Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Our fathers

Posted by boakley59 on March 28, 2008

My mother has a “name cloud” for the men she loves most: her husband, baby brother and adopted son. Whenever she was emotional (joyful, angry, sad) talking to any of us, she was apt to go through all three names before getting to the one she is addressing.

To me, this has always meant she has a single, stylized, beloved male in the recesses of her memory, or at the very least a unified emotional response to beloved males.

I find that I have similar thoughts when it comes to “paternals in the mist,” with Suzy’s late father, my late father and even my ex-wife’s father all occupying common memory space. In my heart and mind, I find their similarities, not their differences.

Even in their names, I see a gentle cosmic humor that befits their personalities: Bennie Lee Taylor and William Herbert Oakley are identified with initials that set the stage for all sorts of word play. Who uses his name for fun? My Dad, that’s WHO! I’m not sure BLT could stomach all that stuff, but I suppose he won’t mind a light toast to his name here.

So genial, these men. “Never met a stranger” suits them.

Dad was in advertising sales and was a natural (through long practice) at shooting the bull with anyone anywhere. He grew up German-Irish and Catholic in the Depression and that meant his was a beer-drinking family. And that meant regular gatherings for laughs and libations. Everyone was a friend, and if they weren’t, you could buy them a drink and they would usually become one. If truth be told, it wasn’t the nature of the alcohol but the nature of the man and his family that made for the fun and friendliness.

Suzy’s father was a diesel mechanic before an accident ended his career and he became an equipment salesman. He grew up poor in the Bible Belt South and that meant scraping by, doing and fixing everything yourself, and gathering around the family table to refuel, report and if you were lucky relax. When you fix everything yourself, you learn how things work and how to learn how unfamiliar things work. And when you’ve been through all of that, you can talk to anybody about what they do and what they know.

Our fathers loved cars. Dad sold automotive advertising and so every year he knew everything about all the new models, but beyond that he was just of a generation that was simply fascinated with the beauty and intricacy and usefulness of the contraptions. He knew enough to keep his cars clean and their fluids topped off, but he wasn’t really much of a mechanic. Suzy’s Dad and her uncles built kit Roadsters and restored classics. Cars were made to be cherished.

I was honored that Suzy’s Dad trusted me to drive his kit Roadster. I can never forget telling her brother that Ben trusted me to take his daughter’s hand and to drive his kit Roadster, because he knew that I knew Suzy was the greater treasure. We were in a waiting room. Just then, the doctors came to take us to Ben Taylor’s room for his last moments. Ben knew, but I write undeliverable notes every now and then to tell him Suzy is still safe and cherished.

My Dad trusted me to know everything. I was the smart one, straight A’s in school and such, and he wanted me to have the opportunities he never did. We never could talk much about school subjects or even what might be called complex ideas, because Dad couldn’t keep up. He understood people, not mechanisms and not terminology. But I eventually learned that it wasn’t incapacity so much as lack of practice. Upon his retirement after 45 years at The Buffalo News, Dad sent me a short note on News stationery. It was beautifully written — skillfully heartwarming. Intelligence can be a curse when you find what an idiot you have been, but Dad would consider it a blessing that you are smart enough to learn hard lessons.

So, these wonderful men are unified in my mind’s eye as teachers of valuable lessons about love and family, skills and knowledge, meaning and machines. I keep their memory close, and I cherish my time with them. Every once in a while, I lose myself in the mist and make sure they know that I still cherish the women they love: my mother, my sister, my wife, my mother-in-law.

Dad, Mom sends her love — every time she calls me by your name.

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