Monday, April 29, 2013

The Hitchhiker, Part 1: The Gift of the Story

As I have learned since my dad went on ahead, one of the greatest gifts that can be given to someone in grief is talking to him or her about their loved one: telling a story that involves the person who has died, sharing something you remember about that person, or talking about a quality that person had or a deed he did that you appreciated can be a priceless treasure.  It doesn't have to be a significant account; sometimes something funny or unique that person did is just what the person who is grieving needs to hear.

Not long after my dad died, my mom, my husband, and I went to the Mid-South Grain Association meeting in New Orleans, or simply "Mid-South," as my dad called it in general conversation.  Dad was in charge of organizing the convention there every February, and we went after he died to represent him in a way.  My mom kept up with the administrative duties that she had assisted Dad with for many years, but, as I came to find out, it was as helpful for us to be there amongst many people who had known Dad for years - some for decades - as it was for them to have Mom filling in at the registration desk.

The highlight of the trip for me was listening to one of my dad's long-time friends and previous coworker talk about some of Dad's antics from "back in the day."  Some of the tales I had heard before, mostly from Dad himself, but others I had never heard, and I felt comforted by all of them; it felt almost as if I was getting a piece of my dad back for just a little while.

Like a lot of people, Dad was a work hard/play hard kind of guy.   But the thing that I think made him unique in that area - at least from what I have gathered from seeing him interact with people professionally and from listening to what others have said about him in a business context over the years - is that he was often able to make the work environment fun for himself and for others.  For starters, he never hesitated to laugh at himself, and his interest in everyone around him was genuine.  Never did he miss an opportunity to say hello to or to compliment or express interest in someone else; the way he assumed that pretty much everybody had good intentions somehow seemed to result in that becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He delighted in clowning around when time and the situation allowed; I don't know that he learned about the benefits of fostering a positive work environment in a formal setting, but he certainly applied the principles all the same and always seemed very popular with his employees because of it.

"Cotton Row" on Front Street in Memphis, Tennessee

Here's the story that my dad's friend told us from back in the early 70's, when my dad worked at a company with an office that was located in downtown Memphis:

One Friday, some of Dad's clients had come to Memphis from out of state, and he was in charge of entertaining them that night.  My mom had driven with my sisters and me to her parents' in Nashville for the weekend, and Dad was planning to drive to meet us there late that night after he had taken the customers out on the town.  He worked until closing time and then met them at a restaurant down the street from his office.  As the story goes, the dinner turned into more of a party than Dad had expected, and when it was over he returned to the office since he had parked nearby.  Evidently, he was trying to ward off the headache he thought he'd be getting the next morning and so he walked over to his desk to get to his bottle of aspirin.  Unfortunately, though, the floors were in the process of being redone, and Dad left footprints on the adhesive backing that had been laid down in preparation for the tile that was going to be installed the next day.  Apparently there was much laughter the next morning and later some friendly ribbing about the fact that everyone could tell who the culprit had been since the tracks lead straight to his desk, where several aspirin tablets were spilled on the desk, and then back to the exit door.  

As Dad himself later told the story to his friends and coworkers, after he'd gotten into his car and then started driving on the interstate headed towards Nashville, he realized that he'd had too much to drink to be driving.  As luck would have it, soon after that he saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Necessity being the mother of invention (and of innovation), Dad pulled over and rolled down the passenger-side window to ask the guy if he could drive and where he was trying to go.  "Sure, I can drive," the guy said, and then he added, "I'm hoping to get to Nashville tonight."

"Well, get in, then," Dad told him, probably smiling from ear to ear and thinking he had struck gold. "I'll be asleep in the back; wake me up when we get there!"

I doubt he told my mom about the details of that trip for quite some time after it happened, and it wasn't until after his death that my sisters and I heard the story.  I could picture it happening though, and hearing the tale was a much-appreciated gift, one that I will always treasure.  And it wasn't Dad's last interaction with a hitchhiker either, ...

To be continued ... 

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