By WENDY HODGE
Once upon a time, a young man from the Carolinas moved to Auburn and attended The Alabama Polytechnic Institute. He spotted a girl waiting for a bus and offered her a ride to campus. She accepted, and they spent the next 70 years together. During that time, they raised my brother and sister and me, they worked and prayed and they grew old.
That’s the condensed version. But oh, there is a lifetime of stories and memories those words can’t begin to tell.
My dad was a public whistler, often filling whatever silence may fall with a whistled version of How Great Thou Art alternating with Dust in the Wind with equal gusto. He loved to tell jokes, cracking himself up before he even got to the punchline. I’d love to say his jokes were funny, but, more often than not, they were cringeworthy. It was hard not to laugh when he was so clearly enjoying himself, though.
My dad was protective of us all, sometimes to a fault. Being the youngest child by more than a decade, he seemed to be most concerned about my safety. Imagine my embarrassment when he showed up at a New Year’s Eve party I was attending because he was worried that I was out so late. That would have been sweet, had I not been 20 years old. And had he not been wearing his bathrobe.
That same year, I was on a canoe trip with several others making our way down the Tallapoosa River. As we circled through Horseshoe Bend National Park, a rock landed in the water directly in front of my canoe. And then another landed directly behind me. From the riverbank, came the sound of my name being called. And there was my dad, emerging from the trees, a handful of rocks and a worried look on his face.
“Just checking on you,” he called out.
That, too, would have been sweet, had I not been sharing a canoe with my older brother. And I was still 20 years old.
“I’m not a fan of you being out on the water,” he said later. “There’s snakes and alligators out there, you know.”
The summer I went to Europe, my dad had watched news of the IRA bombings in that part of the world and decided that I just could not make such a dangerous trip. Calmer heads prevailed, and I did go to London. But as I left for the airport, my dad said, “I’m not a fan of you flying.” My mother told me later that he watched the news every night I was gone and paced the floor, no doubt imagining every worst-case scenario a parent can torture themselves with.
For all his worrying, he was a man who loved to have a good time. He was a fan of many things — a plate full of good food, his broken-in recliner, brightly colored new shirts (the man was color blind and had the worst fashion sense) and babies. He couldn’t resist a sweet little baby — they turned him to mush.
He was a lifetime Auburn football fan — and that’s no small feat. He once told me, “It’s easy to be an Alabama fan because they’re expected to win. But being an Auburn fan takes grit. You never know what kind of season we’re going to have.”
He watched every Auburn game he could beginning way back in the late 60s or early 70s, which means that he watched over 50 years of SEC football. Many hundreds of games, all with the hope that Auburn would win the Iron Bowl. The SEC championship is just icing on the cake. Everyone in Alabama knows the Iron Bowl is the real prize.
November of 2013, our family gathered in a cabin in the Smokies for our Thanksgiving holiday. The 78th Iron Bowl found us all gathered around an enormous television anchored above an equally large fireplace. Feasting on leftovers, we watched as Auburn ran the ball the entire length of the field to score the winning touchdown in the final second of the game. My dad practically levitated. He clapped, he laughed, he yelled. With sheer pleasure beaming on his face, he announced to the room, “Man, it’s good to be an Auburn fan!” And it really was.
My dad was so proud of all his grandchildren. Whenever there was a concert or a play, my dad was there in the front row cheering them on. He sat in the bleachers for his grandsons’ ball games and in an auditorium for his granddaughter’s ballet recital. Maybe because she was the youngest, my daughter Abbey could make my dad’s face light up like no one else could. He was so proud of her accomplishments. The day she graduated from Auburn University (his own alma mater), my dad was beaming. Though bedridden, he raised up to hug her when she stopped by and asked for his checkbook so he could write her a check to show how proud he was.
“He’s her biggest fan,” my mother whispered to me.
“You’re one in a million,” my dad said to Abbey. And he meant it.
Dad isn’t here to whistle or tell jokes anymore. His loudly colored shirts hang limply in the closet. No one sits in his recliner, as if it’s an unspoken rule that only the owner sits there. My dad’s not here to watch football this year. It will be the first season he’s missed in as many years as I’ve been alive.
But the family he built is still here. We have retold his jokes and shared memories and stories, and somehow that has helped. We have held my mother up and shared the uniquely painful grief that losing your other half, the person you’ve spent seven decades with, must surely be.
The other day my daughter called me and said, “I’m sending you a picture.” I waited a moment for the text to come through, and there it was. A picture of my daughter’s arm, freshly tattooed with this perfectly elegant symbol: I/MM.
“It’s Roman numerals. One in a million. Just like Papa always said,” she explained.
“It’s perfect,” I answered. “Papa would be such a fan.”