In the summer of 1976, I spent my days in Hot Springs, NC, a small southern town with a post office, a general store with wooden floors and a greasy diner. Most town folk were products of generational inbreeding, poor education and a lack of proper dental care. Clothing looked to be made by hand, dress patterns recycled from family to family. When venturing into town, transportation was done by dilapidated, squeaky trucks, tractors or even horses.
Grandfather Carlile built a log cabin high in the Appalachian mountains, a bumpy drive up, up, up the hill from the one-lane town of Hot Springs. Even though he was an outsider, not born on the mountain, he was embraced by the toothless residents.
He offered his hand, heart and tools to whomever in need. He had the gift of human kindness, a trusted soul with a keen sense of easing the skeptical. He had the ability to fit in, like a missing puzzle piece, with any crowd of people. Whether it was the impoverished residents of the mountain or afternoon scotch with old fraternity brothers, he loved all people, regardless of income or education.
The cabin was designed and constructed by my Grandfather Carlile, an engineer. Once the cabin was finished it smelled of fresh pine, almost a moist cut. About a half mile beyond the cabin was a small pond with a nearby stream. During heavy storms, large rocks from the creek could be heard tumbling to a more stable ground.
Each morning, he grabbed a can of store brand corn and headed out. I often wondered where he went each morning, coffee in hand with a freshly shaved face, tucked in shirt and combed hair. One morning, I snuck out of bed, tip-toed from the loft, then down the stairs with no railing. I had no shoes, only a white cotton nightgown with pink ribbon.
I followed him up the road. He knew I was following but failed to acknowledge. He opened the can and began throwing the corn into the pond. Little bubbles began popping at the waters surface. Without turning around, he said: “The trout love canned corn.”
I quietly approached and stood next to him. He lowered the can of corn. I gently reached in, grabbing a tiny handful of wet, stiff golden corn. The natural corn water dripped between my fingers, eventually landing onto my dirty, bare feet. I stuffed a few kernels in my mouth ... surprisingly sweet, firm and delicious. I looked up at his raised eyebrows with amazement.
Conversation was minimal. I had plenty of questions, but even at a young age, felt it inappropriate to disturb his routine. When the can was empty, he squatted, rinsing it out with clean pond water. He turned around, grabbed my sticky hand and silently walked me back to the cabin.
Father figures sometimes work in quiet ways we don’t see immediately. Their lessons, rough or gentle, get under our skin and impact our lives and our character. Although my grandfather died when I was very young, he certainly left an impression. As I look back, I realize the good fortune of my mother to have such an engaging father.
While Father’s Day often centers around the bond between son and father, I see how my mom’s dad impacted her character and, in turn, mine. When my mother speaks of her father, Grandfather Carlile, it’s with pure delight, love and loyalty. He pushed limitations for his only daughter, encouraging her to challenge convention and become a champion, long-distance slalom water skier, an experienced underwater cave diver and an accomplished horse woman, lover of all adventure ... because of him.
If we look back, there are many quiet moments that inspire larger aha moments. If we can, we should remind the men who raised us of their impact. Bringing it to their attention may stir up a few bouts of pride or maybe a story written with a grateful hand.