Daddy loved to read westerns by Louis L’Amour. The men on the book covers were rough-looking and spent their lives outdoors without a thought of SPF or zinc oxide. Their hats and boots were utilitarian and, like their eyes, seemed weary. They carried guns: guns in holsters; guns balanced on saddles; guns casually held perpendicular to the ground; and, often, guns aimed at something unseen, an implicit acknowledgment that in that world violence always threatened.
When I call up an image of Daddy from my memory, I see him lying on a cot in our basement reading a Louis L’Amour book. He is wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt, the left sleeve ripped from a barbed wire snag, a thermal underwear shirt peeking out at the top. Periodically, he gets up to add a stick of wood to the stove. To me, the basement was never a cozy spot. The dust and soot of a thousand coal and wood fires darkened the cinder block walls and it smelled like stale smoke and rot. But, Daddy seemed to enjoy reading in the basement. Likely, both the basement and the books he read were an escape for him.
Several months before he died, Daddy gave me a Louis L’Amour book that was on his bookshelf: The Cherokee Trail. The spine is uncracked; I can’t be sure that he opened it, let alone read it. By then, he was in pain most days and it was difficult for him to concentrate on reading.
Sometimes I close the pages of the book around my face and inhale the smell. I am searching for something magical, some piece of him left in the book. Perhaps a faint scent that brings him to mind. The way he smelled after working in the sun all day. Remnants of cigarette smoke. I never find what I am looking for: it smells like no more or less than an old paperback book.
I also search for clues about him in the theme of the book. The summary on the back cover starts, “They said no woman could run a stagecoach station on the perilous Cherokee Trail. But Mary Breydon was out to prove them wrong.” Maybe the gesture of giving the book to me was more than an effort to clear off his bookshelf. Maybe he thought of me when he read the summary. Maybe even he hoped that I could be as fearless as Mary Breydon.
Even as the image of Daddy reading is clear in my memory, I don’t know if ever saw Daddy write. I can remember seeing him hold a pencil to mark a line on a two-by-four. But, I can’t remember seeing him write a note or sign a school permission slip. I remember hearing him talk about writing, “Faye, write me a check to buy groceries.” “Faye, fill out the forms for the bank.” “Faye come to town with me to pay the water bill.” But, when I look at birthday cards that I saved from my childhood, I only see my mother’s handwriting: “Love, Daddy and Mommy.”
Part of me wonders if he could write. It wasn’t a matter of dexterity. He spent a lifetime working with his hands. Planting vegetables and tobacco. Caring for livestock. Carving tiny grooves in concrete.
More likely, I think, is that he never quite learned to draw the letters. And, if he did, maybe his handwriting wasn’t the way he imagined it should be. Maybe he was ashamed of the way the letters looked after he wrote them on the page. Maybe he thought that letters written by someone who was more educated would look different, better.
In the last years before he died, he had pain in his hands and they shook. He sent me letters in California that his sister would type. And, even though it was painful and difficult, he always signed “Daddy” at the bottom.
When Daddy died, he didn’t leave much behind. But, he left me a few treasures. Memories of him reading in the basement. Real or imagined traces of him in The Cherokee Trail. And one written word: Daddy.