It was the year I turned eight. We lived in Oklahoma City, in the last of a series of three houses, in three different neighborhoods, three different schools. Second grade? Third grade? We lived in an older house on a corner lot with a huge yard (nearly an acre) right across the street from my school. I was in the second year there, actually beginning to know some people. I loved the house and the yard. In the back, right by the fence between us and the neighbors, was a stately pecan tree. My father built me a tree house there–just a platform, really, but I spent a lot of time hidden up in the green branches, feeling elevated over the rest of the world. There was another pecan tree closer to the house, and we got a large harvest of nuts every year when my father would clamber up into the branches (and he was not a small man) and shake them hard, making pecans rain down on us–my mother, me, and little brother and sister. Final brother hadn’t come along yet. He would show up about six months after this particular birthday.
Saturday morning. Early. Everything I ever did with my father, we did early in the morning. I don’t think he woke me up; even as a young child I was a natural early bird. I was often his early morning companion in the house, playing at the table or by his easy chair, both of us quietly companionable.
I can’t remember if the outing was planned or if he just told me to get in the car, but we were out on the road before the sun was hardly over the horizon. We went to the park, to Wiley Post Park. We often went there after church, where my parents let us run around and release all our pent-up energy after sitting (semi) quietly through a sermon. Then we could be coaxed into sitting at the table for Sunday dinner. My mother was Southern. We had Sunday dinner.
That morning, we drove through the park until Daddy found the place he wanted. There was a picnic table and a charcoal grill. There were also swings and a merry-go-round, not the kind with horses, but the metal platform kind with rails to cling to while someone pushed you faster and faster, where you could hardly stay on if you were at the edge, but in the center, it was wonderful and dizzy making, trying to focus your eyes on everything as it whirled past you. Then, trying to walk after you got off was always good for a laugh.
I played. He watched, pushed me in the swings, let me ride the spinner until he was probably bored silly. Then, the majic thing happened.
My father produced from somewhere, charcoal, food and cooking utensils and proceeded to cook me breakfast in the park. This doesn’t sound like a big thing, but consider this. In my entire life up until this day, the only thing I had ever seen my father do with regard to food was eat it. He hardly entered the kitchen at all. That was my mother’s domain. He was not the least bit “domestic”. Dust made him sneeze, housework made him tired and the noise of it all drove him to his room for a long nap. He was a good father, but he wasn’t particularly involved in the day-to-day activities of wrangling three (soon to be four) children. He worked. He came home, and my mother made dinner, got us cleaned up after, ready for bed, storied, organized, etc. He retired to the den and watched Walter Cronkite. It was 1965, but really it was still the 50s. There was no discussion about “helping”. Everyone knew their place.
So, when my father put a cast iron skillet over the hot coals and then laid slices of bacon therein and produced a loaf of bread and a carton of eggs, I truly thought there was nothing more surprising in the world and realized, even though I was too young for the actual vocabulary, that I was receiving a gift beyond price. He didn’t burn the bacon. He turned fried eggs without breaking the yolks. And he made me the best toast I ever had by buttering both sides of the bread and toasting it in the skillet in the remains of the bacon grease, like a grilled cheese sandwich. I can taste that toast while I type this.
The morning was quiet. It was May, so it was pleasant, before the searing Oklahoma heat began. We were early, so there weren’t any other people around, even though it was a weekend. We sat at the picnic table and ate our breakfast (his favorite meal, too). I don’t remember what our conversation was, only that Daddy had cooked me breakfast and it was weird and wonderful and I was happy and comfortable and couldn’t imagine a better day.
Years later, I told the story at a family gathering after he had passed. My youngest brother (the one who was incubating at the time) looked at me like I was insane. As he aged, Daddy became even less inclined to participate in domesitc activities. He (the aerospace engineer) seemed baffled by the microwave, couldn’t tolerate the noise of motorized appliances, etc. My brother simply couldn’t comprehend the younger father who wanted to do something special and out of the ordinary. I didn’t have any proof, no quick, digital photos of that day. But of all the birthdays I’ve had or will have, that one will never fade.