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Absentee father

Posted: June 7, 2012 5:04 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2012 5:00 a.m.

I never knew my father; he died when I was five months old, leaving my mother with me and my 3-year-old brother. We were not his first family. He had nine children by his first wife, eight girls and one boy -- five little graves attested to the mortality rate in earlier times. Many first wives died before their husbands, not surprising since childbirth was so dangerous and the mortality rate so high. I cannot imagine having more children -- especially since my father was 63 when I was born and my mother was 40. Back then, people just had the number of children that appeared. I do know my mother always told us that our father would be with us if he had the choice.

My first memory concerning him was long after his death when I was in the first grade. The teacher was going around the room asking the students what their fathers did. When she got to me with her time-wasting question, I thought for a while, finally answering, “Nothing,” having only seen the silent grave in which he lay. The class laughed, and the teacher continued, “You know that is not true. Your parents are divorced; just say so.” I could hardly contain my tears until I got home; after all, teachers know everything to first graders. My mother took one look at my face and asked what had happened. She clarified the situation for me, grabbed her hat (her armor), and headed for the school. Miss Smith never broached the subject of my father again.

My father was a very religious, honest man. According to my mother, he never had to sign a note for seed or any loan; his handshake was enough. He started out with nothing and became well enough off to leave one farm to each of his surviving girls and two to each of his sons, showing the partiality to male offspring. He was not educated formally but followed the rule of hard work. He attended church regularly and allowed anyone who did not have a place to stay or food to eat attention at his own home. In fact, Mother once said a visitor had such a terrible reputation that my father locked him in his room that night. Can you imagine that protecting householders today from criminals?

My father was the ruler in his house as most men were. He called my mother Miss Laura, and she called him Mr. Morgan. If she needed money, she had to go to him for it and give the reason for the expenditure, returning any remainder to him. In fact, when he died, he left her legacy to be doled by a son-in-law, someone who had certainly not anticipated my father remarrying and producing more children.

Most unusual of all, my mother told me his tombstone stayed in the hallway. His first wife’s credentials were on one side, his in the middle and my mother’s on the other side. This scenario wanted me to ask three questions. Why did she allow this decoration to remain? On which side was her name? Why did the tombstone not go out to the grave site until my father died. I knew better than to query my mother on these issues!

My Aunt Eva said my father and I would never have gotten along since we were so much alike. I am not sure that was a compliment because she probably meant stubborn and determined. Certainly, he and I both were determined to have our own ways. My mother was extremely worried that I would be an old maid since I liked learning and made good grades. Her remark was, “Boys do not like smart girls.” My answer was to say, “I just won’t like them, either.” Some women married to have someone take care of themselves; I was certain I could take care of myself. -- I did not know what surprises fate had in store for me!

Perhaps if my mother had not though reading was a waste of time, I would not have loved it so much. Teenagers do strive for independence. I do know she and my father would been much prouder of my having a sweepstakes award (and money for my daughter’s Girl Scout uniform) for cooking than my Ph.D. I was fortunate to marry my husband when we were both teens. I could have married someone else, have a dozen children, no retirement and be a slave. I would have been perfectly happy to do as many other women of my time did -- play bridge, lunch out with the “girls” and have a life totally centered on my family. As it was, he said, “If you are not going to stay home, you might as well do something productive.” That edict started me on getting a B.A. degree and a teaching job, later a M.A. and a Ph.D.

A man at church recently asked me, “Why do people call you ‘doctor’ and not refer to your husband by the same term.” I truthfully said, “Because he does not have one.” I might have said that he was my Pygmalion, but anyone who would ask such a question would not have understood! My absentee father and my husband were totally different. My husband gave me wings; my father would have attempted to attach chains. My mother said that he would have his first wife serve his children with a plate of food. If they did not eat it, they got it back until it was finished. I might have starved -- certainly bending is not in my character, probably inherited from my father.

Growing up in a poor, fatherless household was difficult and made even more so by having an uneducated mother, who believed only boys needed instruction. I saw what the penalty of being passive and uneducated was. People take advantage: family and others. My father, although absent, taught me much. Today, I am an old lady, am still a force. No one takes advantage of me without my permission -- my father taught me well!

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