Posted by: Banta | June 14, 2013

A Lion’s Legacy

Were he still alive, dad would celebrate his 90th birthday this month. He died mid summer 2009, just weeks after he turned 86. Twice that June, on Fathers Day and on his birthday, the family gathered around dad’s hospital bed, set up in the downstairs den of my parents’ house. We brought balloons and cake and a few awkward gifts he would never use. We pretended to be festive. We knew he would not be with us much longer. So we loved on him and held his hand and told stories. We alternately laughed and wept, buffeted by one another, and at the same time navigating a room full of private griefs.

Ours was a complicated relationship. A daughter by choice and not by birth, I came to know George when he started courting my mother. Her first marriage (begun when she was nineteen) had ended in divorce when I was barely a toddler. My biological father told me years later that he thought it would be “less confusing” to remove himself from my life altogether, so certain was he that my mother would remarry. I never understood that logic, but that’s a story for another day. Luckily, for me and for all of us in the sweep of dad’s broad legacy, my mom found George.

 These words came to me the first June after dad died.

Out of habit
I stood in the card aisle
reading
Fathers Day and Birthday
messages from daughter
to dad,
and looking for you
between the lines.

The depth of this longing
took my breath away.
June was always
your month.

Last year when we
circled the hospital bed
with balloons and good cheer,
your eyes drank us in
one face at a time.

You held each gaze,
speaking without words
all the love in your heart,
knowing this would be
our last June together.

You had already started to disappear.
Your cheeks thin, and loose skin
hanging from legs
with nothing left to give.

I knew you were leaving us,
that it was almost time.
And I missed you already.

Now it is June again.
Your chair is empty.
Your once bellowing voice gone silent.
What wouldn’t I give for
one more testy argument,
one more knowing look,
once more hearing you say,
“Thanks for the call, darling.”

When he first met my mother, George had been a bachelor for thirty-two years. After college, interupted by a stint in the Navy during WWII, he lived at home with his parents for a time and worked in his father’s insurance company. When that got old, George transferred to Tampa for a taste of independence. That’s when he met Ginny. Since her divorce (a phenomenon bordering on scandal in 1952), my mom and I had divided our year between my great-grandmother’s home in Jacksonville, and a great aunt and uncle’s bayfront house on Siesta Key just south of Sarasota. This same great aunt set up George and Ginny on a blind date at a local soda fountain. And the rest is history.

George adored my mother from the first time he laid eyes on her. To his credit, he fully understood that he needed my cooperation to win my mother’s hand. We were a package deal. So George courted me with the same enthusiasm and persistence that he courted my mom. At four years old, and essentially fatherless, I was hungry for this kind of attention.

“Come on, Banta, let’s go for a swim. I’ll teach you how to float.” George coaxed my timid self into the calm waters of Sarasota Bay. He scooped me up and waded out into the bay until he stood waist deep in the water. Then he swirled me around a few times until I forgot to be afraid. He talked to me as he swirled. Slow and easy, patient and present, he explained what we were going to do and how the water would hold me up and rock me like a baby. Then he put his hand on the small of my back and told me to lie on the water like I was going to sleep. He promised not to let go.

George kept his promises. I could tell by the feel of his hand on my back. I relaxed into the water, buoyed by George’s hand, and I floated. Like he said, the water cradled and rocked me and I felt safe. So safe that not long after that I let George teach me to swim. He still held a few records in the butterfly stroke from when he was in college. He knew his stuff and he wanted me to love the water. I started to love George instead and I told my mother we should marry him. She loved him, too, and so we did.

Fast forward five years and two new siblings later. When I was in the fourth grade, I had to miss school one April day for a mysterious meeting at the courthouse in downtown Jacksonville. I rode in the back seat and George drove. He and my mother talked in code all the way there.

“Will it be a long wait to see the judge, do you think?” my mother asked.
“I hope not,” George replied. “Harold is expecting us. We’ll have a private hearing with him.”

Judge. Private hearing. My heart pumped wildly in my chest. I had never missed school for any reason other than being sick and I was scared. Parents did not talk to kids in those days. At least not my parents. And this sounded ominous. My insecure nine-year old belly rumbled with worry. One father had already left me. Was this one going to give me away to some judge? Had I done something wrong? I scanned the internal family rule book. Made my bed this morning. Helped with the dishes last night. Did my homework. Watched my two little sisters when asked. Tried not to sass the grown-ups. Remembered my yes ma’ams and no sirs, most of the time. Hadn’t needed a switching since the Christmas a few years back when I slapped Blue. In my defense, I didn’t slap her hard, and she didn’t even cry. But she waited until my handprint appeared on her cheek and then she ratted me out.

Blue was my private name for the sister who arrived nine months and two days after my mom and George’s wedding. They said she turned blue for just a minute right after she was born, and they made a huge fuss over this. They said she could have died. I was five years old then, and didn’t think I would have missed her. Her arrival changed everything. From the moment my mother announced she was pregnant, all George could think about was that baby growing in her stomach. He stopped taking me swimming, stopped pulling me into his lap to read after supper, stopped calling me his special girl. I hated that baby before I laid eyes on her. She was George’s flesh and blood and I was not, and I was sure she would suck all the father-love out of his heart and keep it for herself. I called her Blue for spite. Nobody else knew that. They thought it was cute.

So now I’m in the back seat of the car and I’m having a nine-year old panic attack because I think my parents are going to give me away. When we got to the courthouse and were directed to Courtroom D, I held my mother’s hand all the way down the long paneled hallway as if these were my last few moments with her. We piled into a long pew and waited for the judge to arrive. I sat very still, willing myself to become invisible. Maybe they would forget what they came here for. Maybe the judge wouldn’t show up and we would just go home. I made a few deals with God while we waited. I promised to be nice to Blue from now on. I said she could have the biggest piece of cake, the last cookie, my favorite Barbie.

The judge came. He and George shook hands and made small talk about fishing. They celebrated how well the kingfish were running this year, and wondered where the shad were hiding in Lake George. I listened for the part where they would appoint some smarmy foster parents to come and get me, and I wished I had brought my blue flannel blanket and my teddy bear and my good luck rabbit’s foot. I thought they would come in handy for the coal bin under the back stairs where I’d probably be sleeping from now on. My heart still pounded so hard I was sure the judge could hear it from where he sat up there in front. And my face was wet with hot silent tears.

Finally they called my mother and me up. The judge put his glasses on and read some papers, then handed them down to George. “These seem to be in order,” he said. “Just sign all three copies and we’ll get them filed for you. You can expect to have the new birth certificate within four to six weeks. Any questions?”

I had plenty of questions. My mother shook her head and smiled. George signed the papers and handed them back to the judge. They shook hands again. This chummy business creeped me out. Still no foster parents in sight. Would somebody please tell me what is going on?

The judge looked down at me and his expression softened. “Why I think it’s time to introduce young Banta here to her new daddy.” I gulped. Here it comes. Something registered with George, like he had forgotten the niggly little detail of telling me what we were doing here at the courthouse to begin with. He actually knelt down and looked me straight in the eye. “Banta, honey, I hope it’s okay with you, because I am now officially your father and you are officially my very own daughter.”

I stared at him. What was he talking about? My mother chimed in, “George has adopted you, Banta. We came to the courthouse to make it all legal and proper. From now on your last name will be Whitner, just like me and your sisters.” She paused for effect. “Now what do you say to that, child?”

That was family shorthand for, “Say thank you to your new daddy, Banta.” So I did. I was so relieved I jumped up and wrapped my arms around his neck. My daddy. He hugged me back real hard. Mama smiled and mussed my hair. Then we all went out to lunch at Morrison’s cafeteria and had hamburgers and macaroni salad and cokes and green jello and butter pecan ice cream for dessert. I ate like there was no tomorrow and made it through the entire meal without either of them telling me to mind my table manners, don’t chew with your mouth open, wipe your chin, don’t slurp up the straw. So they weren’t getting rid of me after all. Halleluia thank you God and help me with all those promises I made about Blue, cause they will be powerful hard to keep. I’ll do my best.

This Fathers Day, I hold Dad close to my heart. The card aisle still brings me to tears, but I have learned that, in addition to finding cards for my own dear husband, the words that echo the dad sentiments best are those I find for my brother John. John is the youngest of George’s four children, born when I was a junior in high school. He is a grown man now, with teenaged children of his own. I love watching him be a dad. He is present with his kids, patient, engaged, proud of their successes, compassionate with their growing edges. He is a good teacher. He knows how to balance work and play and family time. He is fiercely devoted to and protective of his family, which is what he saw modeled for him by our Dad.

At Dad’s funeral, John shared these words:42

I think of my father as a lion. When he roared, all the creatures of
the forest took heed. But the true measure of this lion was not in his
 roar, but in the sheer size and remarkable diversity of his seemingly
endless pride.

From my mother Ginny, the love of his life, to his children,
grandchildren, his sister Martha, his parents John and Eleanor, to his
countless friends, colleagues and employees, so many here today, Dad
loved us all with the most steadfast, enduring, reliable, and true
kind of love.  And protective…beware the lion if you mess with one
of his pride.

If he was your friend, you did not have a truer one. If he was your
boss, you never had a better one. If he was your mentor, you never
learned more than from George. If you were his wife, you could not
have been loved more. If you were his family, there was no better
provider. If you were his son, you could find no finer example of a
father, husband, man, leader and friend than dad.

Already, I miss the lion.

As do I. Every single day.


Responses

  1. Beautiful, Banta dear. I sit here with tears in my eyes and remember your father’s kindness to me always. Happy Father’s Day.

  2. Dearest Dear Heart, I have just discovered [REdiscovered!] you via your blog where you have put your heart and soul in plain view of everyone reading here, and thank you for doing so because everything you’ve said in print resonates deeply with me as we have unknowingly lead parallel lives over the years. Indeed, your entire family was/are fixed points in our family universe, from Carrie Belle onward. Your grandmother Virginia was my Godmother, your mother has always been my ultimate ideal woman, and YOU I’ve always observed with reverence and admiration. I share your love of place w/ western NC mountains, we’ve both built houses with views that speak to those cherished girlhood memories. Oh yes to that house hanging off US64, I remember the flagstone terrace, I remember Buddy and Billy, and of course Tita/Elise, and the house at the foot of Montgomery where Va and Phil lived, and the madras dress your mom “handed down” to me, I thought I’d die of happiness wearing that dress to Lee! Here’s how I refound you: was cruising FB, landed on Blair Woolverton’s page, nowadays FB shows a little grid of thumbnail pics from the friend list of each account holder and THERE YOU WERE. There’s Banta! Long story longer, I also recall brother Jake telling me how you and Bruce were reading their poetry board one day – do you know that I also lived in that apt building @ Talbot&Pine, I believe you were just a little girl when you, too, lived there for a spell. The very same day I discovered you via Blair’s FB, I visited the RELee Alum Assn FB page where…guess what!…well, here, take a look for yourself:

    Sending all my love to you,

    Flo Ingram Hunter
    Amelia Island FL


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