Papa’s Shoes

Can we go fishing today, Daddy?” 5-year-old Greg asked. Before I could answer him, 14-year-old Doug said, “Dad’s going to play golf today.” He gave me a sad look. “Right, Dad?”

A rush of guilt shot through me. I used to take them to the lake nearly every Saturday . But, recently, I’d sacrificed the time I spent with them for my new hobby … golf. I rarely took them anywhere anymore.

“… Right,” I said. Doug looked at me, then at the fishing gear collecting dust in the corner of the attic. “Saturdays used to be fun. ” “We’ll go fishing again one day,” I said. “When?” he asked. “Soon.” Doug lowered his eyes. “You’ve said that every Saturday this summer.” “Yeah,” Greg added. “I will,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. I glanced around the attic. “If we don’t hurry up and finish cleaning the attic I won’t be able to play golf today.”

Doug frowned. Plucking a pair of scruffy old brogans from the trunk beside him, he started to toss them in the garbage can.

“Don’t throw those away!” I growled. “Why not? They’re not any good.”  “They’re special.” “These old things?” I didn’t hear him. My mind had flown back to that day 25 years ago when my family lived outside a cotton mill town in south Georgia. Papa had been laid off  from his job at the mill. Too proud to accept charity, he worked at what odd jobs he could find around town to feed his family.

We didn’t have much, but it was the best time of my childhood. We lived in an old… house three miles from the nearest road. There were no neighbor’s children for me to play with, so Papa played ball with me in our spacious backyard when he wasn’t working. The baseball bat we used was so old it made a wheezing noise each time it struck the oblong red rubber ball we used for a baseball. Before then I never knew how good Papa was at hitting a baseball.

Mama told me he was the star center fielder on the Class D baseball team in the Georgia-Alabama League when she first met him, and he had won the league’s Most Valuable Player trophy. Papa had planned on taking me to the Georgia High School Football Championship game held in Atlanta before he lost his job at the mill. He apologized to me daily for not being able to take me to the game now. So I was surprised when Papa announced a week before the day of the game that we’d be able to go after all.

Papa and I had always been close. But I never loved him more than when I learned from Mama that he had  sold his Most Valuable Player trophy to a traveling salesman and bought tickets with the money. Our closest neighbor, Harold Graham, was to drive us to Atlanta in exchange for Papa buying his ticket to the game.

I thought the day of the game would never come. It was late in the afternoon when Papa and I left the house and started off down the rutted dirt road toward the highway where Mr. Graham was to pick us up. It had rained all day the day before, and Mr. Graham was afraid his battered old Chevy might slide into the knee-deep ditches flanking the road. Excitedly, I ran ahead of Papa to burn up some energy.

Suddenly I slipped and fell into the ditch half-filled with cold muddy water. “You shouldn’t have been messing around,” Papa said gruffly, eyeing me critically as I scrambled from the ditch. My feet felt like blocks of ice. By the time we reached the highway I was shivering uncontrollably. Mr. Graham’s Chevy rattled around the curve and headed for us . Papa looked at the car then at me.

“Take off your shoes and socks,” he ordered. “But, Papa!” “Do as I say!” Obediently, I stepped out of  my shoes and peeled off the wet socks. I looked up to see Papa handing me his shoes and socks. “Put them on,” he said, his voice gentle now. By the time the Chevy roared to a stop in front of us, I had Papa’s shoes on and was tying the shoestrings.

”I’m not going to the game,” Papa told Mr. Graham, handing both me and him three crisp one dollar bills. Smiling, he slung my shoes over his broad shoulders and began walking barefooted back up the muddy road. The Chevy spit and sputtered some then coughed its way up the highway. I looked out the rear window. Still smiling, Papa waved at me. My heart filled with love for him, I waved back.

Doug interrupted my reverie. “You were thinking about Grandpa, weren’t you?”

“How did you know?”

“You always smile when you’re thinking about him,” Doug explained. I gazed into my boys’ faces. One thought consumed me: I desperately wanted them to have the same fond memories of me when they get older as I have of Papa.

“Want to go fishing?” I asked, pointing at the fishing gear in the comer. They looked at each other then at me. “We sure do,” Doug said. “Right!” Greg shouted. I took the brogans from Doug and placed them  lovingly back into the trunk. “Let’s see who can catch the most fish,” I said, wrapping an arm around each boy and ushering them over to the fishing gear. “I hope I do,” Doug said. “What do you say, Greg?” Greg’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “I say, ‘Yippee!”‘

The twinkle in their eyes reminded me of Papa. I decided to take them to his marker at the cemetery on the way to the lake. In my mind’s eye I could see Papa smiling down on us, approval glowing in his eyes. As I led them from the attic I silently thanked God for a father who took the time to play with his son-and for two boys who need me almost as much as I need them.

Originally Published in Brigade Leader. Fall 1990

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