John Mayer occasionally writes a good song. I mean, even a broken clock is right twice a day, huh? I love his song “Daughters” because there’s a lot of truth in it.
On behalf of every man
Looking out for every girl,
You are the god and the weight of her world,
So fathers, be good to your daughters,
Daughters will love like you do.
That’s a pretty serious claim and, if it’s true, a serious responsibility for any man who chooses to participate in the act of creating life.
As the eldest of four sisters, I’ve watched the impact of one man on four young women literally change a good chunk of the world. Wayne Cook was a plain country boy from rural South Mississippi, a high school graduate with no college education, Army veteran of the Korean conflict, civil servant by trade, married for nearly fifty years to one woman. Lord knows he wasn’t perfect. He never could break the addiction to cigarettes. He loved a cold beer on a hot day (if you consider that a flaw), and his attendance at church was sporadic at best. Also, if you hurt his feelings, he could sulk for days.
But the values he instilled in my sisters and me form the bedrock of everything I do, and at least once a day I find myself repeating his words—funny, wise, and/or just plain quirky. Of course, some of the values I’m about to discuss come almost as much from my mother as my father…but then, the two of them were flip sides of a coin, grown together as they were.
This is how my daddy loved…
God comes first. I think one reason my dad didn’t hang out at church regularly is because he was shy, uncomfortable with crowds, and wary of false intimacy. The Depression generation considered spiritual matters private. But his faith was part of who he was, and often, when the rest of us were at church on Sunday, he would turn the TV on to Pastor Adrian Rodgers and worship with Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. One time I asked him about his relationship with Christ, and he shared clearly that he trusted Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Anyway, we girls dressed up on Sunday morning and went to church with or without him. Always.
Family is your highest investment. Daddy loved my mother with an unrelenting devotion that, as far as I know, never included the possibility of divorce. I was aware of hurt feelings between them, arguments, and occasional silences, but even when my friends experienced the hell of broken families, it never occurred to me that divorce could happen to my parents. That security has been a priceless ticket in my pocket, assuring me that it is possible to work through any interpersonal difficulty.
The Cook family never took expensive vacations. For one thing, we just didn’t have the money for it. But more importantly, my parents chose to spend their precious vacation time making long drives, on pre-interstate highways, from one corner of the state of Mississippi to the other. I was about five when we moved away from my parents’ home grounds in Lucedale, because Daddy’s job at Brookley Airfield shut down and he was transferred to the Defense Depot in Memphis. But I grew up in a close bond with my grandparents and extended family as a result of that commitment to family. That commitment continues to shape every element of my life, providing an anchor of stability when things might otherwise end in shipwreck. My mother, aunts, sisters and first cousins to this day form a daily circle of fellowship, laughter, and prayer support. The theme of family nurture runs like a golden thread through my fiction—because I cannot imagine it any other way. Readers frequently ask if my characters are based on family. The answer is, yes and no. You’d find echoes of my family in Gilly and Laurel’s tight-knit Kincade clan in Off the Record and Tour de Force, and Meg’s protective father in Under Cover of Darkness is an awful lot like mine.
Freedom isn’t free. Daddy’s patriotism was implicit in his military service, not to mention his voting record. He would have been so proud to know that his eldest grandson, my son Ryan, has served for six years with distinction in the U. S. Navy. My throat still closes when I think of the servicemen who came to play “Taps” with such solemnity at my father’s gravesite. A tribute well-deserved.
Story is power. Daddy read the newspaper cover-to-cover, every single morning of his life. He invested in a set of encyclopedias for us girls, he subscribed to Readers Digest periodical and to their condensed best seller series. He always had a dog-eared John D. McDonald mystery or Louis L’Amour western on the arm of his easy chair. And he made sure our bicycles had baskets on the handlebars, mainly so we could drag home piles of books from the public library.
My dad was a story-teller himself, too. I loved to hear his accounts of running the back roads of rural Mississippi with his brother and sisters and cousins, of his faithful dog Gizmo and the ornery mule Charley. Of tung oil pod wars, playing mumbledy-peg with pocketknives, and hitching a ride to town on Saturday afternoon, where you’d watch movie double-features for a dime and get sick on too much popcorn. Of working in Grandpa Cook’s corner grocery store, where if you asked just right, you might get a free candy bar or a soda pop. And how he never understood why he clashed so violently with his own father—until he butted heads with my sister Robin!
No wonder I’m a writer. I couldn’t help it.
Music is the food of the soul.My father had an eclectic taste in music. Country-Western was his favorite. We grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Hee-Haw, and the Porter Wagner Show, among others. Daddy played a mean harmonica, whistled like a bird, and even pounded out “Down Yonder” or “Heart and Soul” on the piano occasionally. He grew up in a family of gospel singers and pianists (specializing in shape-note transcription), so we were indoctrinated at an early age with the likes of the Cathedrals, the Happy Goodmans, and the Florida Boys.
I’ll never forget the day he came home with a new stereo system, complete with turntable, tuner/amplifier and giant speakers. He’d also bought a dozen or so LP’s—Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Floyd Cramer, Burl Ives, Flatt and Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and several Elvis Presley albums (Graceland is less than two miles from our house, so we felt a bit of proprietary pride in the King). My sisters and I played those albums so many times we can all sing them from memory. When it became popular to buy 45 records of songs we heard on the radio, I would listen to Bobby Sherman and The Osmonds and the Jackson Five and the Partridge Family on that stereo until surely my parents wanted to take the needle out of it. But they never complained, because music after all is life, right?
My sisters and I all sing and play musical instruments. I don’t know how my parents paid for all those instruments and lessons—piano, flute, guitar, trumpet, recorder, French horn. But our house was filled with music from sunrise to bedtime, and Daddy’s chief delight in life was to get a cup of coffee and sit on the front porch with the door open, listening to his girls harmonizing on hymns and Broadway tunes and folk songs from the living room. Whenever one of us had a performance at church or school—or anywhere else within driving distance—he would be in the audience, surreptitiously wiping away tears. For a gruff old cuss, he had deep emotions.
When I was in high school, he let my mother talk him into driving my neighborhood piano teacher to work every day for about five years—Mrs. Ann could talk the horns off a grown billygoat—in return for free piano lessons. Now that’s love!
Hard work, thriftiness and generosity build financial balance. If there was a job that Daddy could do himself, he did it. More than once my sisters and I wound up on top of the house with him, nailing shingles onto the roof. We washed our own cars, mowed the lawn, weeded the little garden in our suburban back yard. He once tried to teach me to change the oil in my Mustang II, but some forms of stupidity cannot be cured, apparently. Dad taught me to balance my checkbook and to always hold onto a little cash in my wallet for emergencies. Often he’d hand me a ten or a twenty “just in case you get low on gas.” After nearly a year of marriage, my husband discovered that I had a fifty-dollar bill tucked behind my drivers license, given to me by my father on the afternoon after our wedding day, just before we pulled out of the driveway to move to Texas. I made the mistake of telling Scott that daddy said it was “bus money if you ever need to come home.” I’m pretty sure he was joking, though.
You control your reputation. When I first began to date, my father reminded me (among other things), “You dress and behave like a lady, and you’ll always be treated like a lady.” The implication was that my standard of conduct in every area of my life had better remain at the highest level, whether anybody was looking or not. I get teased for being a first-born overachiever, but I couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing either of my parents, who firmly believed that my sisters and I could achieve anything in the world if we functioned on all-out endeavor, creativity, integrity, and humility.
Do I, as Mayer put it, love like my father? I sure hope so.
As I bring this little essay to a close, I smile, thinking of what my daughter may write about her father one of these days. She’s “daddy’s girl,” too. It has been fun to watch her absorb and practice some of her grandfather’s qualities passed on through my husband (yes, I chose a man in many ways like my father, though he vehemently denies it). And her young husband seems to be cast from the same mold.
So. Hannah, may you look back on a life rhythmic with music and books and family, may you tell stories that are poignant and funny and true. Most of all, may you impact your world with the love of Jesus. This is the fine legacy of a daddy’s girl.