Dad’s birthday was September 25. He would have been ninety-two this year had he not died at eighty-nine.
I don’t really believe in heavenly birthdays. I mean, if you’ve arrived at that perfect resting place to walk streets of gold and sing in that angel choir, I can imagine a more logical celebration might be of the day you got there. That would be that day you made the transition from earth, flying to the skies. For Dad, that would be November 19.
Still, I think of Dad every September 25, and small and large events always pop up to remind me of him.
This year, a Saturday, I was in my study editing a book for a friend when Neil (our semi-permanent houseguest) knocked on the door. He held out an old pocket knife with a faded tiger-painted pearl handle and said, “I just found this. I bet it was your dad’s.”
I took it from him and answered, “Looks like his. Now if one blade is broken…” It was. I didn’t know Dad still had the knife, but I remember asking him, “Why don’t you get a new one?” He told me, “Because I like this one so much. I’m used to that broken blade. In fact, it’s come in handy in some situations.”
I laid the knife on the base of my computer monitor and stared at it for a while. The last time I saw Dad use it, he was cutting bright red string to secure tomatoes to their cages. I tried to get him to use something less showy, maybe green, but he got a big roll of crimson twine, free, from a packing company and was proud to use it.
Since Dad died, I moved my office from The Cellar to The Study. The Study was Dad’s place on the ground level of their apartment. He had it framed and made into a room when they first moved in. It was where he hid from Mom and the TV. His old wooden desk, a sofa, and all his books (about 600) and sixty years of sermons lived there, too. I sold most of his books and moved his desk out, and brought over all my furnishings and books from The Cellar, the efficiency apartment in the basement of the main house and now Neil’s place. This year, I got artwork on the walls and started using this room every day.
I come down to The Study about 6:00 am every morning. Saturday, September 25, 2021, was the same. I don’t see anyone until Mom wakes up, and I go upstairs to help her get her day started. After Neil presented himself and the pocketknife, I thanked him and, since I’d been whisked away from my editing tasks so suddenly, took a few minutes to get back into a work mood.
I hadn’t slept well the night before, so an afternoon nap was in perfect order. When I woke after an hour-and-a-half, I grabbed my phone to see if I’d missed any messages. Somehow I wound up on Gmail instead of Messages, and a New York Times headline caught my eye. “Breaking News: An Amtrak train derailed in Montana, At Least 3 Dead.”
When it was time to give Mom supper (about 4:30), I sat down for a few minutes in her living room. “Mom,” I said, “Did you see that a train derailed in Montana?”
“Oh, no. You know, that’s what your dad was afraid of when we were on that train trip to California.” My brother Denny and his wife, Bev, had given Mom and Dad tickets on the train from Nashville to California. Mom loved every minute; Dad hated it. He swore everyone that was on that train (the one to California) would be killed. He told Mom that when he got to California, he was going to get back the money paid for the return home from Amtrak and find an airplane with a flight to Nashville.
“No, you are not,” she told him, probably a bit firmly. “The kids gave us this trip because they thought we’d enjoy it, and you’re going to behave yourself.”
He did, but he didn’t like it.
We picked Mom and Dad up in Kentucky, and Dad swore he’d never get on a train again. He didn’t.
Now, sitting with Mom, I pondered what this coincidence meant, if anything.
“And on his birthday,” she said. “Amtrak. We were on an Amtrak train.”
It was time to get home and start dinner for the rest of the family. I took some compost to the porch and happened to look to the lower garden. The red dahlias had burst into bloom. They were always in bloom for Dad’s birthday. He loved red, especially red roses. “Hey, Sis,” he would ask me every September, “Are those red roses blooming in your lower garden?”
“No,” I’d answer. “They’re not roses; they’re dahlias.”
“Well, they sure are pretty. You’re certain they’re not roses…”
This past weekend was the date for the Southern Festival of Books. Dad loved any event featuring the written word. He preferred non-fiction: politics, theology, biography. I’ve been a volunteer host for sessions for years, and Dad always wanted to know about my authors.
Like last year, the event this year was staged virtually, for the most part. I received notice of the authors who would be in conversation for my session. I got three favorites: Bobbie Ann Mason (she wrote In Country), Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind than Home), and Ron Rash (my favorite book from him is Saints At the River.)
Volunteers receive the author’s current work in the mail to use for preparation. We usually make a short introduction for each author, and we prepare questions to stimulate discussion between the authors. Serenity, the woman in charge of the sessions told me, “You don’t have to do much for these three. They know each other, and I expect them to just take off between themselves without much help from you.”
I didn’t get to read all three books before the session. I received Wiley’s novel, When Ghosts Come Home, and Ron’s collection of short stories and a novella, In the Valley, about a week before the event. I finished Wiley’s and read three selections from Ron’s. I received Bobbie Ann’s Dear Ann this week, several days after the SFB. The day before the session, I was still preparing, and the day of the session, I was trying to wrap up bios for each author. I found good information on the publishing house’s author website for Bobbie Ann’s and Wiley’s. I had to go to Wikipedia for more information on Ron Rash.
While I’d talked to each of these authors at book events, I’d never really engaged them. I hoped they played off each other as I’d heard suggested by Serenity.
They didn’t. I had to lead a bit during the session. It felt somewhat awkward at times.
Bobbie Ann appeared a little wafty, but some say that’s normal. Wiley was cute, young, and animated. Ron…well, Ron was thoughtful and quietly funny, subtly spiritual, I guess, the type of guy you just want to pat softly on the shoulder. But I knew what he’d be like. I’d seen on Wiki that his birthday is September 25.
I almost told him the red dahlias are in bloom.