When Dad was born in 1919, the world was different, but not so different.
Afghanistan was at war, fighting Great Britain for independence. The world faced the great flu pandemic. World War I extended into June of that year. Mohandas Ghandi organized protests against the British occupation of India.
Dad’s generation saw amazing advances in technology: the first transatlantic flight by an airplane. While most people still got around by foot, or if they were lucky, on the back of a mule or a horse, the automobile came to Walton County. Dad and C.J. and Minnie used to run to the road see one pass the house. By the time Dad was in middle age, we were in the Space Age. He watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon from his television.
In 1919, the country was at odds over Prohibition. Civil action at last led to women’s right to vote. And fifty years later, to Martin Luther King’s leadership. Dad grew up in the time of Jim Crow laws, when the white cemetery at Euchee Valley and the black cemetery were divided by a wire fence. Though his relationship to his black employees was quite paternal, he never taught Keith and me hatred or bigotry.
Then, just as now, change altered everyone’s lives. But for Dad’s first decades, he lived much as his father had before him. They ate what they grew, what they raised. They worked outside tending to the crops and pigs, cattle and chickens. They worked hard, and to hear Dad tell it, they loved it.
This love of his early life seems to me one of his defining characteristics. You’ve heard him tell many stories about life on the farm. Can you think of a single one that wasn’t recalled with fondness? Even the one about Dad and Minnie and the hammer. I can’t remember who hit whom with that hammer, but there was definitely a hammer blow to the head. Dad and C.J. got into it when they were bigger boys, but they loved each other all their lives.
On the way to adventure, Dad and a friend drove down to the U. of Fla. to register as freshmen, but arrived too late. His friend went home to DeFuniak. Dad caught the bus to Tampa, the big bad city. He found a job at Liggets Drug Store making lunches and blue plate specials — his first steps into the food service business. He worked a few years in Tampa until he was a restaurant manager, and that’s when and where he met Mom. I’m not sure which one swept the other off his/her feet, but it took. They’ve been married 68 years.
In spite of a life-time in the restaurant business, the focus of Dad’s life was his family. Keith and I never doubted as we were growing up that we were loved, and that he would keep us safe. When the grandchildren came along, first David, then Kathy, he and mom both fell in love with those children. Then Amy, Ben, and Jef. Dad and Mom were the best grandparents any child could ever have. Then David and Kathy and Amy had children. Tabitha, Anna, Nathan, Jacob, Brendan, Justin, Alexander and Byron and Kalynn. Dad adored every one of them. In all, Dad and Mom helped raise 15 children, each of them dear and beloved.
The last years of Dad’s life, he got old, really old. After the hospitalization last November, he began a fairly swift decline. His strength waned, and his mind was increasingly clouded. But you know, even the day before Dad died, he was still Lewis Laird, Pseudo-Curmudgeon, who teased the nursing staff. He’d be sick and weak and tired, and he’d tease his nurse. They loved him, in the hospital and at the nursing home. In fact, when I told his nurses at the Vintage that he’d died, three of them cried.
Dad’s last gift to me was the example of how to be old. Until the end, he was selfless. How is the family, how are the boys, is your mother all right? These were the questions on his mind. And even through his confusion the last weeks, Dad had an effortless dignity. I hope to do as well.
We’ll miss him, every one of us.