For most of my father’s life he was a specialty grocer and restaurateur. My dad had acquired a knowledge of how and where to purchase the best and freshest produce, meat, canned goods — every kind of quality food that customers used to expect in those days of the early to middle 20th century. He didn’t pass this expertise on to me, however much I wish I had absorbed his gift.
Daddy made playground equipment for me from rope and scraps of lumber — like the “gymnastics” tree in our backyard when we lived at our restaurant named Half-A-Hill. A rope swing that he had made hung from one branch. He fashioned a trapeze from a piece of peeled hickory limb and with rope had hung it from another sturdy branch of the oak tree. Later, he made wooden steps up to a thick, low-hanging limb that stretched out so far that several of us children could sit comfortably on it, dangling our feet in the air.
One summer when I was a young teenager and we had moved into Springfield, Mo., the girls in my neighborhood developed a fad of walking around on homemade stilts. In no time my father crafted a pair of them for me. After a few skinned knees and bruised shins, I clumped around on stilts for the rest of that summer. I think Daddy’s know-how skipped a generation. My son has taught himself to repair and make everything useful his family needs around their home.
On a lighter note, I inherited from my father the stories of his boyhood and his fascination with the traveling circuses that only rarely came to Springfield. He ran alongside the calliope and the clowns and followed, with care, the elephants as the parade rolled along from the Frisco Railroad Yards, up Boonville Hill, and ended on east St. Louis Street. I once persuaded my husband to take our children and me all the way from Rockville to the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus grounds on Benning Road SE in D.C. We couldn’t afford to buy tickets, but we had the unforgettable privilege of watching Emmett Kelly, former world famous sad clown, put on his make-up. And as we lingered outside the performers’ tent, we were able to see, for free, an elegantly clad equestrienne put her white steed through his paces. I felt the same magic then as my father would have.
Daddy loved horseracing — “flat track,” he called it, meaning not harness racing. His dream was to go to the Kentucky Derby, but he never went, in spite of our urging him. Almost every year when it’s Derby time, I think of him and of how he used to talk about Man’O War and Sea Biscuit and the Triple Crown. My husband enjoyed going to the races at Laurel and Pamlico. One year we drove back to Missouri by way of Lexington, Ky., just so that we could visit Faraway Farm, the former home of Ole Red, the nickname for Man O’ War.
But the richest gift my parents gave me was their love and their showing me, by example, how to show my affection for my loved ones.