Dad is hard to write about.
Perhaps it’s because he passed away in 2007, leaving behind in my subconscious an untold story and the notion that his ghost could be lurking around the corner to take away for all of eternity my cell phone and social media should I not tell it right.
Perhaps it’s because I feel I could not adequately capture his life and his profile without tarnishing the best parts of him.
Perhaps, it’s because I’m just not ready.
Dad was a creature of his own invention. He never, as far as I know, lassoed a cow from the back of a horse. I also don’t remember him ever being particularly fond of country music. But his presence at home was always marked by his empty, polished cowboy boots resting on the edge of the worn, red carpeted steps leading down into my mother’s office. They would sit there, each full of a wooden shoe horn to maintain their shape, looking as though they were dreaming of wide open pastures on the wild frontier. I always felt sorry for those boots. They were stern, but carried a certain sadness about them, as though they longed for a life beyond the interstates between Kentucky and the Florida coast.
A large island separated our kitchen and the family room. Upon it Dad would lay his cowboy hat, and beside his hat there would be any number of interesting items he had carried around with him that day.
Dad was intriguing. He kept himself private and guarded, so that there was no story about him for his children to know. Instead, we had to piece him together by studying his belongings like an old treasure map with a key of items that never really fit together. Unearthing him into something structured and organized as one might relate to the role of fatherhood was like solving one of those elementary worksheets where you circle all of the things that don’t belong.
A pair of boots, a cowboy hat, a stack of hundred dollar bills folded between a gold money clip, a deck of dirty playing cards, and an ink pen with a woman whose clothing melted off when you turned it upside down to write.
If I didn’t know any better, I would assume that Dad spent his days beyond the post office and the grocery store somewhere between Texas and the Bronx as a part of some kind of underground mid-western mafia for white men. To my great disappointment time and time again, no matter how much I wanted to fabricate his existence into something worthy of a Hollywood screen, his real backstory didn’t lend any notion to bear truth to any such claims.
Ronald Wayne Madison, who went by his middle name, was referred to in his inner circle as “Mad Dog”, a name accredited to his temper on the golf course. He was a former Sigma Chi frat boy who grew up in Kentucky in a small town sixty miles north of Nashville, Tennessee as the son of hard-working, frugal parents who feared God and minorities. Nannie and Papa didn’t want to have anything to do with Dad following his dreams to become an actor. Much to their dismay, he spent his summer after high school sitting around the house refusing to work until they would allow him to enlist in the army. Time in the service afforded him the opportunity to live in Alaska, which is the most exotic place he ever traveled to in his lifetime.
When I was a kid, I would pass the long summer hours I would spend at home alone rummaging through old photo drawers in the family room. Unearthing old photographs of my father was perplexing, as though his life could be broken into two halves: one before his children existed and one after. The chiseled face and lean body of his youth were foreign to the way I had always known him to be. It was as if he himself at some point was impregnated by beer and greasy food, thus marriage and children grew on him in the form of a bulbous, hardened belly which would stretch his polo shirts forward and over his pants to consume a massive amount of space cloaked in Ralph Lauren pastel before him. I kept waiting for him to give birth to a younger version of himself.
Years of smoking made Dad’s voice raspy and sharp, as though he spent each morning gargling broken glass and gravel in order to intimidate us whenever we would cross him. He was unpredictable and short-tempered, so we never quite knew if anything we did wrong was going to be met with a free pass and his token sarcastic humor, or something bordering on the line between child abuse and good, old-fashioned parenting.
The worst time of day to get into trouble by Dad was in the morning before he left to run errands, or when he dropped by at home after school to check on us and drop off a sack of processed food he had picked up from the Winn-Dixie down the street. The best time was always in the late evenings when he came home from a night of drinking with his golf buddies at the country club in our neighborhood. Shooting the shit and playing poker seemed to soften him around the edges, which made him a lot more fun to be around.
Although Dad is a hard figure to write about, he persists within me as force to be reckoned with; eventually, I will have to open myself up to the stories I want to tell. They are stories of hardship and hurt enveloped and intertwined with his quick wit, lightheartedness, and all of the ways he let us know he loved us without ever having to say it aloud.
Eventually the stories will pour out of me into some kind of order which makes sense, painting him in just the right light; how the deep grooves of his face that over time had softened; how during the last two years of his life I had been blessed enough to have the opportunity to move home and become acquainted with him in an entirely new way. I would come to see him less as a father figure and more of a man apart from me who battled with demons I had been too innocent to understand until I had become calloused in my own ways and full of my own sin.