Saturday, July 1, 2006
I spent Father's Day with my preacher father's diaries, all twelve volumes of them. We were poor, truly poor, but when I was young in North Carolina, everyone was poor. Father's churches never could pay him more than one thousand dollars a year, along with free rent and promises of farm produce at harvest time and at hog-killing time.
So the preacher who loved words of all kinds learned to adapt the succinct style of a news reporter, and in whatever town we lived, he served as local stringer for the Raleigh News and Observer. He wrote like crazy. That yielded a dime an inch for whatever was printed. He put that in a college fund for four children at four percent interest. We washed a lot of dishes at college, but we all got through.
I know now why he kept these diaries in a locked drawer. It's two million words, day by day, chronicling the lives of small Carolina towns and around the nation, too, back when trains were grand and hitch hiking was the way to go.
My father had come down from a scrawny farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to go to seminary to learn how to be a preacher. In time he became both revered and reviled: In the South, he was an early protagonist for equal rights for blacks, and he was a progressive pastor in tight-minded North Carolina towns. The gritty details are in the diaries, which he turned over to me as he neared death at the age of 100. His writing is honest and succinct even as he reports on an adulterous mayor and writes about his own marital tiffs and his failings as a husband and father.
Sometimes he writes like Walter Cronkite sounds; coming from trustworthy sources and ably concern over the spats and scraps among his congregations and the horrors of a nation in flu epidemics, in wars and in Depression.
Among my re-discoveries of Father was the tenderness. I was ten years old when I first saw tears fill his eyes. He kneeled at the bedside of a dying widow who had served his church through all her long life. Father held her hand, bowed his head and closed his eyes. Then, in a chatty tone as though he were just checking in with the office, he recited her good deeds in life, and prayed for her safe transit to heaven.
Her face grew serene. She squeezed her pastor's hand and tried to smile as she died. And all that's in his diaries, too. I hope to pass it along.
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