Faded Love, Faded Memory
April 3, 2012
My father, as near as he could remember, had been happy every day of his life. If not, he never expressed any doubts or had any complaints. He was a member of a much tougher and more resilient generation than the rest of us. If he had ever been sad or depressed, he kept it buried deep inside him. That’s the way fathers were in those days. He kept his secret to himself.
He had everything he needed, he said.
He had my mother.
I was never far away.
And he had a little twenty-two acre farm near Pitner’s Junction where a handful of Hereford cattle grazed, a few chickens scratched the bare East Texas ground, and sunburnt cotton stalks rose up beyond the banks of a creek that ran low from time to time but never ran dry.
And he had a cigar box on the top shelf in the back of the closet. I didn’t know what was in it. He never said. And I don’t think I ever asked.
He told me about his growing up years in West Texas. He had been the son of an itinerant sharecropper, a man stricken with wanderlust who never stayed in one place long enough to build much of a life.
The family was forever on the move. Life always seemed better on the other side of the barbed wire fence. His father raised a little cotton in Littlefield. He worked the stockyards in Stamford. My father, as a twelve-year-old boy, worked right along with him, and they slept on a wagon bed when the day grew dark. It wasn’t a bad place to spend the night, my father said, as long as it didn’t rain, and it never rained in West Texas. His father ran a pool hall on the outskirts of Fort Worth and carried a gun and badge as a deputy sheriff in Cleburne.
My father didn’t start to school in the first grade. He was still working the fields come September. He was always working in the fields when every September rolled around. My father didn’t start to school until he was thirteen years old. He walked into a little frame one-room schoolhouse and advanced from the first to the eighth grade in one year, then never went back.
He didn’t like school, my father said. Well, he didn’t really mind school. He just didn’t like wearing hand-me-down clothes, and he decided he wouldn’t go back as long as he was barefoot. By the time he owned a good pair of shoes, he was too old, and it was too late.
At the age of sixteen, he shoved his hands into his pockets and walked two hundred miles from West Texas to Tucumcari, New Mexico, to cut down trees for a sawmill. He made seven dollars a week, which meant he was a dollar short from being the richest man in the world. Life was as good as it had ever been or would ever be. Room and board was six dollars a week. He had three good meals a day at a boarding house. And he had a dollar a week left over to buy tobacco and cigarettes.
My father might have cut trees for the rest of his life, but Dad Joiner struck oil in East Texas, the whole world was out of work because of the Great Depression that hovered like a vulture above the late 1920s, the stock market had crashed, money dried up, and there were jobs in the oilfield. My father headed for the oilfield.
He lived in a cardboard shack in Happy Hollow, swabbing it with paraffin to keep the rain out, and almost burned to death one night when a strong wind blew burning embers on the top of the paraffin.
Somewhere along the way, he collected a cigar box. He kept it in his bag of meager belongings. He changed homes from time to time, and he always carried the cigar box with him, placing it on the top shelf in the back of his closet. On occasion, it was the only thing he owned.
He met my mother in Turner Town in 1935. He was a roughneck in the oilfield, and she was a waitress in Herb Smooley’s Café. He ate so many early morning egg and bacon breakfasts while talking to her that they decided to find a preacher, say the proper words, and spend the rest of their lives together.
He gave her a ring.
She said, “I do.”
They set up housekeeping in a little three-room bungalow on the east side of Kilgore. It wasn’t much, he said. Then again, my mother thought it was the finest place where she had ever lived, and I guess it probably was.
My father had everything he wanted in life.
He had a home.
He had a job.
He had a good wife.
A few years later, he had me.
And he kept a cigar box on the top shelf in the back of his closet.
I always knew it was there, but I was never tempted to open it. When you’re growing up on the oil roads of East Texas, feeding cattle, gathering eggs, picking ears of corn, and riding a bicycle from one end of the earth to the other, you just don’t ever think about small things like a cigar box collecting dust.
When my father turned ninety-two, he could see the end in sight long before I did. My mother was in an Alzheimer’s unit. He was alone. He had a cancer eating through his lungs.
He sat me down one Sunday morning after I had driven to Kilgore to visit him, and he came walking back into the living room carrying the old cigar box.
He opened it, pulled out a snapshot, and handed it to me. It had not blurred or faded with age. He had kept it as pristine and devoid of wrinkles as he could.
On the snapshot was the smiling face of a young woman – a happy face, a pretty face.
“She might have been your mama,” he said.
I must have looked stunned.
My father shrugged. “She and I married pretty soon after I reached the oilfield,” he said. “We were married two years. She had a little baby. A boy. He died before the night was through. She died a day later. There was nothing in the world the doctors could do to help her.”
All he had left was a snapshot.
I looked at her picture, at her happy, pretty, smiling face, and a curious, odd feeling came over me. I had always been an only child. I had sometimes wandered what it would have been like to have a brother or sister.
Well, once upon a time, I did. I had a half brother if only for an hour or two.
“I want you to keep the picture for me,” he said softly. “I took care of her for as long as I could. I know you’ll do the same.”
He touched her face gently for the final time.
“She was a beautiful woman,” he said.
“She had a beautiful little boy,” he said.
Before the month ended, he was gone, too.
I took the cigar box home and placed it on the top shelf in the back of my closet. It possessed the one secret my father had kept to himself: a pretty lady in an aging black and white snapshot.
I only wished there had been another. I’ll never know and always wonder what my little brother looked like. In my mind, I just assumed that he looked like me.
Originally produced for The Writers Collection under the prompt: Snapshot.