Daddy died on Christmas Day 2005. I preached this homily at his funeral. On the 103rd anniversary of his birth, I repost it.
He had described the place dozens of times. It was an old Victorian house with a center dormer with a double window. It had a wide front porch. The center door opened into a hallway floored with pine boards which his aunts used to scrub with sand. When he was a little boy he used to spend the night there. He loved the featherbeds. But you need not think of getting into one of those beds without bathing first. Aunt Minnie saw to that.
We went looking for this old place where John Wesley and Josephine Patrick Dunn, Daddy’s grandparents, had lived. The road has disappeared. But he could still describe it. It began down at the barn opposite Mr. Charlie Causey’s place and ran more or less parallel with the river. It passed the old Dunn place, went over a branch and then up a slight hill and passed the Cooper Place on the left.
“That’s where we lived for awhile,” Daddy said. “The Cooper Place. A pretty place with a tree-lined lane leading up to the house.”
I wanted to know if he remembered much about the Cooper Place.
“You mighty right I do,” he said with signature emphasis. “It was 1918, the winter that Rochelle was a baby. Mama had sent for a woman to come stay with us to help her out with the baby. I think her name was Brown. She came from over yonder ‘bout Socastee. She was a big woman. I wasn’t quite five years old. I had me a hatchet. That old lady kept telling me, ‘Otis, go get this. Otis, do that. Clean the baby. Boil me some water.’ First one thing and another. She run me ragged. So one night she says, ‘Otis, go chop some wood and build a fire in the kitchen stove.’ So I said all right, I’ll fix her so she won’t be running me all the consarned time. So I took my hatchet and I found some fat light’ood and I chopped it up and loaded up the fire box of that stove and lit that thing and got it going like all forty. First news you know somebody is passing by the house and comes up and says that the roof’s on fire. I’d started a dadgum chimney fire. And that woman, you know, she got up a ladder and went on top of that house and outened that fire. And she was a big woman too. I think her name was Brown maybe. She came from down around Socastee.”
And that was in many ways the story of Daddy’s life. He was always lighting fires. Always getting something going.
We had a dog named Andy, so named because he was an orphan—Orphan Andy—who had followed Mama into the office at the mill one day when she returned from lunch. She brought him home. Andy would bite. So Daddy put up a sign in the front yard, “Beware. Dog will bite.” Perry and I were trained. When someone would drive down the lane from the highway and reach the front yard, Andy would already be barking his warnings. One of us would grab his collar, take him around to the back porch, latch the screen door, and come through the house back into the front yard and greet whoever had driven up and, no doubt, had honked.
One Sunday morning Perry and I, like the rest of the family, were asleep. Somebody picked that time to come talk to Daddy about some hogs or some wheat that needed harvesting or some tobacco acreage or whatever. He pulled up into the front yard, ignored the sign, got out and came up the walk to the front door and knocked. Andy barked furiously. Daddy came to the front door. Andy sneaked down among the arbor vitas and bided his time. Every once in awhile, he would growl, run up to the man and prepare to go in for a plug of the man’s leg. Daddy said, “You better come inside. That dog’ll bite.”
“Oh,” said the man, kicking at Andy, “that dog ain’t gonna bite me.”
They talked on for a few minutes. Andy again would sneak up and growl and go after the pants leg again.
“You better step inside here,” Daddy said. “That dog’s going to bite you.”
“Oh, that dog won’t bite me,” replied the man, issuing a second or third kick at Andy.
Finally, their business concluded, Daddy shut the door. In a second or two, as Daddy would tell the story, there was all this commotion and raising sand outside. “So,” said Daddy, “I opened the door and yelled, “What’s the matter?”
“ ‘Oh,’ bawled the man, crying and carrying on, ‘Yer dog bit me, yer dog bit me.’
“I said, ‘Oh, that dog won’t bite.’ And I shut that door as tight as wax.’”
Daddy’s language was colorful. He didn’t do something a long time ago; the first time he did it he “kicked the slats out the cradle.” She did not have beautiful eyes; her eyes “looked like two burnt holes in a blanket.” Somebody was not simply thin; his butt looked like “two grains of coffee tacked on a shingle.” Something was not just good; it “would sweeten your breath and curl your hair and make you feel like a millionaire.” An oddity was not a contraption; it was “a lay-over to catch meddlers.” Something didn’t taste delicious; it was “so good that it would make a fella wish his neck was a mile long.” And it was no ordinary rainstorm that fell on ground dried by an August drought; it rained “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”
He remembered. In his 80’s he could recall whole conversations that took place thirty, fifty, sixty years before. He could recite eighty years later the names of Beck, Emma, Pet, Tom, Dan, Fannie, Mag, Gussie, Hickman Mary, Bones, King Jewel, and all the others of the 22 mules whose tack he had handled in the 1920’s when his father worked for Myrtle Beach Farms. He could tell me in 1993 who owned every house in the old part of Conway when he was delivering groceries on his bicycle in grammar school.
Daddy liked to feed people. The second most fortunate thing to happen to him (the first was marrying Tiny Burroughs) was that he was made a cook in the U. S. Navy. He probably knew how to cook before that, but then he became an expert. A stream of people came to Tiny and Otis’ condo at Garden City and ate chicken bog, shrimp, oysters, deviled crab, Peach Dunrite, and a multitude of other things. Occasionally I could coax him into getting a fresh mullet and fixing it with sweet potatoes. But there was one time he fed me that exceeded all the rest. I had come down to visit them by myself, the first time I had come home as an adult without bringing anyone with me. I left them for a couple of days to go off and make a retreat. I returned on the first Sunday in January, which happened to be that year the Feast of The Epiphany, the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Daddy had said that he had to be at church early that morning because he had some responsibilities, but I did not know what they were until I knelt down to receive communion. He was distributing the Bread of Holy Communion. He placed in my hands a little piece of bread with the words that I had said so many times myself: “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” I had fed him the Bread of Life many times before. Now it was his turn to feed me. That little morsel of bread was better than any shrimp, red snapper, grits, or mullet and sweet potato that he ever fed me.
It was not long after that, in 1997, when I was at the lowest point of my life. I was in the habit of calling and talking with Daddy every Saturday morning. One Saturday I told him, “I just want to come talk with you.”
“Well you come right on,” he invited me.
So I went to have a talk with him. It was the talk that the poet Robert Bly refers to as the talk every son must have with his father about the Wound he carries. But it was more than that. I needed to tell him about my life, much of which he did not know. We went to Brookgreen Gardens. We spent all day in front of a little pond where a baby alligator swam to and fro as I talked and Daddy listened. I knew that some of what I was saying must have been awfully rough for him to hear, so every now and again I would pause and ask, “Are you OK? Is this too much for you to hear?”
He encouraged me to continue. “Go right ahead. Get it all off your chest.” Our talk went on after we had returned to the condo, and lasted into the night. The next morning I awoke and began packing to leave. He came into my room. “Are you still all right?” I asked. He nodded. “You know, some fathers would want no more to do with me.”
He stretched his arms around me and held me tight. “I love you,” he said. “I always have. I always will.” I came away from that moment knowing that if God only loves me as much as Otis loves me—and no more—I will be all right. Thus had he given the Bread of Life to me.
We read the story of Jacob’s ladder today because Jacob is, to my mind, the most human of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible. Impetuous, sometimes confused, striving with God and men, he was nonetheless great beyond description. We heard Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2 because Daddy once went to Junaluska to attend a conference whose theme was drawn from that passage, and for years he carried that theme in words stamped on a little aluminum cross in his pocket, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” which is probably still among his effects. We heard from John’s gospel, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me and him who comes to me I will in no wise cast out.” I think that is not only about the inclusiveness of the gospel, but also about how every jot and tittle of one’s life, every beam of light and every shadow, every shard and fragment, no matter how great or trivial, will be caught up in a story of salvation and redemption. So it is with Otis. It is not only his religion, his teaching Sunday school lessons and leading hymn singing, or distributing communion, or leading prayer meetings; but it is his building a fire in that cold kitchen at the Cooper Place, his hunting with Dick Causey, his recovery from alcoholism, his jokes, his laughter, his stubbornness, his hospitality that are redeemed. In all of who he was and what he was we saw something of the Truth, just as surely as if we were holding a little crumb of bread believing it devoutly to be the Body of the one by whom Otis was made.
What a fella. What a fella.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2005.