Sunday, June 21, 2009
Father's Day 2009
April 18, 1920 my Father was born in the hills of western North Carolina. His name was Isaac Walter Tipton. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Isaac Ledford Lewis. His middle name of "Walter" was taken from the doctor who delivered him. My grandmother named the middle name of most of her sons after the doctor who delivered them. My Father was born and brought up in an Appalachian community, or as it is more commonly known, "hillbilly country."
He and his parents and eight of his brothers moved to southeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1920's to seek a better way of life. The family was hired as migrant farm labor on my grandfather's brother-in-law fruit and vegetable farm near Unionville, Pennsylvania. Two more of his brothers were born in Pennsylvania, for a total of eleven Tipton boys to pick the fruits and vegetables on their Uncle Don Byrd's farm.
My father met my Mother when he was 19 years old (she was 16 years old.) It was love at first sight. They eloped and got married a few months after they first set eyes on one another. The year my Mother was to graduate from school, 1941, she instead delivered a fine and healthy baby boy. That fine and healthy baby boy is the writer of this blog. In subsequent years my parents produced two more children, my brothers Isaac, Jr. and John.
In August of 2000 my Father died from complications of lung cancer. He was a lifelong smoker and it finally caught up with him despite the many warnings from his doctor.
When I got the news of my Father's death I was shocked. He was a major force in my life and now he was gone. Hearing my sister-in-law tell me over the phone "Ronnie, Pop died last night", I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. All the air went out of me. I didn't immediately feel sadness, only a sense that my life would be forever different now that this towering and intimidating presence was gone forever from my life.
My Father and I were never close. I'm not ashamed to admit that nor am I proud to make that statement. It is just a fact. While I envied some of my classmates and friends who had close relationships with their fathers, I knew it was never to be with me. Sure, I would have liked to went to a ball game with my Father. He was a big Phillies fan. It never happened. I can still remember the pain of participating in high school activities like band, chorus or high school plays and being one of the few students who did not have a parent attend the event. My father didn't even attend my high school graduation despite the fact I was the first person in our family to graduate from high school. I could cite many more instances of his neglect and indifference to me but it would only be redundant. I felt that my Father wasn't interested in me.
I think the greatest hurt I ever felt was sometime after I had left the service (U.S. Army, 1960-1963.) My Mother casually mentioned to me one day "Pop was surprised that you made it though." I said "What? Made it through what?" She said "The Army." I felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart. While I did have some initial problems in basic training (mainly due to a malfunction rifle which caused me not to qualify on the rifle range), it never once entered my mind that I wouldn't "make it" through the Army. I never debated it because the question never came up in my mind. As a matter of fact, once I got over my initial problems in basic training, I did quite well. I left my three year tour of duty with the U. S. Army with the rank of E-5 and had served 2 1/2 years in the Army Security Agency at the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, Maryland. One month I was even selected soldier of the month. And my father didn't think I would "make it." I was very disappointed when I learned of his lack of confidence in me. I didn't know it went that deep.
Sometimes I'm surprised I have done as well as I have in life. I certainly didn't get any encouragement from my Father. In fact, he often told me that I was stupid and had a big nose. The one thing that was consistent on my report cards in grade school has "Lacks confidence." Gee, I wonder where that came from? It wasn't until I got away from home that I realized that I wasn't stupid and had some worth. I even found out that my nose wasn't all that big and some people even considered me attractive (remember, this was when I was young, not the old geezer I have become approaching my 70th year.) As the years rolled by I gradually gained more self confidence and lost my sometimes crippling shyness.
The purpose of this Father's Day blog posting is not to complain about my Father but to tell the reader what my dad was like. In many ways he was a good Father. By the way, we (my brothers and I) never called him "Dad." We called him "Pop." I don't know where that came from but that's what we all called him, including my Mother. My Father raised me and my brothers in poor but comfortable circumstances. We had a good childhood. No one was abused. Oh sure, we got the occasional whipping as did most kids who misbehaved themselves did back in the 40's and 50's before political correctness forbade parents using corporal punishment to discipline their children. My Father only punched me once and that was when I was 17 years old and wanted to borrow his car for my Senior Prom. He said "No" and I gave him some lip back. I got it right across the head with a closed fist for that remark. I remember I was cleaning the bathtub and almost fell in the empty tub when he whacked me. I decided then and there I would leave home as soon as possible and never be under his control again.
Over the years since I left home there were some tense times (like the time I came out about being gay), and other less dramatic events. I never argued with him again. If we had a difference I would walk away. I found out many years later, after his death, that he was quite proud of me and what I had done with my life. My Mother told me this. I asked her why didn't he ever tell me. She said "Pop couldn't say those things." Of course he never said he loved me either. Nor did I tell him I loved him until the last time I saw him alive, the Saturday night before he died.
My father was alone in his hospital room, hooked up to an IV and oxygen breathing apparatus to his nose. I was visiting him. I don't know what we were talking about but I do remember it was awkward as it always was all during my life whenever I talked to my Father. After awhile he had to get up to go to the bathroom (his pride wouldn't permit him to use the bedpan.) I turned away. After his finished (a Number One by the way), he sat on the edge of his bed looking out of the hospital window at the lights in the parking lot on this Saturday night. I remembered all the many previous Saturday nights when I lived in Center City Philadelphia, and seeing those Saturday night lights indicated that it was my time to go out clubbing at the gay bars. This was a different Saturday night. I was with my Pop near the end of his life. I knew it and I think he knew it. He was exhausted. I came up behind him as he sat on the edge of his bed and lightly kissed him on the back of his head and said "I love you Pop." He said nothing but he didn't push me away either. I think in his own way he wanted to tell me he loved me but was unable to do so. I understood.
I gathered my things up and left him alone in his hospital room still sitting on the edge of his bed. That following Monday morning as I unlocked the office door to the bank where I worked in Downingtown, and rushed in to answer the phone which was urgently ringing. I knew it was bad news. I picked up the phone and heard my sister-in-law say "Ronnie, Pop died last night. Could you come home and tell Mom?" I caught my breath and then said "Thanks Barbara. I'll be right home."
I called my boss and told him that my Father had died and I had to leave immediately. I arrived home and there in the kitchen she and my Father shared for over sixty years was my Mother, my two brothers and my sister-in-law. I broke the news to Mom. She nodded her head as if to say "It is finally over." She had been through a lot the past eight months with his health problems. She was near a nervous breakdown herself. His death was a relief in a way and yet she knew her life would never be the same again.
Every year at Father's Day I remember "Pop." I used to make him his favorite cake for his birthday. It was German Chocolate Cake. I haven't made it since. Whenever I see a jelly doughnut I think of him. Raspberry filled jelly doughnuts were his favorite. I used to bring him left over ones from the Hampton Inn where I worked. That was one of the few times I would get a smile from him. I treasured those moments.
I have to honestly say I miss my Father. There are times when I would like to talk to him. His interest in gardening was as great as mine. While he didn't have much of a formal education he was a very intelligent man. While he could be very selfish and mean spirited at times, other times he was very generous and funny. If you caught him in the right mood, your day was made.
Now that I am older and losing whatever boyish looks I use to have, more and more people are telling me "You look just like Ike." They tell me that not only do I physically look like my Father but that I have many of his same mannerisms like the way I leave my mouth open or grind my teeth. Even the way I walk. So there you go, the final irony. I'm turning into my Father. He would like that.