January 7, 2014

I Loved My Daddy, I Love Him Still

Elton R. seated ft., left.
Last month I read a Facebook update posted by my cousin Craig's wife, Jodi. She was writing about a weekend get-away to celebrate Craig's birthday on the 9th of December. My cousin, Craig Bond, was born in Orange, Texas, on my daddy's birthday. Jodi's Facebook update made me think about Daddy all week. I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like if he were still around today or at least had been with us longer. Even though December 9th holds no special significance for anyone except people like Craig whose birthdays share that date, I think of December 9th as if it were a national memorial day to Elton Lavorn "Jiggs" Ritchey, my Daddy.

Daddy was born Elton Lavorn Ritchey on December 9, 1918 in Oklahoma. It has always been a bit of a controversial question as to how his middle name is spelled. His mother spelled it one way and it was different on other documents. Dad insisted it was not Lavern, but could have been Lavorn. Only my grandmother knows for sure and she has been gone decades. On Monday, December 9, 2013, he would have been 95 years old.

Long before I was even born, Daddy was working hard for my mom
and his infant son, Johnny Elton Ritchey. Mom and Dad were married Christmas Eve of 1942 and Mom gave birth to their first son on January 24, 1943 in the shadow of World War II. Dad was an Air Force airplane mechanic during the war stationed in Belgium for the better part of his time in the service of his country. My brother was 3 months old before Daddy got to met his son for the first time. My mother used to tell me the story about boarding a train alone with Johnny, in Oklahoma, to travel to Nebraska where Daddy was on leave before shipping out overseas. I often requested Mama tell her story about that trip. My child's mind would conjure up images like I'd seen on old black and white movies of the bustling crowds of people around train depots during that time period. I pictured my mom walking bumping into other travelers trying to board the train. She was struggling to manage holding the baby and her luggage when a black railroad employee known as "Red Caps" carried her bags and made sure they got on the train safely. Mom always mentioned how kind the Red Cap was to her and how much she appreciated his help. I've read old letters Daddy wrote to my grandmother while overseas. My grandparents helped look after baby Johnny and my mom while Dad was gone. The words Daddy wrote were kind, expressing thankful gratitude to his in-laws for taking care of his family in his absence. Those letters always make me sad to read as I imagined Daddy so far away from home and missing his wife and baby boy.

One of the nicest men I ever knew, my daddy had a big heart for other people in need. He did carpentry work for widow ladies around our neighborhood. He was often seen with a hammer or a paintbrush in his hand, high up on a ladder or roofing on top of someone's house. He seemed to always have a side job going somewhere. Daddy's full time job was as a shift worker at Union Oil Refinery in Nederland, TX. As a shift worker, his daily schedule often changed. When his shift allowed it, he could work during the day on other projects he hired out to do at people's houses. I can still picture him up on a ladder in his white painter's overalls painting a neighbor's house. A couple of summers Daddy worked for an elderly couple who owned a beach house on Gilchrist Beach not far from Beaumont. They vacationed there every summer with their invalid son. Daddy would go down to the beach for a week prior to the couple's arrival with their son. His week at the beach was to repair anything that might have broken during the year or needed painting. The couple's neighbor in Beaumont where they lived, also owned a beach house nearby on the same beach. My parents, brother and I got to stay in her beach house while Daddy worked on the other house in exchange for a little maintenance work on her place, too. I remember those weeks playing in the Gulf, listening to ocean waves crashing in the night and watching the shrimp boats every evening.

Daddy was my champion when it came to helping me learn new skills. Learning to read was hard for me and even after I mastered the concepts, I was not in love with reading. Daddy stuck with me even when I was crying and didn't want to read some boring book my teacher had assigned for my home reading. I remember one time in fourth grade, I had to read a take-home reader named, "Dessert Animals". I just could not make it through hardly a chapter of that awful book. I slumped down the wall of our dining room crying that I couldn't read it. Daddy patiently slipped down beside me and suggested that he read a page and I read the next page. So, that is what we did, and together "Dessert Animals" was conquered.

Playing Kyle's toy guitar
He taught me other things too, like how to tie my shoes, ride a bike, swim, memorize the Old Testament books of the Bible and how to play a guitar. Daddy played country-western guitar and sang the old country songs. We watched a lot of Porter Wagner on TV in my house. Every morning when I'd wander into the kitchen for breakfast, country-western music would be playing on the radio. He taught me to sing harmony and we'd sing together as he accompanied us on his guitar. Like most people who are related, our voices blended well together. So, when we sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas", he'd break off in harmony on the bridge and we'd sound pretty good.

Daddy was very handy with his tools fixing almost anything in our house that needed repair. He was
Daddy working his garden
our plumber, painter, carpenter, gardener and car mechanic as well as my personal crafting expert. There was never a swing set in our yard to play on, but I had a swing hanging from a tree. Daddy crafted a plank of wood for the seat of my swing and hung it from a strong tree limb in the backyard with heavy rope. I loved to swing and spend sunny afternoons happily singing and swinging in my custom made swing. When I went off to Abilene Christian College, Daddy designed and built a small collapsible bookshelf for me so it could easily move from one semester to the next. Earlier this year, that little bookshelf, a little worse for wear, got a make-over when I decided it was time to repaint it. I was reminded of Dad's eye for detail as I painted over his handwritten assembly letters on the backs of the shelf pieces. My second year of teaching was here in Baytown schools where I taught kindergarten. I told my dad that I needed a small kid-sized hat tree for the classroom home center and asked if he could make one. By the next time we saw each other, I had a cute little hat tree standing at the perfect height for my students. Today that hat tree has been repainted and is holding hats in a playroom for our grandchildren here in our home.

Daddy working on our 1st house.
On several occasions Daddy would drive over from Port Neches to Baytown and repair, paint or lend his carpentry skills to our home projects. When it was time to fix up and sell our first house, Daddy spent the weekend with us paneling inside walls, painting the house exterior and repairing worn out screens. One day while living in our second home, our middle son, Kyle, a toddler at the time, decided that instead of taking a nap, he'd swing from his curtains like Tarzan. When the curtain brackets ripped from the wall damaging the drywall, Daddy came over and repaired it like a professional. I was thankful that my dad was able and willing to lend us a helping hand. 

When I was a little girl and Daddy worked the graveyard shift at the oil refinery, I got to sleep with my mom. If he worked all night on New Year's Eve, I remember lying next to Mama in her bed listening to the refinery whistles at midnight as they blew in the New Year. Mama recognized the refinery whistles and would comment on which one she thought was Union Oil. My daddy was likely ringing in the new year with a buddy out at the plant over a cup of coffee. Often he would work an extra shift on holidays because it meant extra pay. Those guys working extra shifts also got a bonus of a meal compliments of Union Oil.
Mom & Dad

Daddy was an elder at the Church of Christ in Port Neches. I remember when the new church building was constructed back in about 1960. My daddy spent many days there helping work on the building getting it ready for our congregation to worship. He spent many hours of personal Bible study and taught Bible classes. On occasion, he even stepped in the pulpit when our preacher was absent. One such Sunday, Daddy was preaching when I decided to be baptized. It is a special memory to me that my daddy was the one who baptized me that Sunday in 1964.

Even though Elton Ritchey was in his late 70's when he passed away, it was still too soon to lose my daddy. In his mid to late 60's he began to develop signs of Alzheimer's disease. By the time my mother passed away from cancer, my brothers and I realized how far Dad's mind had deteriorated. It was a sad, sad time to watch Daddy's health decline. Before he was put in a nursing home, my two brothers and I took turns spending a weekend with Dad so his weekday sitter could return to her home. He often didn't know who I was when I visited with him, but I tried to act like everything was normal and was careful not to ask questions. On those weekends, we sometimes sat in the backyard glider looking up at the giant oak trees. He enjoyed watching the birds and squirrels working to build their nests in the trees. Before Alzheimer's set in, another of my dad's side jobs was with H & R Block preparing taxes. He was diligent at keeping good home accounting records and prepared other people's taxes as if they were his own. Even though his day job was at a refinery, he had a sharp mind for accounting. I always thought he looked nice in his suit when he went to the H & R office to work. Daddy had been accustomed to working and staying busy around the house. On the weekends I spent with him, I'd observe him "working" in his dresser drawers arranging and rearranging medicine bottles of coins, greeting cards and other meaningless items around his socks and t-shirts. I'd drive him to church and he'd comment to me that another woman had come to visit him and also drove him to church. He was talking about me. I was the only woman who ever drove him to church.

It was hard to watch Dad lose his memory forget who I was. After Daddy's death, it took me a while to picture my daddy as he was while I was growing up. Looking at old photographs of him in happier times made that process easier. The event pictured would bring to mind a story about Daddy's kind, fun personality and caring attitude toward everyone. I loved my daddy, I love him still. For even now after living 61 years, I reminisce about Daddy and feel like his little girl again.
My wedding day. 12/21/74




2 comments:

Jason said...

As is usually the case, I didn't appreciate him when I was a child the way I do now. He was a man in sharp contrast to much of what I surround myself with today. But his personality, tenderness, joyfulness, and love stick with me to this day. I miss that. I wonder what my kids would think of him. (I know they would love him, especially Aidan.)

I doubt he thought much of things like legacy and personal themes, but I'm impressed by the mighty yet incredibly humble legacy he has left in me and my brothers. Makes me want to try to yodel.

Mary Lou said...

Ha! That's great. Papa would love that. Thanks for the comment. I miss him and Mama a lot.