— Margaret Thatcher
Past prime minister, UK
(aka “The Iron Lady”)
(b. Oct. 13, 1925)
Early on New Year’s morning I stared into the bathroom mirror.
My dad stared back.
Yes, it had finally happened. Folks called it inevitable, but I didn’t listen. Not no way, not no how.
But it did.
Glancing at this fuzzy reflection through sleepy eyes, I greeted fate. And fate returned the favor.
When my fiancee and I married almost 36 years ago, some told me she would become her mother in years to come. They were right. Almost four decades later, my wife’s as pretty as her mom was then and is now.
And so it seems the same is true with fathers and sons — but in sad reverse. Dad was never a handsome man; thus, by inheritance and preordained plan, I am not pretty as a pickle. Some might say I favor a pickle. If so, then by nature and temperament, I would be a dill.
Dad was a little man with a pronounced midsection in his latter days, the product of too little exercise and too much of Mom’s home cooking. His lower chest dwarfed the skinniest toothpicks east of the Mississippi. He called them legs. Years ago at a family reunion, one of my first cousins hailing from Starkville, Miss., described him as an elf — all torso mounted atop a pair of rails nestled at the bottom in scarred brown shoes.
It was a fitting description, one that would have drawn Dad’s laughter had he been around to hear the good-natured jibe.
As an aging warrior from World War II whose North Italy duties kept him in the fray against the Hitler and Mussolini henchmen of the early ’40s, Dad’s health eventually played out in his working years back in the States and especially after retirement.
Yet on his good days, Dad was a jovial character whose laugh jarred his whole body — all 5 feet, 4 inches of it — rattled his second chin and left his face as red as a sunburned beet. The man had a dry wit, a ready smile and a hankering for country life.
When his faltering health allowed, Dad was a funny man. He was a challenged man. He was a good man.
Looking into the mirror on this early morn, I understood the words behind the voice of Uncle Charles Norton of McMinnville who sometime back told me, “Rick, you are becoming the spitting image of your father.”
I didn’t know whether to thank him or punch him. It isn’t proper to punch one’s uncle so I just chuckled, as Dad would have done and probably in the same fashion.
But on this day I realized Uncle Charles was right.
Like it or not, I was rapidly becoming my dad. Those soothsayers of genetics were wise far beyond their words. They spoke from experience which is nature’s finest teacher.
The hair was thinning like a tree in autumn. What few twigs remained glistened in shades of silver and white and in muted tones in between. Wrinkles creased the face in sporadic lines like a roadmap, and the leathery texture of skin was born from too many days in the sun and too few moments in the rain. The forehead sloped like a desert dune colored by sands of tan and red and toll. The eyes seemed tired, and almost gray with a veiled glow. The smile came in a whisper. The chin hung silent, shrouded in stubs of white. Spots of age dotted the ears and long-ago scars from long-ago days told a story of life and time and years.
That fellow in the mirror was my Dad.
That reflection mounted against the wall was me.
Twenty-two years ago this Tuesday, his candle flickered its final breath and the silhouette I knew as Dad was no more. He was 71, yet his life’s experiences numbered in the thousands.
On this morning, I smiled a smile of sweet irony.
Dad smiled back.
I blinked away the morning haze. He did the same.
I coarsed the fingers of my right hand through unkempt hair. He used his left, and neither of us pulled back a follicle.
Dad always knew my ways, read my thoughts and answered my prayers — not just in this life, but in every life whether as a grimy little country boy in Falkner, Miss., who loved frogs, fishing and farms, or an aging newspaperman in Southeast Tennessee who’d lost touch with all three.
“It’s a new year, Dad,” I nodded into the mirror.
He nodded back, and agreed.
“Hope you make it a good one,” I added. “Oh, and say hi to Mom.”
His round face said he would.
Eyes might truly be the mirror to the soul.
But dads light their way.