My father’s given name—the name on his birth certificate—was Jimmie. While I never heard him protest when someone referred to him as “Jim,” he was always quick to correct anyone who attempted the formality of “James”: “It’s Jim” or “It’s Jimmie,” he would assure them, as if there was something important about maintaining the name his parents had given him. But there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on; it seemed almost as if it were important to him to maintain the slightly impish sound of a boy’s name in the context of his large male body.
What made the name even more anomalous was the fact that, as far as I can imagine, no one would ever have used the word “impish” to describe any aspect of my father’s personality. He was a stern man; I can literally count the number of times I remember him seeming to genuinely smile on one hand. Our family’s picture album may contain photos of him with a smile on his face, but none of them come to mind as I write this.
While he was later in life diagnosed as being clinically depressed, he always just seemed distant and distracted to me and the siblings. To our friends and romantic interests, he could be terrifying. It wasn’t that he was angry; it wasn’t that he meant to be frightening; it’s more that there is simply something about silent masculinity that—to the right people at the right age—reads as cold anger. My brother and I used to take a secret delight in how much our friends seemed to be scared around him. It didn’t hurt that he was also the Captain of the Asheville Police Department during most of our teenage years.
We loved him; there was no doubt about it, but it wasn’t a joyous love nor a particularly warm affection. Again, I stress, it was not the type of love you expected from a person who insisted on the name “Jimmie.”
One Fall morning, when I was very young—no more than six—I was out playing in the front yard while my father sat in one of those old lawn chairs, drinking a glass of water while taking a break from the yard work. My father had just finished cutting back the rose bush for the year and had left a nicely organized bunch of thorny branches laying near the brush, waiting for him to pick them up later.
As a child of six—and I could tell you many a story that would verify this—I was an extraordinarily clumsy kid, generally unaware of material objects (e.g., walls, cars, bees) that could potentially hurt me if I ran into them the wrong way. True to form, as I ran in the yard barefoot, I made the decision to find out just what it would feel like to run my feet in the thorns.
It hurt. It really hurt.
While all of our memories are relatively few from that age of our lives, I remember very clearly trying to run to the porch, with a seemingly natural urge to get to a parent. Comfort of any sort is better than no comfort at all in a case like this one. The problem was, three of the thorns had actually broken off the branch and embedded themselves into my foot. As a result, although the logic of this didn’t compute at the time, each step toward my father worked to force the thorn further into my foot.
By the time I reached my father, I was not just crying but wailing. While I can no longer remember the pain, I do remember thinking at the time that I had never felt pain quite this badly (despite having been run over by a Volkswagen only a year earlier while wearing a Superman costume). As my father picked me up, I had the sense that his expression was one of puzzlement: “How could a son of mine be acting like this?,” he seemed to be thinking.
Nonetheless, he picked me up and turned my foot so that he could more closely inspect the injury. For perhaps the only time I remembered up until the point and surely afterwards, my fathers face read total empathy for me. This was a moment that crystallized in my memory. My father—large, quiet, and stern—reached down in the most gentle manner and slowly, patiently pulled each thorn from my foot while gently rubbing my arm.
Perhaps it was simply the comfort of anyone taking care of me at the moment, but it was soothing. In part, I’m sure that the comfort was so strong because his gentleness was so unexpected. Regardless of what it was, the pain went away quickly as my father kissed me on the forehead and sent me on my way. I swear I don’t remember any other moment of such warmth, at least from him. I doubt that he ever kissed me again.
I was with some of my grown siblings the other day, and we were passing around old family stories the way siblings often do. The above story came to mind as one that I could share, but I held back from doing so, in large part because, and I mean this, that moment with my father was the only moment when I actually saw “Jimmie Sloop” surface, and I’m not sure any of my other siblings ever did.
Perhaps there is no better time than the turn of the New Year for such a story, however. If the New Year is a moment for resolutions, what better resolution might one have than to promise to leave a comforting memory to those we care about?