disgust, his lack of education too painfully on display. “Malenkov,” he said. We all thought,  is he joking? We looked it up and he was right. He snorted that we would doubt him, and then he smiled, a little mischievously, and pretended to doze in his chair.

His wife of thirty-eight years, Genevieve Gay Gardner Campbell, died in 1989, when she was sixty-nine and my father was almost eighty-two. He lived in the house they’d shared, the house I was raised in, built by my mother’s father (the only grandparent I really knew–and another story altogether), for about another eighteen months. After that, he was too feeble to stay at home even with a sitter who’d cook and clean for him, and he went to live in a nursing home, with the predictable decline soon thereafter. He died ten days after my wife, my son, and I had arrived in California, where I was to begin my first tenure-track English professor appointment at the University of San Diego. I spoke to him only once after I got there. After that call, he was in the hospital and too sick to speak, weighed down with the pneumonia that would eventually kill him.

During those eighteen months of Indian summer, though, my Dad and I had some grand days, cutting up and playing the fool sometimes, and sometimes going in search of the perfect Roanoke Valley hot dog. The best time of all, though, was the night of October 24, 1990, when I called him from the delivery room of Chippenham Memorial Hospital in Richmond, Virgina, to tell him his grandson Ian Woodworth Campbell had been born. He was overjoyed, elated, and within about a minute said, “I wish your mother was here to get this news.”

My dad came up to Richmond for Thanksgiving that year. The photograph captures the first meeting of Ian and his Granddaddy Campbell, with Ian’s mother Alice holding our infant boy, our beamish boy with the preternaturally alert eyes. My father has two straws in his shirt pocket because a hand tremor meant he could no longer negotiate a drinking glass without spilling it. He carried straws with him wherever he went so he wouldn’t have to ask for one or risk not having one to use. Yet he could hold Ian, and did on several occasions. And in this photo he reaches toward his grandchild with a gesture of great tenderness, with a peace and gladness in his eyes that matches the maternal joy in Alice’s face. There’s something very still and lovely about this photograph, something that makes me think of how my father might have looked at me when I was that small and that tenderly held by my loving, patient mother.

Fatherhood was sometimes a worry for my father, but his love for me and my brother was clear, strong, undoubtable, always. He taught me wonder, and taught me by example that regrets were never the whole story, or at least they didn’t have to be.

I love you, Dad, and I miss you every day. Your grandson Ian, your granddaughter Jenny, and your daughter-in-law Alice join me in this.

Happy birthday.

Granddaddy Campbell, Alice, and Ian

12 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Dad

  1. What a beautiful remembrance of your father, you have brought tears to my eyes.
    I want to say more but all the words I type seem trite. So all I can say is thank you for sharing this.

  2. I have the tear too, Gardner, thank you for sharing your Dad’s spirit, humanity, and journey. I can see a direct line from the love he provided to his sons in the son I have come to know as a friend and colleague. He has a lot to be proud of.

    Happy Birthday, Gardner’s Dad!

  3. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. It made my day, and it’s only 7:35 a.m.! 🙂

  4. Beautiful.

    Those things your memory treasures keep him alive. Thank you for sharing.

    As I read, the lines of a song by Serrat in Spanish came to my mind. It goes something like this:

    You would believe that time and absence has killed them
    But their train sold return tickets
    It’s those little things
    That a time of roses has left us.
    The wind drags them here and there
    They smile sadly at you
    And make us cry
    While nobody is watching us.

  5. Gardner, what a beautiful post and a such a powerful tribute. i can’t explain the deep weeping your story caused in me – a powerfully deep connection with your father and you and the thoughts, fears, joys, worries, memories, and images all mixed together. thank you for sharing this and the seeds and thoughts and prayers and blessings that your story leaves lingering.

  6. I only have one picture of my son and my Dad, taken right after Jack was born. The only thing I really, really wish at this point (except for more time with Dad) was that I had taken more.

  7. Gardner – do you see aspects of your dad in yourself? When at my in-laws I do that bit of sitting in the chair with eyes closed and then once in a while shouting out the answer as the rest of them play Taboo. And we’re not even related.

    My dad would have been ninety six this year, not quite as extreme an age difference, but pretty big. I think of him a lot, the music he listened to, Burl Ives was a favorite a particular favorite, the way he played with us as kids, and the frustrations he endured. He was big newspaper reader too.


  8. On Monday, I told all of my classes that there would be no mail today because it was my father’s 102nd birthday. They were a little shocked at first (at how old Dad would have been. They knew why the mail wouldn’t run), but then somehow relieved, as though knowing how old my father would have been on that day somehow confirmed their suspicion about how old I really am (they never know what to make of the fact that I have an older brother). I’m only 39, as my father taught me to say.

    That afternoon I met with some students to discuss an upcoming poetry assignment. As I tried to explain to them what John Donne means when he says “If though be’st born to strange sights,” I immediately flashed back to some strange sights I saw with Dad. One afternoon, while waiting at the store for the daily bundle of papers we had to deliver, we saw two men pull up in a car; one of the men left the passenger’s seat, opened the trunk, and crawled in. The driver then sped away. We always wondered what that incident was all about. Dad would mention it from time to time for years to come.

    Sometimes I’d pretend to be asleep and Dad would tell me I was “playin’ possum,” an expression I came to understand better one day when he stopped the car on North Mill Road, got out and stepped toward what I was sure was a possum carcass in the middle of the road. Dad kicked at it, and the possum rose up and walked away hissing. I never figured out how Dad knew the difference between a dead possum and one faking it.

    Rock on Proust. Great blog, bro.

  9. That was a fine tribute from you and Fred. Thank you for sharing it. The next time we’re together I will share things about my dad. I think we all were pretty lucky.

  10. Thank you, Gardner, for sharing this wonderful remembrance. The photograph (and your memory of the details…love the straws) is just lovely. Lucky Ian. Lucky Garnder. “Praising what is lost, makes the remembrance dear…”

  11. Pingback: Another bootstrapping experiment: Baylor New Media Faculty Development Seminar « Gardner Writes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *