HENRY SMITH, A BABY BOOMER’S DADDY
By NANCY PATRICK
I grew up in a simpler time than today’s society. My dad was a child of the Great
Depression, born in 1928 in the dirt poor farming community of Blevins, Arkansas. His
parents had five children; my dad, the second. He grew up working hard, leaving his home at age 14 to move 17 miles away to Hope, Arkansas, where he lived in the
back of a filling station and pumped gas for his wages. He left school at that time, having
completed only the seventh grade. I write this background because I think my father’s
early, forced independence created the man he became.
I’ve lost both my parents in the past six years, so I’ve thought a lot about their roles
in my life. My parents exemplified the old, traditional kind of parents of their generation.
Married 65 years, they had two daughters. Daddy worked hard at his job; Mom
worked hard at home; and my sister and I went to school, grew up, and got married just as our parents had done. Despite my dad’s being a WW II veteran in a generation of men who did not openly demonstrate their feelings, he provided for our needs and was always home at night. My sister and I never worried about being hungry or abandoned. He did, after all, take care of his responsibilities as our father.
We had a complicated relationship, though. Because he showed no visible affection,
my sister, our mom, and I craved signs of love from him. I once asked him why he never
told Mom he loved her, and he responded, “I told her when I married her, and if I change
my mind, I’ll let her know.” It sounds harsh, but that was his way. As an adult, I realized that emotions terrified my dad—for reasons I’ll never fully understand— but I never doubted that he loved us.
As young adults, my husband and I moved from Abilene for about 20 years,
returning in 1990 as my parents began their senior years. As an adult, my relationship with Dad morphed into something quite different from that of my childhood. He began
depending on me for all his and Mom’s financial and medical matters (he was functionally illiterate and unable to navigate through the complex Social Security and Medicare systems). He valued and respected my abilities although he still liked to remind me that my “book smarts” didn’t make me smarter than he was.
Although he never said “I love you,” he did begin calling me “his angel.” Every time I
did chores or errands for him, he would call out as I left the house, “Send me a bill.” That
joking tone told me he loved me. As Mom’s health deteriorated and they faced the possibility of having to leave their home, I found Daddy sitting in his recliner one day, crying his eyes out. His shoulders shook as I knelt and held him in my arms. The fear of losing control of his life terrified him. As I held him, I stroked his head and told him how much I loved him and that I would take care of him. He finally whispered the words, “I love you, too.”
The next few years were very bad ones as my parents declined and finally died, Dad
in 2012 and Mom 16 months later. I spent time with them every day during those
years and have fond memories of one of the last days my dad talked. He was hallucinating about people from the past and pointing to things for me to see. I would comment on whatever he described and ask him questions. He seemed happy in those last moments as he and I relived a pleasant memory together.
Although I wish I could remember my dad’s holding me or hugging me or taking me
to special events, I cannot. But I do have the memories of the last years when he became a tender, loving man. I still miss my dad. I always called him “Daddy,” even on the day he
died. An accompanying photo shows my dad, Henry Smith, with me at six months of age. Although I don’t remember it, I treasure knowing that he held me in his arms.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.