Once upon a time my parents went over to my aunt's house to play cards and left me to take care of my baby sister. They did not give me permission to have a friend over, but Martha came anyway. After making all the usual prank calls and eating everything we could find, Martha noticed that the car key was in the ignition. We were both thirteen and had been behind the wheel of a car only once, so we immediately decided to go for a drive. We agonized over what to do about the sleeping baby; we finally bundled her up and sat her on the seat between us. Our house was only one block off the highway, so we circled the block in the opposite direction once, twice… sixteen times. We switched drivers every other round. On the seventeenth round, we casually glanced at my house and saw my father's pick-up in the glare of the naked carport light. I could make out the outline of Daddy's crew cut through the cab window and knew that every one of those little hairs was standing on end. I did not know how to put the car in reverse, so an eighteenth round was necessary. When we at last pulled into the driveway, Daddy yanked open the car door, jammed his big body between mine and the steering wheel, and snatched the baby, all in one swift motion. He cradled her gently on top of his beer belly and stalked into the house, baby blankets flying. He did not speak to me for three weeks, and I lay in bed every night, crying and cursing Martha.
Several months later, I was still thirteen and it was Father's Day. Even though it was Sunday, Daddy had to work. I went with him to make sales calls on oil wells all over South Mississippi. Sometimes, when we stopped, he would visit the trunk of his car. Late in the afternoon, after one particularly long such visit, he crawled into the back seat of the car and slept. I drove the 200 miles back home.
Daddy enjoyed taking my brother and me for rides in his pick-up. When we were little, we rode in the back with our hair flying wildly about. Later, we rode in the cab with him and listened to eight-track tapes of Richard Pryor. We rode aimlessly sometimes; other times, he would take us to the river to shoot bottles with his rifle. He would give the winner a quarter.
On Christmas Eve, Daddy happily sang "Jingle Bells" in an off-key voice. When all the relatives came for dinner, they knew to wait for him to pick his favorite dish and help himself. The first time my husband-to-be ate at our house, he was very disappointed when Daddy ate all the cabbage. The next time, he ate all the chocolate pie. He was as faithful to his dish of the day as he was to my mother.
The men of the community, from the mayor to the wino, gathered daily around Daddy's cab stand to drink coffee and listen to his off-color jokes.
He fed the birds and squirrels in the yard until they became his pets. He took one of the squirrels to my sister's first grade classroom for Show and Tell and was embarrassed when the squirrel first tinkled in the bottom of his cage and then danced furiously in it, spattering the teacher's desk. When he found our dog Smike shot to death under my window, he cried as he dug the shallow grave in the sandy creek bed that ran around our yard.
I looked in vain for my father's rough face in the crowd at parades, dance recitals, football games, talent contests at the fair. He got tired of waiting for my name to be called when I graduated from college and convinced my whole family to leave. He did manage to carry me into the gym when I was first grade Halloween princess to keep my cousin's borrowed formal from dragging in the mud. And, even though he thought church weddings were a waste of good money, he proudly escorted me down the aisle in the only suit he owned. Just before we entered the church, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both grinned our toothiest grins. He said, "Ain't this some s**t?" This saying is now a tradition at family weddings.
When the doctor told Daddy he would die if he drank one more drop, he chose to live.
I remembered all of these things as they folded the flag from my father's casket and presented it to my mother. She clutched it tightly to her chest to try to make him breathe again, but I didn't need the flag.