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Son and Father

ISSUE:  Autumn 1986

The more I see of old people,” my father said in the last letter he wrote me, “the greater my feeling is that the bulk of them should be destroyed.” “Not you,” I thought when I read the letter, “at least not yet.” For years I imagined that I was different, even better than my father. Then one evening I walked into his room to ask about a book and found him asleep on his bed. Although I had seen him sleeping countless times, I was startled. His pajamas were inside out, as mine invariably are, and I noticed that we slept in the same position, left arm bent under the pillow, hand resting on the headboard; right leg pulled high towards the chest, and left thrust back and behind with the toes pointed, seemingly pushing us up and through the bed. Suddenly I realized father and I were remarkably alike, the greatest difference being the years that separated our lives. At first I was upset. I had never consciously rejected family, but like the bottom of the bed against which I appeared to be pushing at night, my father and his life provided a firmness against which I could press and thrust myself off into something better.

As I looked at the old man lying on the bed, his thin ankles and knobby feet sticking out of his pajamas like fallen branches, I felt warm and comfortable. Instead of being parted by time and youth’s false sense of superiority, we were bound together by patterns of living. His life could teach me about my future and my past, but, I thought, how little I knew about him. How well, I wondered, did any son know a father, particularly an only son, the recipient of so much love and attention that he worried about having a self and turned inward, often ignoring the parents about him and responding aggressively to concern with a petulant “leave me alone.”

In his letter father said that he and mother disagreed about the past. “I tell her,” he wrote, “that her recollections are remarkable, albeit not necessarily accurate.” My memories of father are ordinary and consist of a few glimpses: such things, for example, as his running alongside and steadying me when I learned to ride a bicycle and his fondness for chocolate. Mother liked chocolate, too, and whenever father was given a box of candy, he hid it in his closet where mother could not reach it. The closet was dark, and as he grew older and his sight failed, he kept a flashlight in a shoebox. In a way, I suppose, past events resemble leaves on a tree. A multitude of little things make up life in full bloom, but as time passes, they fall and disappear without a trace. A few seeds blow into the garage, or memory, and get wedged behind spades, axes, and bits of lumber. If found or remembered, they are usually swept aside. Does it matter that father rolled and chewed his tongue while telling a story or that after having drinks before dinner he would talk with his mouth full and embarrass me? Particular place is often necessary if the seeds lodged in memory are to sprout and grow green. Sadly places vanish almost as quickly as leaves in October.

The Sulgrave Apartment where I lived for eight years and the long alley behind stretching through neighborhoods and drawing gangs of children to its treasures has vanished. When I was five I entered Ransome School. For the first months, father walked all the way to school with me, along West End across Fairfax where Mr. Underwood the policeman waved at us, under the railway trestle and up Iroquois, past three small streets, Howell, Harding, and Sutherland. Slowly, as I grew surer, father walked less of the distance with me; one morning he did not cross Sutherland; sometime later, he stopped at Harding, then Howell. Eventually he left me at the corner of Fairfax and I made my own way to Ransome under the watchful eye of Mr. Underwood. What I did when I was five, I can do no longer. The trestle and tracks with their caches of spikes, Iroquois, Harding, Howell, Sutherland, and Ransome itself, a scrapbook of small faces, have disappeared. All the associations that would freshen memory have been torn down for an Interstate, going to Memphis or Birmingham, I am not sure which. Great washes of cars and trucks pour down ramps and rush through my old neighborhood. Traffic is so heavy that I rarely drive on West End, and when I must, the congestion makes me so nervous and the driving takes such concentration that I never think of Ransome, Mr. Underwood, or a little boy and a tall, thin man holding hands as they walked to school.

Father grew up in Carthage, Tennessee, a town of some two thousand people set high above the Cumberland River on red clay bluffs 55 miles east of Nashville. Since Carthage was the seat of Smith County, sidewalks ran along Main Street, and father and his brother Coleman used to roller skate from their house to grandfather’s insurance agency, downtown over the bank. Life in Carthage was slow and from my perspective appealingly unsophisticated. On the front page of the weekly newspaper alongside an ad for Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Ointment were excerpts from the sermons of the Reverend Sam P. Jones, the local Methodist minister. “I wouldn’t give whiskey to a man until he had been dead for three days,” Jones said. “When an old red-nosed politician gets so he isn’t fit for anything else,” he declared, “the Democrat Party send him to the Legislature.” When a resident went away, a notice duly appeared on the front page. “D.B. Kittrell,” the paper informed readers, “went to Nashville last week with about 40 fat hogs and has not yet returned.”

Not much money was to be made in Carthage, and people lived comfortably. Every morning Grandpa Pickering walked downtown and had coffee with friends, after which he came home for breakfast. Only then did he go to his office. Grandfather’s house was a white, clapboard, two-story Victorian with a bright tin roof. A porch ran around two sides; at one corner of the porch was a cupola; on top was a weathervane. Huge sugar maples stood in the front yard, and about the house were bushes of white hydrangeas; in spring they seemed like mountains of snow to me. In back of the house was the well, sheds, fields, a tobacco barn, and then a long slope down to the river. Bessie the maid cooked grandfather’s breakfast. She made wonderful shortcake, and whenever I was in Carthage, she gave me sweet coffee to drink. Bessie’s first marriage had not been a success; James her husband was unfaithful, and one night when he returned from gallivanting, she shot him. Although James lost a leg, he did not die, and grandfather got Bessie off with a suspended sentence. Later after grandfather’s death, Bessie married a preacher and moved to Nashville. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, she often came to our house and cooked. The last time she came she asked me if I were still catching bugs and snakes.

I don’t remember any snakes in Carthage, and the only bugs I recall catching are tobacco worms. I took a bucket from the back porch and after walking down to the tobacco patch filled it with worms. Then I drew a big circle in the dust on the road and in the middle dumped the worms. The first worm to detach itself from the squirming green pile and to crawl out of the circle I returned to the bucket and carried back to the field. The others I crushed. Tobacco worms are big and fat, and if I lined up worm and sole just right and put my foot down quickly heel to toe, I could occasionally squirt a worm’s innards two feet.

Grandfather died when I was young, and I have few memories of him. During the last months of his life, he was bedridden. Beside his bed was always a stack of flower magazines. All seemed to have been filled with pictures of zinnias, bright red and orange, and occasionally purple, zinnias, the only flower father ever grew. Grandma Pickering outlived her husband, and I have clearer memories of her. She was strong-willed and opinionated, once confessing to me that she voted for Roosevelt the first time. In some ways Carthage may have been too small for her; she was interested in literature, and after her death I found scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings: poems, reviews, and articles. Most of the poems were conventionally inspirational or religious and were typically entitled “Symbols of Victory” and “Earth is Not Man’s Abiding Place.” Occasionally, though, I found other kinds of poetry, poems for the dreamer, not the moralist, poems which did not teach but which sketched moods. Pasted on the bottom of a page containing an article on “Shakespeare’s Ideals of Womanhood” and a review of For Whom the Bell Tolls were two lines: “I’ve reached the land of Golden-rod, / Afar I see it wave and nod.” Much as it is hard to think of father skating along the sidewalks of Carthage so it is difficult to think of Grandma Pickering as a dreamer. Instead of bright, beckoning goldenrod, I associate her with a rusting red Studebaker. Almost until the day she died, she drove; and whenever she left Carthage for Nashville, the sheriff radioed ahead to the Highway Patrol, warning “Mrs. Pickering’s on the road.” Along the way, patrolmen watched out for her, and when she reached Lebanon, one telephoned father and then he and mother and I drove out to a Stuckey’s near the city limits and waited. After what seemed forever, she eventually appeared, inevitably with cars backed up behind her by the score, something that embarrassed me terribly.

Father told me little about his childhood in Carthage. I know only that he had an Airedale named Jerry, that on Rattlesnake Mountain, the hill just outside town, he once saw a huge snake, that he almost died after eating homemade strawberry ice cream at a birthday party, and that Lucy, the talented little girl next door, died from trichinosis. Report cards provided most of what I know about father’s childhood, and in grandmother’s scrapbooks, I found several. Father entered first grade in 1915; Lena Douglas taught him Reading, Spelling, Writing, Arithmetic, and Language; his average for the year in all subjects was 99 and a half; during those two years he was remarkably healthy and missed only three days of school. The Carthage schools proved too easy, and for a year in high school father attended KMI, Kentucky Military Institute, a place about which he never spoke except to say “children should not be sent to military schools.” After KMI, father returned to Carthage, skipped two grades, graduated from high school, and in 1925 entered Vanderbilt.

One of my undergraduate nicknames was “machine,” and once or twice when I walked into class intent on an A, people made whirring or clanking sounds. Father, it seems, rarely attended class; every semester at Vanderbilt his quality credits were reduced because of absences. In 1927 he skipped so many classes that the dean called him in for a conference. Story had it that if the dean got out of his chair and put his arm around a student’s shoulders, the student was certain to be dismissed from school. Midway through the interview, the dean rose and approached father. Swiftly father got up and walked around the desk, and thus conversation proceeded in circular fashion, with the dean lecturing and pursuing and father explaining and running. The result was probation, not expulsion. It was a wonder that father had enough energy to elude the dean because he never attended gym class, a required course. Before graduation, one of father’s physician friends wrote a letter, urging the suspension of the requirement in father’s case, explaining “Pickering has a lameness in his back.” After reading the letter, the dean said, “no more lies, Pickering; out of my office.” Father left silently and graduated.

Although father majored in English during the great years of Vanderbilt’s English Department—the years of the Fugitives and Agrarians—his college experiences were personal, not intellectual. From Carthage he brought with him the small town world of particulars and familial relationships. For him, as for me, reality was apparent and truth clear, and he had little interest in hidden structures or highly-wrought reasoning, making D’s in psychology and philosophy. In later years he rarely talked about classroom matters unless there was a story attached. When John Crowe Ransom assigned two poems to be written, father exhausted his inspiration and interest on the first and got his roommate who had a certain lyrical ability to write the other. The week following the assignment, Professor Ransom read father’s two poems to the class, remarking “It is inconceivable to me that the same person could have written these poems.” “A matter of mood, Mr. Ransom,” father explained, and he was right. Whose mood seems beside the point, especially when the non-poetic have to write verse. I inherited father’s poetic skills, and in sixth grade when I was assigned a poem, I turned to him, and he turned out “The Zoo,” a very effective piece for 12-year-olds, featuring among others a polar bear with white hair, a chimp with a limp, an antelope on the end of a rope, and a turtle named Myrtle. Despite his lack of poetic talent, father read a fair amount of poetry and was fond of quoting verse, particularly poems like Tennyson’s “The Splendour Falls,” the sounds of which rang coolly and clearly like bells. Father’s favorite poet was Byron, and the dying gladiator was a companion of my childhood while the Coliseum seemed to stand, not in faraway Rome but just around the corner of another day. College, however, probably had little to do with father’s enjoyment of Byron; the source was closer to home, father’s grandfather William Blackstone Pickering. On a shelf in our library I found The Works of Lord Byron in Verse and Prose, published in Hartford in 1840 by Silas Andrus and Son. The book was inscribed “Wm. B. Pickering from his father.” Over the inscription a child wrote “Sammie F. Pickering.” Under that in a firm, youthful handwriting was written “Samuel Pickering, Beta House, Vanderbilt University, 1926.”

Often holding three jobs at once, father worked his way through Vanderbilt and simply did not have much time for classes. Yet he was always a reading man, and at times I suspected that there was nothing he had not read. Years later at his office, he kept books in the top drawer of his desk. When business was slow, he pulled the drawer out slightly and after placing a pad and pencil in front of himself for appearances, he read. Despite the college jobs, such a reader should have done better than the B’s, C’s, and D’s father made in English. In part the small-town world of Carthage may have been responsible for his performance. Carthage was a world of particulars, not abstractions, a place in which Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Ointment “Cures Nothing but Piles,” a town in which Mrs. Polk, a neighbor, could burst into grandfather’s kitchen crying that Mary, her daughter who had gone to Nashville, “was ruined.” “Oh, Lord,” grandfather exclaimed, “was she taken advantage of.” “Yes,” Mrs. Polk answered, “she had her hair bobbed.” At Vanderbilt during the 1920’s literary criticism was shifting from the personal and anecdotal to the intellectual and the abstract. Instead of explaining ordinary life, it began to create an extraordinary world of thought far from piles and bobbed hair. For father such a shift led to boredom and the conviction that although literary criticism might entertain some people it was ultimately insignificant. In the six decades that have passed since father entered Vanderbilt, criticism has become more rarefied, and the result is, as a friend and critic wrote me, “we write books that even our mothers won’t read.”

Carthage influenced more than father’s school work; it determined the course of his career. Although grandmother dreamed of the land of golden-rod, she stayed in Carthage and joined the Eastern Star. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1929, father went to work in the personnel department of the Travelers Insurance Company. Years later, he told me he made a mistake. “I did what my father did,” he said, “I should have done something different, even run off to sea.” An old man’s thoughts often wander far from the path trod by the young man, and running away to sea is only accomplished in books and dreamed about when the house is quiet and the children asleep. For his insurance business, grandfather traveled about Smith County in a buggy; occasionally he took the train to Nashville. Once when he was trying to settle a claim over a mule which had been struck by lightning (no mule ever died a natural death in Tennessee; mules were the lightning rods of the animal world), he stayed overnight at Chestnut Mound with Miss Fanny and Godkin Hayes. The next morning after breakfast, when he was climbing into his buggy, Miss Fanny asked grandfather if he ever went to Difficult Creek, Tennessee, saying she had heard he was quite a traveler and had been to Nashville. “Yes, Ma’am,” grandfather answered. “I go there right much.” “Well, the next time you go,” Miss Fanny said, “will you please say hello to Henry McCracken; he’s my brother, and I haven’t seen him in over twenty years.” “What,” my grandfather exclaimed; “Difficult Creek is only twelve miles away, just on the other side of the Caney Fork River. Roane’s Ferry will take you across in eight minutes.” “Oh, Mr. Sam,” Miss Fanny answered wistfully, “I do want to see my brother, but I just can’t bring myself to cross the great Caney Fork River.”

Father crossed the Caney Fork, but he didn’t travel far. After working in Washington and Richmond, he was sent to Nashville in the late 30’s. From that time on he refused to be transferred. Beyond Difficult Creek lay the little town of Defeated Creek, and for most of his life father was content to meander through a small circle of miles and visit with the Miss Fannys he met. Personnel, however, may have been too easy for him. Reading books in the office, he became a character, albeit a competent one. “He was a bumblebee,” a man told me; “he shouldn’t have been able to fly, but he did. What’s more he did things that couldn’t be done.” By the 1960’s, though, the topography of father’s world changed. The wild growth of wealth changed the course of Defeated Creek, making it swing closer to home. People suddenly became not who they knew or what they were but how much money they made. Strangers appeared, and instead of being identified by a rich string of anecdotes, they became bank accounts or corporations. It was almost impossible not to be swept up by the wash of money, and as father’s friends grew wealthy and began to possess the glittering goods of the world and to take trips beyond simple golden-rod to lands where orchids hung heavy from trees and butterflies bigger than fans waved in the sun, father became envious. Although he occasionally criticized the affluence of certain groups, physicians for example, he was not resentful. What troubled him most, I think, was how wealth changed conversation. Despite his wide reading, there was little room for him or Miss Fanny in talk about Bali or Borneo.

Disregard for possessions tempered father’s resentment of wealth. Although he liked shoes, both good and bad, and as a handsome man was vain on occasions like Christmas when he wore a red vest, clothes, for example, mattered little to him. Outside the office he wore khaki trousers and checkered shirts that he bought at Sears. So long as it was tasteful, something he knew mother managed well, father paid no attention to the interior of the house. If a visitor admired something, father was likely to offer it to him, especially it seemed if it were a family piece: an envelope of Confederate money or a Bible published in 1726 and listing forgotten generations of ancestors. As a child, I learned to hide things. When I found a box of old letters in a storeroom at Aunt Lula’s house, I hid them in the attic. When the day came, as I knew it would, when father asked for them, saying he had a friend who would like to have them, I lied and said that I lost them. Of course saving everything was beyond me, and I once resented his forays through my things. Even today when I want a good tricycle for my children, I resent his giving away the English trike mother’s father bought me in New York. Now, though, I understand father’s desire to rid himself of possessions. I behave similarly. I wear Sears trousers and shirts from J.C. Penney’s. I have turned down positions that would greatly increase my salary because I like the little out of the way place where I live. I, too, alas, give away possessions. “You are the only teacher I have ever met,” a graduate student told me recently, “who has two offices and not a single book.” I don’t have any books because I have given them away, out of, I think, the same compulsion that led father to give away things and kept him from becoming wealthy: the desire to keep life as clean and as simple as possible.

Wealth clutters life, bringing not simply possessions but temptation. Money lures one from the straight and clear into the darkly complex. The sidewalks in Carthage ran in narrow lines to the courthouse. Skating along them a boy was always aware of where he was: in front of the Reeds’ house, then the Ligons’, the Fishers’, the McGinnis’ and then by the drugstore, the Five and Ten, Neal’s barbershop, and finally the bank and post office. Wealth bends lines and makes it difficult for even the most adept skater to roll through life without losing his way or falling into the dirt. Instead of enriching, wealth often lessens life. At least that’s the way I think father thought, for he spurned every chance to become wealthy. For some 20 years he managed the affairs of his Aunt Lula, grandmother’s widowed sister. Father being her nearest relative, Aunt Lula called upon him whenever anything went wrong. For three summers in a row, Aunt Lula fell ill during father’s two-week summer vacation, and we hurried back to Nashville from the beach to put her in the hospital. Aunt Lula owned a farm, 750 acres of land just outside Nashville in Williamson County. The farm had been in the family for generations, and when I came home from college at Christmas I spent mornings roaming over it rabbit hunting.

Aunt Lula did not have a will, and when father’s closest friend, a lawyer, learned this, he urged father to let him draw one up for her. “For God’s sakes, Sam,” he said; “you have nursed her for years. She would want you to have the farm. I will make out the will tonight, and you have her sign it tomorrow.” Father demurred, and when Aunt Lula died two relatives who had never met her shared the estate. Father put the land up for sale and received a bid of $75,000. “Borrow the money,” Mother advised, “and buy the land yourself. Nashville is growing by leaps and bounds, and the farm is worth much more.” “That would not be right,” father answered, and the land was sold. Six years later it was resold for more than a million dollars. Father kept the lines of his life straight and his temptations few, and I admire him for it; yet at night when I think about the three teaching jobs I have taken this summer so the house can be painted and dead oaks felled in the yard, I sometimes wish he had not sold the farm. This is not to say that father did not understand the power of money. He thought it important for other people and urged me to make the most of my chances, citing his younger brother Coleman as a warning. According to father, Coleman was the talented Pickering and could have done practically anything; yet, father recounted, he refused to grasp opportunities. Satisfied to live simply, Coleman was in truth father’s brother, a man wary of complexity, determined to remain independent and free from the entangling responsibilities of wealth.

After 40 most people I know realize that their actions and thoughts are inconsistent. Worried about gypsy moths, a child’s stuttering, or slow-running drains, they have little time for principle and not simply neglect but recogize and are comfortable with the discrepancy between words and deeds. To some extent father’s attitude toward wealth reflected this state of mind. Behind his behavior, however, also lay the perennial conflict between the particular and the abstract or the general. From infancy through school people are taught the value of general truths or principles, the sanctity, for example, of honor and truth itself. As one grows older and attempts to apply principles to real human beings, one learns that rules are cruelly narrow and instead of bettering life, often lead to unhappiness. The sense of principle or belief in general truth is so deeply engrained, however, that one rarely repudiates it. Instead one continues to pay lip service to it and actually believe in its value while never applying it to particular individuals. Thus during the turmoil over integration in Nashville during the 1950’s and early 60’s, father sounded harshly conservative. One day, though, while he and mother and I were walking along Church Street, we came upon four toughs, or hoods as they were then called, harassing a black woman. “You there,” father bellowed, all 136 pounds of him swelling with his voice; “who do you think you are?” Then as mother and I wilted into a doorway, he grabbed the biggest tough and shaking him said, “apologize to this lady. This is Tennessee, and people behave here.” “Yes, sir, yes, sir,” the man responded meekly and apologized. Father then turned to the woman, and while the toughs scurried away, took off his hat and said, “Ma’am I am sorry for what happened. You are probably walking to the bus stop; if you don’t mind, my wife and I and our son would like to walk with you.”

Although father expounded political and moral generalities during the isolation of dinner, he never applied them to the hurly-burly of his friends’ lives. He delighted in people too much to categorize and thus limit his enjoyment of them. Not long after the incident on Church Street, father was invited to join the Klan. Around ten or eleven each morning, a man appeared outside the Travelers building, selling doughnuts and sweet rolls. As could be expected from a man who did not have to work too hard and who loved candy, father always bought a doughnut and a cup of coffee and then chatted a bit. On this occasion, the man said, “Mr. Pickering, I have known you for some time, and you seem a right thinking man. This Friday there is going to be a meeting of the Klan at Nolensville, and I’d like for you to attend and become a member.” “That’s mighty nice of you to invite me,” father replied, “but I believe I will just continue to vote Republican.”

As could be expected, Father was inconsistent toward me. Of things he thought comparatively unimportant, sports for example, he rarely said much except to moan about the Vanderbilt football team. When I was in high school, he picked me up after football practice and, unlike the fathers of some boys who filmed practices, had conferences with the coaches, and caused their sons untold misery, father never got in the way. About social matters he behaved differently, urging me to do the things he never did, join service clubs for example. “They will help your career,” he explained. When he heard me taking a political stance that was not generally accepted and thereby safe, he intervened. Ten years ago I spent three months in the Soviet Union. On my return people often asked me questions; once during a discussion with businessmen father overheard me say something “risky.” “Pay no attention to my son,” he said; “he has been brainwashed.” That ended the conversation.

Of father’s courtship of mother, I know and want to know little. Toward the end of his life, he refused to tell me family stories, saying “you will publish them.” Quite right—I would publish almost anything except an account of his and mother’s love affair. Theirs was a good and typical marriage with much happiness and sadness during the early and middle years and with many operations at the end. They were very different, but they stumbled along in comparative harmony. “When I first met him,” mother told me; “I thought him the damndest little pissant.” “Your mother,” father often said, “does not appreciate my sense of humor.” That was a loss because laughing was important to father, and for much of his life he played practical jokes. Practical jokes are an almost implicit recognition of the foolishness of man’s endeavors. Involving actual individuals rather than comparative abstractions like word play, for example, such humor flourishes in stable communities in which people’s positions remain relatively constant and clearly defined. The popularity of practical jokes waned as the South grew wealthy. Money undermined community both by making people more mobile and by changing the terms by which position was defined. As people became financial accomplishments, not neighbors, cousins, sons, and daughters, they took themselves more seriously. When they determined what they were rather than a web of relationships over which they had comparatively little control, their actions grew increasingly significant. No more could the practical joker be seen as a friend; no more was his laughter benign, even fond. Instead, threatening the basis of identity by mocking, he undermined society. By the late 1960’s father stopped playing practical jokes; before then, though, the going was good.

After selling some rocky, farmed-out land to a company which wanted to construct a shopping center, one of father’s acquaintances, Tuck Gobbett, built a 20-room house outside Nashville. Known locally as the Taj Mahal, the house had everything: sauna bath, swimming pool, Japanese shoji screens around the garage, and even a pond with swans purchased from a New York dealer. In its garishness, the house was marvelous, and father enjoyed it, saying only “the birds were a mistake. As soon as snapping turtles find the pond, it’s good-bye swans.” He was right; two years later the turtles came, and the swans disappeared. Father decided Gobbett went too far, however, when he got rid of the off-brand beagles he had always owned and bought an Afghan hound. The dog had a royal pedigree, and when Gobbett advertised in a kennel club magazine that the dog was standing at stud, father saw his chance. “Why is it,” he asked me years later, “that mongrel people always want pure-bred dogs.” Father then read about Afghans, learning quite a bit about blood lines. Able to disguise his voice, he telephoned Gobbett, explaining that he lived in Birmingham and was the owner of a champion bitch. He had, he said, seen the advertisement in the kennel club magazine and wondered about the possibility of breeding the animals. Of course, he continued, he would first have to scrutinize the pedigree of Gobbett’s dog. After Gobbett detailed his dog’s ancestry, father then supplied that of the bitch which, not surprisingly, came from the best Afghan stock in the nation. Saying he would need time to investigate Gobbett’s dog, father hung up, promising to call within a week. During the week, father visited Gobbett. When asked about news, Gobbett excitedly described the telephone call, saying the bitch had “an absolutely first-class pedigree” and the puppies would be worth a thousand dollars apiece.

The next week father telephoned, saying he looked into the dog and thought the pedigree would do. Although the owner of the bitch usually received all the puppies except for one from a breeding, father said he did not want a single puppy. After this remark, he said he had pressing business and would call the following week to make arrangements for the mating. Gobbett was ebullient. “What fools there are in the world,” he said; “there is money to be made in these dogs. The puppies will make me a man to be reckoned with in Afghan circles.” As could be expected, completing the arrangements was not easy, but after a month and a half of conversations, the date and place were set. Then at the end of the final telephone call, almost as an afterthought, father said, “there is just one thing though.” “What’s that,” Gobbett asked. “Oh, nothing important,” father said; “my dog has been spayed, but I don’t suppose that will make a difference.”

Father’s humor was rarely bawdy, and the jokes he told were usually stories, gentle tales about foolishness. My favorite, one that I have often told, was called “Edgar, the Cat.” Two bachelor brothers, Herbert and James, lived with their mother and James’ cat Edgar in a little town, not unlike Carthage. James was particularly attached to Edgar, and when he had to spend several days in Nashville having work done on his teeth, he left Herbert meticulous instructions about Edgar. At the end of his first day away from home, James telephoned Herbert. “Herbert,” he said, “how is Edgar.” “Edgar is dead,” Herbert answered immediately. There was a pause; then James said, “Herbert, you are terribly insensitive. You know how close I was to Edgar and you should have broken the news to me slowly.” “How,” Herbert said. “Well,” James said, “when I asked about Edgar tonight, you should have said “Edgar’s on the roof, but I have called the fire department to get him down.”” “Is that so,” said Herbert. “Yes,” James answered, “and tomorrow when I called you could have said the firemen were having trouble getting Edgar down but you were hopeful they would succeed. Then when I called the third time you could have told me that the firemen had done their best but unfortunately Edgar had fallen off the roof and was at the veterinarian’s where he was receiving fine treatment. Then when I called the last time you could have said that although everything humanly possible had been done for Edgar he had died. That’s the way a sensitive man would have told me about Edgar. And, oh, before I forget,” James added, “how is mother.” “Uh, Herbert said, pausing for a moment, “she’s on the roof.”

There was an innocence in father’s humor, perhaps a sign of softness, something that contributed to his not grabbing Aunt Lula’s farm. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Pickerings were Quakers and, so far as I call tell, gentle people who did not struggle or rage against life but who took things as they came, people who copied poems into family Bibles while recording the deaths of children. When seven-year-old Marthelia died in 1823, her father wrote:

When the Icy hand of death
     his sabre drew!
To cut down the budding
     rose of morn!!
He held his favorite motto
     full in view—
The fairest Bud must the
     tomb adorn!!!

In general Pickerings lived quiet lives, cultivating their few acres and avoiding the larger world with its abstractions of honor, service, and patriotism. For them country meant the counties in which they lived, not the imperial nation. Years ago I knew John Kennedy had things backwards when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The great excuse for country with its borders dividing brothers was that it bettered the life of the individual.

With the exception of the Civil War, the struggles of the nation have not touched us. Coming of age between battles, few Pickerings have looked at the dark side of man’s heart. Perhaps because of this we are soft and in our desires, subconscious or conscious, to remain free have become evasive. Few things are simple, though, and this very evasiveness may be a sign of a shrewd or even tough vitality. Aware that those who respond to challenges and fight for a cause or success often are ground under, we have learned to live unobtrusively and blossom low to the ground and out of sight. Even when a Pickering does respond to a call, it’s usually not for him. In 1942 the Navy rejected father’s application for Officer’s Training School because he was too thin. In 1944 father was drafted; two days before he was slated to leave for training camp and after a series of farewell parties, he received a telegram instructing him not to report, explaining that he was too thin.

Not long ago my daughter Eliza McClarin Pickering was born. She was born, fittingly enough, in a hospital in a relatively small town. For four days she was the only baby in the maternity ward, and the nurses let me wander in and out at my convenience. With little to do, the nurses drank coffee, ate doughnuts, and talked. One night as I stood looking at Eliza in her crib, I overheard a conversation at the nurses’ station around the corner. “I have worked at four hospitals,” one nurse declared confidentially, “but this is the worst for poking I have ever seen.” “There’s Shirley,” she said warming to the subject, “she runs out to the parking lot and gets poked every chance she gets. And Kate, there’s not a bed on the third floor that she hasn’t been poked in.” Like Homer’s account of those slain at the sack of Troy, the nurse’s list of fallen was long and colorful. During the recital, the second nurse was silent. Finally, though, she spoke. “My word,” she said in mild astonishment, “it’s just a whirlwind of festivities.”

Although few strong breezes blow through the lives of Pickerings, there are festivities, not shining affairs strung with bright lights but quiet events lit by words. After being married on my grandfather’s farm in Hanover, Virginia, father and mother spent their first night together in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Early the next morning they started for Nashville in father’s Ford coupe. On the outskirts of Richmond, they stopped for gas, and mother bought a newspaper to look at the wedding pictures. She spread the paper out on the front seat and was looking at the pictures with father when the man who was cleaning the windshield spoke up, saying “it’s a pity about that wedding. I feel so sorry for the girl.” “What do you mean,” father answered, jumping in before mother could respond. “Well,” the man said, “she didn’t marry the man she wanted to. She was in love with a poor insurance man but her father made her marry a rich fellow.” “Who told you that,” father asked. “Oh,” the man answered, “a colored preacher that comes through here told me all about it. He preaches up in Hanover, and some of the members of his congregation work at her father’s farm.” “Hmmm,” father said, “I hate to ruin your story, but look at the picture of the groom, and then look at me. This,” he said gesturing towards mother after the man had a good look, “is that unfortunate girl, and I am the poor insurance man. The preacher was wrong; sometimes in life poor folks carry off the prizes.” And that’s what father did in a quiet way all his days. No prize of his was mentioned in an obituary; his name was not associated with any accomplishment; yet in the few acres he tilled and even beyond, at least as far as Carthage, he was known.

While at Vanderbilt, father bought an old car. On a trip to Carthage, it broke down, and having to hurry back to Nashville to take an examination, one of the few times he attended class, father left the car in Carthage and took the train. For a modest fee George Jackson, a black man, agreed to drive the car to Nashville once it was repaired. Father wrote out careful instructions and drew a map. Alas, George lost both, but this did not deter him. On arriving in Nashville, he stopped in a residential area, went up to a house, and asked where “young Mr. Samuel Pickering” lived. Amazingly the people in the house knew father. They gave George clear directions, and he delivered the car. When father learned that the map had gone astray and George had lost his way, he asked him how he knew whom to ask for instructions. “Mister Sam,” George answered, “everybody knows you.” The one time father told this story, he laughed, then said “what a world we have lost. Not a better world,” he added, “but a different one. At times I miss it.” Not, old man, so much as I miss you—not so much as I miss you.


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