While my father was a great life teacher, I was not always the best student. He had a reverent but complex persona. Not complex because he was overly complicated, but my father was a tough nut to crack as he let very few in completely. I often had to learn by watching, other times he was more direct and just showed me, but in everything he did there was a deliberate and important lesson to be learned.
My sister heard details of this story for the first time the other day as we were sitting around trying to get my mother’s attention away from her game on her iPad. There we sat and recalled the election and what would Daddy think. As I have said in my past posts, my father was a measured man. He would always tell me, use your words and actions like a soldier uses his ammunition. Always on target and always sparingly because neither can be taken back once they leave their source. Profound on the surface, yet it always sounded so much better when it left my father’s mouth with the slight hint of a South Carolina twang he could never truly shake. We grew up in an area of Port Washington called New Salem. These were modest homes with tree lined streets, modeled after Levitt style homes in their design. This was a big move for us. We grew up in the housing projects, Harbor Homes until I was 6 years old and my father, a man who was raised on a large parcel of 500+ acres in Johnston, South Carolina, always longed to buy a home in town. We became "blockbusters" in our community. This was a term for a family that broke the color or religious barrier for a particular community or area. It had its risks but my father was willing to forego them in order to give us a lawn to play on and a bedroom of our own.
When we moved in it was pretty normal. The threats of picketing and boycotting were just rumor and most were welcoming from what I can remember. The Dolan’s, Pink’s, Dincesen’s, Koldewey’s, McBride’s, Courtois', Thorp's, Reddy’s and Ambrosino’s were the kids we played with daily and there was no hint of any racial tension. My mother and father did their best to insulate us. Yet my parents were always very mindful that it could one day rear its ugly head.
This summer Saturday was not a particularly remarkable day; hot and sunny as you would expect. Now 8 years old, I was a familiar face in the neighborhood. So were the faces of my father and my social butterfly sister, Marsha. As my father had me pick up the grass clippings, after what seemed like hours in the summer heat, a new beautiful car pulled up. A well dressed, distinguished man pulled alongside the curb. It was an impressive car and had power windows that whizzed softly as the window came down. I could feel the air conditioning leaving the car as I walked closer to see who he was. My father shutting off the lawn mower approached at the same time. I was too interested in the car to really remember what he said but I know my father was polite and after a few minutes bid the man farewell. My father smiled and then laughed as the man drove off. We finished the lawn work and I was ready to go play with my friends. My father told me to go inside and wash up. I did as I was asked and came downstairs to see my father, now showered and dressed impeccably. He was always sharp and today was no exception. He turns to my mother and asks her to give him that new apple pie she baked early that morning. Confused she asks him why and he just answered her with a “can I have the pie, please. You can make another one”. With that we head out the door. Where I don’t know but we didn’t get in the car. We walk past several houses and after about half a block we walk up the driveway to a house I have never been to. There in the driveway sat that beautiful car I just saw in front of our house hours earlier. What we are doing here, I thought. Pie in hand my father rang the doorbell. A petite, neat woman answered the door. She too looked surprised. After all standing at the door was a man and his little boy and in the man's hand was a neatly baked pie. My father tipped his hat and asked if he could speak to her husband. She asked if they had met before and my father assured her that they met earlier. So she politely obliged and asked my father if we wanted to come in. My father politely declined and said he was fine waiting at the door. The whole time the woman was staring and smiling at me, but still looked very much confused as her eyes moved back and forth from me to my father. Her husband came to the door, clearly annoyed. When he approached he immediately recognized my father, though my father’s new and fancier attire threw him for a minute. He stared at my father and seemed troubled by the conversation. He wasn't angry, but clearly something had happened, but I was too young to truly understand what. My father graciously offered the man the pie and welcomed him to the neighborhood. The man, mouth open, stood there as we walked down his driveway. I was looking back while my father pulled me along home. When we reached home my mother was waiting by the door. She was also confused and even more so that her husband and son just walked off with a pie all dressed up. So what the hell happened, I can only think she was saying?
Later as we sat around in the backyard, my father tells my mother what happened. The new neighbor asked my father his fee for cutting the lawn. As my father tried to explain that he was the owner, the man anxious to hire someone stopped him and said he just needed him to come and take a look as soon as possible so he can give him an estimate. My father now losing his patience again tried to explain but with me nearby he decided this was no time to “dress the man down”. He finished the lawn and clearly thought it through, realizing the man likely meant no harm and decided instead to welcome him to the neighborhood with one of my mother’s famous apple pies.
We all have a choice in how we handle sensitive situations. My father had a choice that day too. But in the end what would that teach me. My father was in no way a shrinking violet and had no issues addressing most matters head on, but in this case it was very different. He made a conscious effort to educate versus castigate. Not so much for me but for our neighbor as well. I would love to tell you that my father and this neighbor became great friends. They did not. He would pass and wave and eventually move away. I think the sheer embarrassment of that situation kept him away, but that day we all learned a lesson that how we react in every situation is our choice. Anger could have been the solution and justifiably so, but my father instead chose an apple pie.