I never thought this day would come. Okay, yes I did. I knew as a young girl and on into adulthood that my dad's love of cigarettes would eventually lead to emphysema, oxygen tanks and lung cancer and that's exactly what happened, in that order. Sure, it was a nasty awful habit, an embarrassing addiction but it didn't take away from the fact that my dad was a tough yet kind, amazing person. He was loyal, funny, strong, cool and handsome with his beautiful blue eyes.
My dad was a simple person, not at all fancy. Which was very apparent in his fashion choices: chambray jeans, a plaid or striped short sleeved button down shirt, brown or black gold toe socks and hush puppies. He NEVER wore a coat, ever! When he reached his 50's, he would don a long sleeved red and black plaid flannel that he would wear over his signature plaid shirt. And that was only if the weather was below 30 degrees. He even wore the same belt for as long as I can remember. In part because his belt was used for dual purposes: to hold up his chambray jeans because his lack of behind kept them sagging (long before it was trendy) and to whip us into shape whenever necessary. Old Yeller, as the belt was called was legendary in our house. I'm not sure when the belt broke, but I'd like to think it was while whacking some one's butt. He also used the same hairbrush for nearly thirty years. It was the second line of discipline when Old Yeller was otherwise occupied. That brush has been hurled across a room and down the hall so many times I've lost count. My dad had precise aim and knew just how hard to throw the brush to inflict enough pain to make a point but not enough to break. Now, I don't want you to think he abused us. That's just how things were done in our house back when physical discipline was the norm in almost every one's home. My older siblings may disagree, I think it's because he was too tired when us three younger girls came along. Really, my dad had a heart of gold beneath his crusty exterior, anyone that knew him would agree.
He ran a construction business for many years and his workers worshipped the ground Mr. Gary walked on, bringing him treats ranging from boots to umpteen bottles of tequila which he never drank. My dad didn't drink alcohol much, he liked Squirt and Coke with "alotta" ice. He also loved food! He loved to cook, but wasn't into fancy, unless you counted his Chicken Cordon Bleu. He was particularly proud of his spaghetti, his blue cheese dressing, vegetable soup and his exact replica of orange chicken a la Chinese takeout. He was also a snacker. I can't tell you how many times we had to rub/scratch his feet while he enjoyed a post-work/pre-dinner snack. His favorites being: fried pork skins, avocado with salt, Fritos and bean dip, Tostitos with cheese dip and Corn Nuts. He also thoroughly enjoyed Hostess Fried pies, green onion dip with Ruffles and cheese nachos with an ice cold Squirt. My daddy liked his drinks cold and his toast burnt. His favorite dinner was homemade fried chicken, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes and green onions with plenty of salt. Another favorite was liver, ummm yuck!
He swore that liver, lima beans, beets (straight from the can) and other such awful foods would put hair on your chest. Cool dad, thanks...
My dad was more than just a ''foodie'', he was also a crazy good handyman. He could make or fix anything. If he had time, his fix-its were a work of art. If he was in a hurry, they were still a work of art. Just of the duct tape/pliers variety. Trust me, we were the only kids I know who had a pair of vise grips for a shower knob. I've even seen my dad fashion a new insole for his hush puppies with one of my old binders from school during our particularly lean years. I'm pretty sure that the one fix-it skill he was most proud of was his ability to repair firearms. This was a self-taught skill, that provided money for our family. We lived off of his gunsmithing skills for many, many years. Back then, I never gave much thought to it. There was always "just enough" for what we needed and sometimes extra, like 99 cent Whopper Wednesdays at Burger King accompanied by a bag of chips and a 2 liter soda. Good times, surrounded by cheap food. I have many fond memories of time spent at his gun shop, Anderson Firearms, playing school with my sisters in the office upstairs. I thought I was a badass because my tough ol' daddy had his own business and it was a gun store, no less. Before he had to sell off his personal cache of firearms so we could eat, he would spread out his and my mom's good bedspread on the living room floor and clean his guns for hours. Those guns were his pride and joy, besides his babies which is precisely why he sold them, so we could eat and have water and electricity. And, that's not all he unloaded to take care of us. I, more than once accompanied him to a pawn shop to sell a power tool so we could have money. He had to swallow his pride a lot when we were growing up, borrowing from whomever he could and whatever he could to support his brood. And, I know it wasn't easy but I'll be forever thankful and in awe of my dad for this.
Some of my fondest memories are of him tossing us in the back of his Datsun pickup truck so we could head to Winchell's donuts or him, once in a blue moon going to church with us smelling a little like Winston lights and a lot like Wint-O-Green life savers and Old Spice cologne. He would rest his arm along the back of the pew, so he could love on you or thump your back if you got out of line. He would hum every hymn in his deep voice, which was a nice comforting sound. He took his role as comforter and nurturer very seriously, tough as he was. I can't count the times when I was sick that I would wake up to his rough, calloused hands checking my temperature or trying to shove baby aspirin or Donnatal down my throat. He loved his babies, no matter how feisty we were or how old we got, and showed us in his own special way. Most memorable would be picking our birthday and Valentine's cards when my mom began working towards my fifth grade year. He would always tease me in the cards about burning cookies, I think because he got me a card every year with a cookie recipe printed inside. His nickname for me was Rat, and he was the only one who was allowed to call me that. I distinctly remember one of the cards saying, "Honest Rat, I like hard cookies."
As much as he loved and cherished us, it was understood that we make his coffee, dump his ashtray, and get him a post dinner toothpick and rub his back of scratch his feet most nights of the week. Back then I hated it, now I realized he deserved it because he worked so hard for us. The feet scratching was the worst for us definitely. But the back rubs drove me nuts, because he always commanded us to "grab handfuls" of skin simply because it felt good and indulgent after a long day of work.
Of course, as a kid these were annoyances and now they are fond memories. Eventually we all grew up and moved away. Some out of state, but not me, I stayed close. As much as my parents drove me nuts, I couldn't stand to be far. I first moved five minutes away, then 15, then 45, and the furthest- 1 hour, which was heartbreaking because I always needed my mommy and daddy close. Many days as an adult, my dad would stop by to take my oldest child "ghost hunting", which was essentially a drive in the dark to look for ghosts or he would pop over on his lunch hour. He says he was checking on us, but I think mainly he wanted me to bid on books on Ebay for him so he could add to his collection of Stephen Meader books. He never learned how to use a computer, and I was his personal computer shopper.
I eventually moved further away and as my family grew older and got busier, I saw my folks less and less, but I talked to them everyday. Anytime I was scared, worried or needed advice, I would hang out with them so we could talk and talk and talk. The most recent was in November of 2010, when I was going through some heavy duty personal stuff. We sat at El Fenix, ate enchiladas and chatted, with my dad giving me stellar advice, as usual. Everything was okay when I talked to my dad, he always made me feel better. Then, as he aged without me realizing it, and eventually contracted cancer, it became mine and my siblings jobs to make him feel better. Gladly feeding him his favorite foods, making him coffee, rubbing his back and scratching his feet. Anything to ease his pain and misery. And yes, I put on his deodorant, trimmed his nose hair, and clipped his nails among many other things. I would've done anything to give him one ounce of the care, comfort and compassion he gave us kids growing up. What I wouldn't give to hear him tell me one more time, "You're hell, ain't ya, Rat?"
This isn't bye, Daddy. It's "see ya on the other side."
Love, Ashley "Rat Rat" Kristen Anderson