A father, his daughter and the first black president of the United States
My old dad always did have a knack for getting things his way with us, even before an epidural steroid injection gone wrong landed him in a wheelchair.
I’d learned to tolerate this, and my forbearance was even sweetening into genuine compassion. “He’s an old man,” I told myself. “Just love him. Do whatever he asks of you. It’s not that hard. He won’t always be around.”
He’s not, but I was sure thinking of him Monday, on President Obama’s second inauguration.
Four years ago on the day, just as I’d settled into a leather La-Z-Boy to wait for Obama’s swearing-in, Pops wheeled into the living room and stopped between me and the live coverage on CNN.
“Come on kid,” he said, “take me to the library.”
Under ordinary circumstances I would have been in North Carolina, watching the history-making moment with my colleagues in the newsroom, but I’d gone to my folks’ house in Missouri to give Mom a little breather from the day-to-day grind.
I sighed. Such was the deal I’d cut with myself, so I pointed the remote at the TV screen, silencing Anderson Cooper mid-sentence, and stood up. Pops was gathering up a stack of hard-cover books, mostly Civil War history and biographies, from the end table next to me.
On short trips he could leave his chair behind and get around using just a walker. I helped him out the door and into his van, and we headed toward Camdenton, the county seat.
I wasn’t sure how much time remained until the actual swearing-in ceremony, and I tuned around on the radio as I drove, hoping to find live coverage on NPR.
Pops had another idea, though, and soon I was hearing George Jones:
“In North Carolina, way back in the hills, me and my old pappy and he had him a still … he brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down, then you’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around. Mighty mighty pleasin’, pappy’s corn squeezin’ … Ooooh! White lightnin.’”
He turned up the music real loud and lit a Benson and Hedges 100. And just like when I was a girl, riding shotgun with him along the gravel roads in rural Illinois, he kept the window rolled up.
The minutes ticked, and a world away, in Washington D.C., the first African-American to be elected president was about to place his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln and swear to uphold the Constitutional duties of his office, and damn it, I thought, here I am barreling down a four-lane road somewhere in the Ozarks with my Rush Limbaugh-loving pappy listening to a song about moonshine. I was dead set on keeping the peace, so bringing up Obama was out of the question. Besides, a deal’s a deal, right?
We dropped off his books, rounded up a stack of new ones, and when we were back in the van he said, “Now take me to Wal Mart.”
The sliding glass doors had barely closed behind us by the time he’d commandeered a motorized scooter.
“See ya, kid,” he said with a dismissive wave and sped off toward the guns.
I ran toward the back of the store, envisioning a display of flat-screen TVs tuned to cable news channels. Instead I found dazzlingly large replays of Sunday NFL game highlights.
As I was lurching in the direction from which I’d come, dodging slow-moving retirees and weary moms and harried workers, I caught a glimpse of a video monitor high above my head. There, as if by magic, was Barack Obama, dapper in his dark coat, solemn and reassuring, delivering his inaugural address on the Wal Mart Television Network. I stopped in the middle of the wide aisle, between the children’s wear and the small appliances, to listen.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord … On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics … Let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled …”
When I met my father at the checkout counter, I was relieved to see that he did not have a gun in the cart.
But that day at least one of us got what we wanted. Come to think of it, maybe both of us did.
How far we have traveled, yet how far we have yet to go.