by Tim Gilmore, 8/24/2019
My father, Leslie William Gilmore, died Thursday morning, the 22nd day of August. He was 95 years old. He’d suffered from congestive heart failure for three years. He slept deeply his last night and stopped breathing at six a.m.
Lately when I close my eyes, I see the streets of my childhood neighborhood, 1982. For a while, my parents and I went for nightly walks around the neighborhood, all the way down Proxima Road, down to Andromeda. I was eight years old. Other streets around the house where I lived my first 17 years bore similar astronomical names: Centauri, Canaveral, Strato. Ostensibly the purpose for our crepuscular walks was to catch frogs to release into my dad’s garden. Actually they were Southern Toads, Anaxyrus Terrestris.
To this day, I can feel those toads in my hands, their rough warty skin, their soft bellies, the particular way those long legs kicked. One night we must have caught two dozen toads, which we placed, one after another, into a paper grocery bag. There aren’t as many toads on older suburban Florida lawns as there were back then. The United States Geological Survey confirms annual declines since the late 1960s.
We released the toads into my dad’s garden to eat the bugs that ate the salad greens and tomatoes and beans he grew. I loved his garden always. I followed him between hills of beans and rows of corn. I got in the way. When I annoyed him, I’d say, “I’m just trying to be helpful,” and he’d say, “You’re too helpful.” I loved releasing the toads from paper bags that were soaking wet with urine by the time we got them to the peas and carrots and turnips and collards. I loved the strange fat little amphibians. I loved the immersiveness of that act, those nights. I loved, of course, walking around the neighborhood with my parents holding hands and laughing.
Until last week, my dad was able to stand up from the recliner in which he slept about 18 hours a day, stabilize himself on a walker, situate his oxygen tubes, and make his way slowly and methodically to the side porch on the house he had built in Baker County in 1993. He’d sit out there in his pajama pants and dark cataract glasses, wearing a jacket when the temperature ranged through the 90s. Sometimes we’d see hummingbirds dart to and from his feeder, a pair of cardinals, my mother’s favorite bird—she used to paint them—and once, recently, a hawk.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned to him how peach trees, which he loved dearly for nearly a century, had always failed in the stony clay soil of Baker County, but how his two satsuma trees burgeoned sometimes with hundreds of fruit in one harvest. Casually I said something about the fruit trees in the back yard on Proxima Road. He didn’t remember them at all: the satsuma by the back door, then the fig tree, the apple tree over by the garden, the two peach trees, the two pear trees.
I don’t remember what I said about my mom. She died in 1986. He didn’t remember her either. He remarried in ’88. His third wife died in May—31 years. He missed her grievously. He remembered his first and third wives, but not my mom. And I decided that if my wife should die before me, I’ll never remarry.
I always felt closer to my mother than I did to my father. She was temperamental and creative, sensitive with depressive tendencies. My father grew up with people who never smiled, never said, “I love you,” Southerners hardened by the land and their subsistence upon it. They were smarter, but not less brutalized, than the Lester family in Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel Tobacco Road.
Indeed when I read Flannery O’Connor, I walk with the Jesus of my fundamentalist youth. When I read Carson McCullers, I roam the streets of Columbus, Georgia, when my dad lived there and first fell in love with a beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman named Josephine Culpepper. She became his first wife not long after he returned from serving as electrician aboard transport ships in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
When I read Erskine Caldwell, I walk the dirt roads through the lost woods where my dad grew up, where he, the age I was when my mother died, lost his father, Grady Cleveland Gilmore, to a heart attack, where his older brother James saw people standing in the tops of the trees and peering in through the windows of the farmhouse and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized in Milledgeville, Georgia, the tiny town that held the largest mental institution in the world, the town where Flannery O’Connor grew up and wrote her strange stories. In short, I was born and raised in the Southern Gothic. In the Southern Gothic, I chart deep family roots.
My dad’s parents never smiled, never said, “I love you.” My dad said he knew they loved him, but they never said so. He called them “stern.” He didn’t know how many siblings he had had, since several of them died in infancy before he was born. A baby named Clarence Gilmore died before my dad was born. A baby named Herbert Gilmore died when my dad was just old enough to form a permanent memory that Herbert had existed.
My dad talked of an “old country doctor” who broke off a needle in his father’s arm, another “old country doctor” who diagnosed his father with a cold instead of a heart attack. So my grandfather died on March 13, 1938, 36 years before I was born.
All my life, my dad told me he loved me and he demonstrated it. And in the last several years, I’ve come to understand how much like him I am. Our long skinny legs, our cheekbones, our noses, our foreheads, our work ethic, our bullheadedness, our abiding love.
In that house on Proxima Road, my dad cleared the kitchen table to quiz me on spelling and vocabulary words. I was in second grade and third. I loved it. I remember my pride in being able to spell “miscellaneous.” I can see and smell and touch the yellow kitchen linoleum floor. I see the Mexican bullfighter poster on the wall to the left of the sliding-glass doors directly behind my dad. I can see the yellow rotary-dial telephone that hung on the wall between the poster and the doors.
In that back yard on Proxima Road, we built rabbit pens and placed them to the right of the fruit trees and directly behind the vegetable garden. Sometimes we opened the chicken-wire doors and let the rabbits wander the yard. I loved them, but developed an allergy.
Behind the garden to the right of the rabbit pens stood the compost pile, circular, bound by what my dad called “garden wire.” I remember tossing eggshells and banana peels and corncobs and rabbit pellets and mown grass and apple cores and peanut shells and chicken bones onto the compost pile. It grew, magically, sometimes slowly, sometimes a foot or more at a time, frequently as tall as or taller than me. It radiated heat. Often I stood beside it and felt the warmth of the breakdown of old things. I don’t know when I started to see the whole world and all history in terms of compost, but compost became the model for all my understanding of how the world moves forward through time and how the planet regenerates itself.
Revisiting these streets today, I’m astonished how many of these ranch-style houses are abandoned. A collapsed tree sinks through the roof of a house. Broken front windows. Cars without wheels parked in front yards. Houses I remember, now boarded up; I can’t recall the names of the kids who lived there. In my childhood house, my sisters got married and my mother died. The eyes of the child in the painting across from the chair in which my mother rocked me to sleep in my first years—those eyes always shifted. I watched them.
For more than 40 years, my dad never mentioned velvet beans to me. In the last three months, he complained of them often, from memories 85 years old. On his childhood farm in Oglethorpe, Georgia, velvet beans wrapped about and grew up cornstalks. The plants complemented each other, but the beans grew just for livestock. My dad spent long days in the fields, he and black men and children shortly descended from slaves, pulling the vines down and harvesting the beans, loading them on carts hooked up to horses. The workers set themselves up atop the carts as the horses pulled the beans across the furrowed fields and the velvet shook off the beans and coated the air in great clouds of itch that filled the workers’ clothes and made them scratch for days.
Monday night, Dad fell to his knees. At about 10:30. By three in the morning, Hospice workers had set up the hospital bed in his living room. 10:30 a.m., he held my hand on one side and my sister Sheila’s on the other, no dentures in his toothless mouth, looked to me, looked to his daughter from his first marriage, closed his eyes, and said, “I love y’all.”
It wasn’t the last thing he said. He joked about a friend from church who’d stopped by, said, “He don’t never stop talkin’ and his wife’s the same way.” The next day, Wednesday, the knee upon which he’d fallen hurt him badly. Hospice doctors increased morphine dosage and frequency, then okayed Ativan. For hours, he moaned, opened his mouth wide, said, “My back’s killin’ me,” and held his hands up together in prayer, his jaws working, no words coming out.
“Did I have a heart attack?” he asked me. I said no. “What happened to me?” he asked. I told him he was just getting close. His kidneys had shut down. He said, “I feel like somebody hit me with a sledgehammer.”
He slept deeply through the night, snored loudly, opened one eye near dawn, turned his head slightly, and then he was gone.
For the last month, he’d been singing to himself a song I’d never heard before. He’d always sung to himself while working, usually hymns. Now he was singing about birds singing. If I went to the kitchen, I’d hear him alone in the living room singing, “Perk-a-deedle-dee-deedle-dum-tweet-tweet.” I asked him about the song. I always badgered him about the past. He furrowed his brows, looked serious and pensive, then burst out singing, “I’m going down to Santa Fe town to join the big fiesta.” He didn’t know how he knew it or who sang it or where it came from. “It’s just an old song,” he said. “That’s the only kind I know.” He also loved “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and I think this old country song did the same work as the hymn. It helped get him ready. Turns out, a quintet called Louise Massey and the Westerners recorded “Goin’ Down to Santa Fe Town” in 1934. My dad was 10 years old.