Disclaimer: There will be some pretty excessive profanity as I go through this blog post. Can’t be helped. If you read on, you’ll see why.
It’s funny sometimes how things work. As some of you are aware (those of you on my Facebook page), I uploaded a ton of old pics last night — rescues from the dusty and darkened corners of my mother’s closet. With my heart surgery coming up (the week of January 26th — yall pray for me please!), I wanted to make sure that my kids had ready and permanent access to my family pictures, saved in such a way that they could always check them out no matter where they are. It’s as important to me that they know where I came from, to better understand where they came from. Well, one of those pictures was this kiddie pic of my stepdad Jim…
Jim is the one on the right.
I’ll be honest, there were times that I hated his guts. After my Mom and Dad got divorced, Jim had the unmitigated GALL to shatter my dreams of Mom and Dad ever getting back together. Of course, they had been divorced for about five years or so at this point, but still!
He was also a very different father figure than my Dad. While Dad was laid back and basically a big kid, Jim was very regimented, very ordered. I’m sure this had something to do with it…
He expected things to be done a certain way, and by God, it would be done exactly that way! He had no problem giving us chores to do — sweeping the barn, doing the laundry, busy work — and even less problem conscripting us to help him on whatever concrete job he was working at the time. Yeah, he paid me far better than any other 14-year old that I knew of, but it was the principle of the thing!
On top of that, he had a list of colorful Jim-isms a mile long that, while flavored with military spice, never ceased to set us to cowering… or laughing. Among these gems were…
“I’ll kick yer ass till my shoes are shitty!”
“Yer ass’ll be suckin’ seaweed!”
“What’s your major malfunction?”
“Get with the program.”
They may sound like threats to the untrained ear, but to those of us who sat under his tutelage, the CONTEXT under which he issued those “threats” often spoke to a lesson that carried more profoundly than the words themselves did.
I remember clearly one day while I was helping him row out a patio, he snapped at me for not putting my back into what I was doing. And he issued his famous warning — “If you do a half-ass job, you’ll do it twice.” I’d heard him say that a thousand times, but that day I actually got it. Putting half of myself into my work wasn’t enough to get the whole job done, and I would have to go back and redo the very thing I’d been working on, pouring second efforts on top of first efforts, fixing the mistakes that wouldn’t have happened if I had done it right the first time.
I was doing a half-ass job, and I did eventually find myself doing it twice. Remarkable! It’s a life lesson that I still relive, every time I do a home project. I can still hear his voice, clear as a bell, urging me to perfection, even if the job doesn’t necessarily require it.
Another time that stands out clearly in my mind was the summer of 1988. I’d been coming to Alabama to stay with my Dad for the summer since 1982 and flying back to Illinois for the school year, but this time I took it in my head to stay and start school in Alabama. I was sixteen at the time — three years past the legal age when I could determine which of my joint custody parents I wanted to live with — and I wanted to live with my Dad. Of course, Mom wouldn’t stand for it. What? Me choosing to stay with my adoptive father over my biological mother? Not a chance! She threatened to take Dad to court, and while I’m sure the judge would’ve sided with whatever I chose to do, I knew that Dad couldn’t afford to go to court, so I flew back up to Chicago. When I stepped off the gate, Mom was stoic and practical as ever. Jim was seething.
We stopped for a bite at one of the terminal cafes, and Mom launched into one of her famous lectures, bringing up all sorts of valid and intelligent points to support her argument. Jim cut her off in mid-lecture, stuck his finger in my face and said, “You wanted to stay in Alabama? I didn’t want your goat-smellin’ ass back either!” Then he proceeded to tell me just how badly I had broken her heart… and how that had broken his. He went on to dismiss all the plans that I had been making, my reasoning for staying in Alabama. He touched on my grades, about my laziness, anything and everything I’d failed at in his eyes. Then he said something that, at first, sounded like a curse, but over the years I’ve come to realize was a personal challenge for my betterment…
“You ain’t never gonna amount to shit. Now prove me wrong.”
See, Jim wasn’t just the slave driver with the bull float that he seemed to be. He was very tenderhearted, if you could believe that! To see someone hurt personally hurt him. I can’t count the number of times that he’d stop and sit with the homeless people on the streets of Elgin, or lend his vehicle to someone in need (often, it was me LOL), or give someone a job that he knew would stink at it but that needed the money.
He was quietly loving, and deceptively refined — or, at least, he drove himself to get as close to “refined” as he could. He was artsy fartsy. He subscribed to the Smithsonian magazine. He was an amateur chef who could turn virtually anything into a culinary masterpiece (except okra — major fail there). He kept an extensive library, “forcing” me to read things like Ice Station Zebra, the Grapes of Wrath, the Day of the Jackal, and the Odessa File.
But for all his efforts at refinement, he never lost his rough and strangely approachable edge…
As much as I love my Dad, and as much as I credit him for my imagination and my willingness to see the world from outside the box, my work ethic, my groundedness, and sense of responsibility in general comes from Jim. It took years before I could see through my differences with him to appreciate who he was as a person, and it took longer for me to see what he had been trying to do in my life… in his own way.
I say that I “hated” him for years, but the truth is, you don’t come to love someone you hate. I butted heads with him, sure, but for as spitfire mad as I got at him, there was always one thing that stood out to me and set my head to right…
For all the years that Mom and Dad were together, I never saw her this… happy. She loved Dad, sure — enough to marry him twice before finally giving up — but she was never this free with Dad. Even with Dad, she was still the same seventeen year old single mom that she’d always been because of me — practical, thoughtful, meticulous, diligent, driven. She was regimented, and rightly so, because a single mom has to be regimented, never willing to fully depend on somebody else because there’s a little kid that depends upon YOU. You can trust someone enough to risk them letting YOU down, but you can never trust that someone enough to risk letting your KID down.
Yes, Mom loved Dad fully, but I can’t say that she loved him with the abandon that she loved Jim. He brought something special out in her. As much as I butted heads with him, as much as I “said” I hated him, how could I truly hate someone who made my Mom smile like that?!?
He was only my stepdad, and he’s been gone for years now, but he’s still very much a part of who I am today, so it was important for me to save his pics to Facebook right along with all the other pics that make me who I am. The pic at the top of this blog post started a conversation between Jim’s sister Diane (the baby on the woman’s knee) and myself, which eventually led to the question — When exactly did he die? It was an easy question for me — January of 1998, eighteen years ago tomorrow, to be exact. I remember the day I got the news, clear as a bell. It had been raining heavily that week, and the roads were rather dangerous. He left the house and had never come back. He was missing for a couple days. Then one of Mom’s friends called me at work on my cellphone. She could barely talk for crying, and she could only squeeze out three words — “They found Jim.”
I never realized just how much he meant to me until I lost him. And now that I’m a Daddy myself, I realize how much of Jim I still have with me — especially when my kids drive me crazy! I don’t cuss them like Jim cussed me, but I’ve got Jim’s temper… and blessedly, his knack for hiding profound messages in everyday lessons. Even when I hit the roof, I feel compelled to instill in them a drive to overcome their problems — not just to find their way “through” their problems, but to take what’s inside them and throw it at their problems. To DEFEAT those things standing in their way. To stand squarely before those monsters of life that tell them “You ain’t shit”, and then prove the monsters wrong.
As much as I “hated” Jim as I was growing up, I can only hope that he’d be proud of what he’d see in me now.