Happy Father’s Day to all the daddy’s out there… and, to all the men who step in when needed.
My father, stepfather, and grandfather have all passed and I miss them dearly. In remembrance of them, I’d like to share with you a little bit about them.
I never knew my dad’s father, so when I speak of my grandfather, I always mean my mom’s father. William C. Mulling, Sr. is forever known to me as “Papa”. Born in Georgia, he was from a family of farmers and up to the day he died, could grow anything anywhere. He was a tall man who towered over me and spoke with a stern and thunderous voice. Many people thought of him to be too harsh, much too critical, and cold. I, on the other hand, found him to be a man with a tender and gentle side who could be warm and loving in non-conventional ways. He was very critical at times, but even though his words sounded hard, I believe he meant for them to be helpful… at least, sometimes. He was very dedicated to his family, even though he always seemed to have the toughest time verbally expressing or showing his emotions. Yet, I always remember him saying “I love you, too” in response to me when I said, “I love you” to him.
He was extremely patriotic and was always proud to exclaim that he had fought in WWII and The Korean War with the Army. He was raised in a time where men didn’t cry… it was wrong for men to be anything but the breadwinner and protector of the family… if anyone was in need, you helped in whatever way you could… you worked hard, paid your bills, and if you wanted something, you saved up for it and paid cash. He was also VERY intelligent. And, I mean VERY BRIGHT. You’d never in a million years have guessed that he never attended school higher than the 7th grade.
Papa could be quite frugal with his money. But, I remember as a very little girl being in the grocery store with him and seeing a baby lamb stuffed toy that I just absolutely fell in love with. I stood and stared at it hanging above me in the aisle while he shopped. He’d call me to him, but I just stood and stared. I wanted that little lamb sooooooooo bad!!! I had stood there the entire time we were in the store and when he called for me to leave with him, he had a smile on his face and held the grocery bag down for me to see inside of it. There was a little baby lamb that he had gotten for me without me even seeing… probably because I was too fixated on the one right above me in the aisle I was standing in. I grabbed the baby lamb and hugged his neck so tightly that I thought my arms would snap in two. On our way home, as he walked beside me, I merrily skipped holding his hand in mine and holding my new baby lamb tightly to my chest.
When Papa came home from work each evening, he clearly was ready for supper and then watching the news and game shows. Yet, if I was there, he would happily invite me to stand in his recliner behind him as he sat with the TV on… letting me “do” his hair. I would get my grandmother’s comb and curlers and somehow get those curlers to stay in his very, very short, slick hair. He would let me do this for hours on end. Looking back, I’m sure he must have wanted to just relax after a long day at work without me messing with his hair and digging my feet into his back. But, if I disturbed him, he certainly never let me see it. And, today it seems even sweeter for him to not be bothered in the least that pink curlers were tightly wound in his hair.
Papa would tell me over and over how it was such a waste of time to have to go back over something you had already done. He said, “If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right the first time.” (And, I believe that may be where some of my obsession for perfection comes into play.)
My dad, James Durell Dennis, Sr. was, in some ways, the opposite of my grandfather. Dad was much more openly affectionate than Papa. He was born in southern Alabama. Dad was also much quicker with a joke or prank. While Papa’s humor was dry and disguised, Dad’s sense of humor ranged from silly nonsense to vulgar. He almost always found a way to make people laugh… even when it was more of a groan than a chuckle.
Dad fought for his country in the Vietnam War as a sailor. I often wondered just what his part was as a Navy man, but he would NEVER discuss it. He felt that his service entitled him to a certain degree of respect for doing what was asked of him, yet did not feel the need to share it in any way.
He would tell me stories of how his mother (GrannyBell) all but raised him and his 7 brothers and 2 sisters on her own. As the baby of his family, he had a special closeness to his mother… and, she turned that affection to my baby brother when he was born… the baby boy of her baby boy. He would tell me how she would make them cut their own switches from a tree if they needed to be disciplined. And, I imagine with 9 children, there was a lot of discipline needed. Dad would always end up telling me how if he had a tummy ache, she would mix a spoonful of gasoline and sugar for him to swallow. Eeewwww. He said it helped, though. So glad he didn’t use that remedy on me. Whew.
Dad was a very smart man. Book smart. And, street smart. He probably had more common sense than anyone I know. He was great at logic problems and math. Riddles were a favorite of his to share. I can’t think of anything that he couldn’t figure out on his own.
We were always sharing things with each other… especially candy. As a little girl, I remember receiving a gift of some sort that was a bowl of little soaps shaped as roses. I ran to Dad where he was napping on the couch and woke him up to see the cute little soaps that looked like flowers. Except, when I handed one to him, in his sleepy stupor, he thought I was handing him a piece of candy. Needless to say, he was NOT pleased when he bit into that soap! Until that moment, I don’t believe I understood just how fast that man could move as he jumped up off that couch. Somewhere, I still have that little bowl of soaps shaped like roses… one, with his teeth marks still clearly visible.
My dad loved to sing and write songs. I found a notebook of his one day when I was in my teens. It contained songs and poems he’d written. I was so excited to see that notebook because it meant I could share with him my own notebook of poetry and songs. We sang together a lot. A lot! He had a great voice and was not shy about it at all. I guess he passed that musical talent to my brother and I… more to my brother than me. As a very young child, I remember him singing to me whenever I’d get upset or sad. The words I remember him singing the most when I was little is…
“Listen… Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Whoa-ohhh-oh, closer. Let me whisper in your ear. Say the words you long to hear… I’m in love with you. Oooo-oooo-oo.”
I’m no Beatles fan by any stretch, but to this day, I still love that song! And, it still puts me at ease.
I remember being at parties with my parents and watching my mom and dad dance together. They always had so much fun. And, they were both REALLY good at it. I always wanted to dance the way they did. I still do.
When my dad was still in the Navy, he was stationed in Long Beach, CA, and we lived in the Navy Apartments there. I was crying one day when my dad came home and when he asked me why, I told him that some boy had been hitting me and picking on me. He asked if I had hit him back and when I said no, he marched me right over to that boy’s apartment . When the mother answered the door, at first she refused to have her son come outside. However, when my dad suggested that either I could handle this with her son or my dad could handle it with her husband, she had the boy come to the door. My father promptly explained to me that if I did not whoop his butt for hitting me, he would take me home and whoop mine. It didn’t matter how little I was, I knew that my dad’s whoopin’ would hurt a whole lot more than anything that boy could do to me. I slugged him as hard as I could. He ran into his apartment crying. My father then told me that if anyone ever hit me again, I’d BETTER beat their butt. He said to not EVER throw the first punch, but if I was defending myself, I’d better ALWAYS be throwing the last one.
Oh, and that boy? He never picked on me again. In fact, he was quite nice to me from then on. (Is it bad that I just snickered?)
Dad probably gave me the best advice ever when he said to me, “Everything you do has a consequence. ALWAYS think about the consequence. If you don’t think you can handle the consequence, then DON’T DO IT!” Those words have made me think things through more thoroughly. Obviously, I sometimes thought I could handle consequences that I evidently couldn’t… or, didn’t want to. But, I hope it’s helped me to make better choices. I know it’s kept me out of a whole lot of trouble that looked like a whole lot of fun at the time.
My stepfather, George Prentice Bussey, III, was my mother’s second husband. He was undoubtedly the most educated man I’ve ever known. He was a Navy veteran like my dad. George was born in Georgia and worked his way through Georgetown University. He was a southern man who could talk circles around the best of the city businessmen.
He owned and/or managed night clubs, restaurants, hotels, and private membership clubs. I took all business and accounting courses in high school primarily because of him. He had me start working with him as a young teenager doing typing, layouts of brochures, pamphlets, menus, and management outlines.
Being much older than my mother, his children were all grown and had families of their own. He was grounded. He was solid. And, even when sick with cancer, he still found a little time to pass the football with my brother. I think I loved him more for that than anything. As I pull into the driveway sometimes, I still hear him say, “Home again. Home again. Jiggity jig.”
George had traveled and seen places of the world that I’ll probably only ever dream of. He was aware of his own mortality, yet chose to live his life – especially in his younger years – to the absolute fullest.
I learned more while working with him and watching him interact with people… employees, customers, contractors, and vendors… than from anyone else. He would always walk through his dining rooms to greet customers as they were dining. George made a point of stopping to speak with everyone he could to ask them how their meal or service was and would immediately rectify even the smallest of concerns. He frequently gave out his business card with a handwritten note for a free meal to various customers even though very few ever had any complaints. He believed that giving the customer a quality product at a reasonable price with outstanding personal attention was the key to success. And, he made a believer out of me.
None of these men were perfect. All of them had their shortcomings.
They were all perfect in their own way.
And, they were all loved by me.