When my father was sixty, I was two. I never really thought about what that meant until I turned sixty a few months ago. Thanks to a private adoption two years earlier, my father entered his sixth decade with an active toddler in his house. As a single woman who never had any desire to nurture, I can only cringe when I think of what my father must have gone through.
My adopted mother was a warm, loving, smother mother, never missing an opportunity to tell me that she loved me and give me a hug. But Daddy, not so much. He was a tough, Kentucky-bred coal miner who never learned to read or write. When he was in his fifties, a few years away from retirement, I’m sure that he had been making plans on how to spend his leisure years. Those plans didn’t include me. But when the opportunity came to give my mother the child that she had dreamed about, he acquiesced and accepted the change to his lifestyle. Was he mad? If I had been in his position, I would have been pretty pissed. Maybe he tried to talk her out of it. Maybe he reminded her that by the time this baby was a teenager, both of them would be over seventy. Maybe she threatened to leave him if she couldn’t adopt this baby. Or maybe he remembered his own extra-marital peccadilloes and kept his mouth shut. Unfortunately, everyone that was present when the decision was made is gone now, so I will never know the true story.
But the truth is that when my father was sixty, I was two. I don’t remember being two. My earliest memory is of the time that my father had to take me to the bathroom because my mother was busy. I might have been at the ripe old age of three then. As he pulled down my red corduroy pants, he tore the contrasting plaid pocket on the front. I remember screaming when I saw the damage to my favorite pants, unaware that this would become a lifelong trait. I still hate any damage to my clothes and accessories. My mother came running into the bathroom, expecting the worse, like I had hit my head or peed on the bathroom floor. My father couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. I think he left the room in frustration as soon as my mother showed up. Now at sixty, I can see the incident from his point of view. He got me to the bathroom before I ruined my clothes. So what if he tore a pocket? What did a three-year-old put in a pocket anyway? It’s not like I had keys or money. I have never changed a diaper or taken a toddler to the bathroom, so I commend my father for his paternal assistance in spite of my wardrobe malfunction.
In 1962, when I was five, my father retired from the mine. I was in first grade, so he was able to enjoy his day until at least 3 PM. After that, the quiet, restful retirement that he anticipated was shattered. He was subjected to a chatty brat who had to share everything that she had learned at school that day. Why did she spread her dolls and stuffed animals all over the living room floor while he was watching his Westerns when she had a separate play area in the next room? Why did she think that she could teach him to read? Poor Daddy. He had to live in a world of paper dolls, assorted pets, and way too many books.
I knew that my father had something called Black Lung. I knew that he coughed and wheezed a lot. But that didn’t stop him from teaching me how to ride a bike. Or pushing me on my swing set. Or fixing broken toys. Or picking me up from grade school in his Cadillac.
One day, when I was seventeen and he was seventy-four, he said in anger, “We should have left you in North Carolina.” By then, Momma had been dead for four years and I had become a challenging teenager. I was shocked, and I cried as if he had torn my heart like a pocket on a pair of corduroy pants. But today at sixty, if I had to live with a smart mouth, smart-ass teenage girl, I would be ready to send her back where she came from too. Maybe he thought about all of the sacrifices that he had made for an ungrateful kid who talked back all of the time. Maybe he thought about what life would have been like without the encumbrance of an adopted child.
If anyone ever tried to bring a two-year-old into my home, I would run all the way to Antarctica, even though I hate snow and penguins that don’t play hockey. Daddy could have moved out and left Momma alone with a child that he probably didn’t want. Or he could have drank his troubles away and created a home full of violence and fear. He could have squandered his money and never paid the bills. But he didn’t do any of those things. He wasn’t affectionate, or quick to praise, but he was trustworthy. He was protective. He never deserted his family nor shirked his responsibilities. He didn’t take the title of Father lightly, even if he might have originally taken it with trepidation.
When Daddy was sixty, I was two. As I move through the ages that we shared, I realize the sacrifices that he made as an older father. I am humbled and grateful that he changed his plans sixty years ago to include me and to become my Daddy.