Legacy of a Father’s Gift

“Life is work,” Pop often says.

It is a mantra he has lived. When I was a kid, Pop would come home after a long day of work at the coal mine, a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, his face and hands blackened with coal dust from the mine. He’d walk into the house, greet us all, and then collapse onto the couch. We knew that was his time to himself. A few minutes would pass, and he’d rise and wash up before dinner. “Alright, let’s eat,” he would say in his booming voice and with a big smile. Then we all ate together. Every day, we had a good meal that Mama prepared.

Pop grew up in depression times and started working before his teen years. Some say poverty makes people grow up fast. This certainly was the case for Pop. Though, he also experienced his father abandoning his family as times became difficult. No note, no goodbye. One day there, the next day gone. Pop’s Mama didn’t even pretend about what happened. Told her kids the truth that afternoon with tears streaming down her pale cheeks.

Just eleven years old, Pop became man of the house that day. A week later, dressed in overalls, a coat too big for his small body, and a hat, Pop went to his first day of work in the coal mine.

I was the firstborn, born in 1938, shortly after Pop turned nineteen. That was the year he and Mama married.

They met on New Year’s morning. The streets were bustling with revelers still buzzing from the previous night’s celebrations. Mama often tells the story of that day with fondness in her eyes, each retelling filled with the same enchantment as the first time.

“It was the coldest morning. I was out with my friends, laughing about something silly. Didn’t notice the patch of ice beneath my feet.”

She’d chuckle, continuing, “Next thing I knew, I was slipping, the world turning topsy-turvy as I fell forward. Two strong arms caught me just as I was about to hit the ground.”

“Is this fate?” Mama had joked, looking up into the eyes of a young man with a curious mixture of surprise and amusement.

Pop, ever the storyteller, would take over at this point. His voice deep and resonant, “There she was, this vision of beauty, almost knocking the wind out of me. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if this isn’t a sign from the universe, I don’t know what is.’”

“And so, I mustered up some courage, helped her to her feet, and asked her to dinner. Right there, in the middle of the street.”

Pop, with that familiar twinkle in his eyes, would wrap up their tale by saying, “By the end of that meal, I was so smitten I proposed. The very next weekend, we were married. It was, without a doubt, the best decision of my life.”

My first memory of Pop was watching him walk up the rickety steps leading to our front door when I was seven years old. That was the day he came home from the war. He’d been gone for years. But we were lucky; he came home.

Pop started teaching me once he came home. We’d sit at the kitchen table daily doing math problems and reading. “Explain it to me,” Pop would say to each and everything we worked on. I whined at first. But Pop was Pop, and I learned with time that we would sit at that kitchen table no matter how long the work would take. We won’t talk about what happened the one time I challenged Pop, cursing under my breath while storming away from the table. Let’s just say I learned my lesson.

For years, I wondered how he knew the math or anything I was learning. Then, one night, I woke up and wandered into the kitchen for some water. The light was on, and there Pop was, sitting with a math textbook on the table, learning fractions.

I was about ten when Pop started telling me that I would go to college. It wasn’t a question nor a command. Simply a statement.

Years passed. By fifteen, I wanted to work. Help our family financially. “No,” pop said. “Your job is to study.”

“Pop, why do you care so much that I go to college?” I asked.

“Because you have to be a learned man, son. One day, I promise, you’ll understand.”

Then came the day when that special envelope arrived. We all gathered around the kitchen table. The room was thick with anticipation, and we held our breath as I carefully slit the envelope open and drew out the letter.

I can still picture the smile on his face and the faint tears streaming down from his eyes. He hugged me proud. That night, we traded our humble dining table for a restaurant in town. We had to celebrate.

Not long passed before I began to understand what Pop had done for me. It happened as I sat in the college library one night, well into the twilight hours, learning organic chemistry. I sat there trying to keep my eyes open and mind focused, trying to learn ideas written in English but sounding as though in a foreign language. It struck me at that moment, in one of those vivid instances when thoughts become feelings; this was Pop’s life nightly for years.

I got up and walked over to the pay phone in the library. And I called Pop. He picked up, “Hello.”

“Hey Pop. I’m sorry for calling so late. I just want to say thank you.”

Note: “Legacy of a Father’s Gift” is a historical fiction short story. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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