My Dad will fool you.
He’s crusty and cantankerous, with a tendency to let his hair get too long and his mustache (and eyebrows) grow too shaggy. He’s the second-oldest of a passel of kids, if I have my math right (and I may not), an Army veteran who saw combat and (and nearly died) in Viet Nam, and he’s the living definition of “jack of all trades.”
For most of my life, my parents’ living-room furniture was made by my dad. There was a custom gun cabinet, a TV stand, a coffee table and, eventually, a bookcase, all made out of cedar. They were all gorgeous. I don’t know how many hours it took him to make those things, but once he retired from the military, he took classes in carpentry and cabinetmaking, as well as upholstery.
My Dad. How does one explain the importance of his father in his life?
One of my most vivid memories as a small child (I could have been no more than five or six years old) is the day a ritual was broken. Dad was active duty at the time, but he was stationed at Fort Rucker. The main difference between my father and other dads was that the suit he wore to work was olive drab. I would usually wake up in time to see him before he left for work, and he would give me a kiss — he called it “bye sugar.”
I would watch him in the final moments before he would walk out the door, observe the way he polished his combat boots and bloused his fatigue pants just so. And when it came time for him to walk out the door, the last thing he would do was give me a kiss. I don’t know how long that went on, but I remember the day it ended: I overslept. I woke up to see him backing the car out of our driveway. I was in tears.
Even then, I knew something special had been lost. I didn’t know how long it would stay lost.
Through my teen years, Dad and I had very little in common. We rarely spoke, and then it was usually just to argue. We had two bonds, though, that we both clung to: pro wrestling and books. We would sit down at 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays and watch Southeastern Championship Wrestling, featuring guys you’ve probably never heard of: Bob and Brad Armstrong, Ron and Robert Fuller, Austin Idol, Mr. Olympia, Porkchop Cash.
Just writing the names out makes me smile — and makes me remember asking Dad if we could go to the matches in Dothan, about 45 minutes away. Sometimes he’d even say yes.
We also had books. Dad introduced me to Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kelton, as well as Don Coldsmith. (Dad likes Westerns. Can you tell?) In turn, I introduced him to Robert B. Parker and Donald E. Westlake. I’m not sure he’d ever seen Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction until I gave him a copy of Get Shorty to read, although I’d seen Valdez is Coming floating around the house for years.
Fast-forward quite a few years: My wife and I were talking with my parents about what to get Noah for his first Christmas. I told Dad that I’d love for him to build the kiddo a toy box. That way, he’d always have something from his grandpa. Dad thought about it for awhile, went out to the little shop he keeps behind their house, and came back with a load of cedar planks — the very same batch of wood he used to make all of that living-room furniture three decades ago.
“I knew I’d find a use for that wood someday,” he told me later. “John (my brother) kept asking me for it, but I never let him have it.”
So Dad went to work — and at first it didn’t look like the box was going to come together at all. “Everything went wrong with it,” he said. “It was awful.”
But he kept at it. Christmas came, and the box wasn’t finished. I told him that was all right — and he said Noah could still have it as a birthday present. On March 18, 2012, Dad finally finished the toy box. The final step was inscribing it to Noah, from Wesley C. Mathews, and the date of the project’s completion.
This past weekend, we had Noah’s first birthday party. Really, he won’t turn one year old until tomorrow. But we wanted to make sure the little guy could be around family to celebrate his birthday. It was a wonderful time — and when I saw the chest finished, its lacquered wood fairly glowing, I got a lump in my throat. When I saw the inscription, I couldn’t hold back tears.
My Dad has given my son — his grandson — a present that will endure, a gift that can speak of who my Dad is and was, even after he’s gone. Dad gave Noah a gift that is a symbol of how much he’s loved. I always knew that children were cherished in my family, but to see how Dad treats Noah, as if he is holding the most precious treasure in the world — well, that means more to me than I can ever say. I’m near tears now, just thinking about it.
And seeing how Dad is with Noah reminds me of how he was with me when I was little. And I know I’m still loved, too.
The toy box, in its finished form, below: