Remembering My Father
My father loved stories. As far back as I can remember, he was reading stories or telling stories. He was the youngest child and the only boy born to Ben Johnson and his Finnish wife, Martha. His sisters doted on him and adored him until the day he died in April 1999, after a long fight with Parkinson’s Disease. Towards the end he lost his ability to speak all those wonderful words he had so loved for 79 years. But we do not remember him that way.
In his eulogy, I called him the Cary Grant of fathers, and he was-debonair, charming, witty, downright funny at times, and a marvelous companion at any given moment. He was a man who could turn a drive down Route 5 into a marvel: One minute the car is going 60 miles an hour and the next, he’s pulled it over safely onto the berm, thrown open the driver’s door and opened his arms to the sky: Get out, get out now and smell those grapes. Can you believe it, miles and miles and miles of grapes, far as the eye can see. Look at these vineyards, thousands of rows of grapes neatly twisted and pulled, waiting for harvest.
He noticed everyday things and showed us the miraculous in them.
My father moved to Saint Louis, Mo., in the late ’60s. By then I was grown and a young mother. But we would all gather in Chautauqua County at least once a year, and such a gathering usually included a ride in the country with his three beloved sisters. And usually that ride would take us out to the Goshen Road near Panama, nearer Bear Lake, Pa., where my father had been born in 1921.
There on a 70-acre dairy farm that has long since been stolen by time, my father was born on the coldest night of the year, Feb. 1, with the wind howling across the fields and forests. He weighed 12 pounds and was born on the kitchen table. My grandmother said a rural doctor delivered her boy as the sun rose.
But dad told it differently. How clearly I recall traveling down the Goshen Road with my sister Vicky and my dear aunts Jane, Marian and Helen in the car. Dad never stopped talking, and every mile of the 20-minute journey from Jamestown reminded him of a new detail about North Harmony. “North Harmony, listen to that. Harmony, New York – how can one be born in a fairer place?” He would sweep his arm to indicate heaven must be just like these passing fields.
Seven miles down the road – past the evergreen Panama State Forest and the Brokenstraw State Forest, and past farms and fields of corn-dad would pull that car over in a dramatic sweep, gravel spitting the air, dust flying. “I was found right there. He would say, pointing to an orchard near the corner of Goshen and Phelps roads. “In that tree -that one.” He would burst into laughter and turn his head to squint at us all: What? You don’t believe me? Of course I was found in that apple tree. My father told me he found me there.”
And his sisters would laugh all in chorus. Oh, Raymond. They’d repeat. Oh Raymond. Then Aunt Jane would lean forward and tap his shoulder. You forget we were there, Raymond. Then they would hoot with laughter.
Often my sister and I find ourselves drawn to the Goshen Road, seeking the old farm, the quaint farmhouse built by our great-grandfather J. Alfred Johnson, the long fields rolling up behind the house and barns, but it’s gone now. The spot is forlorn. A nearby farmer bought the fields. He was at work in them today, high on the hill. I could not find one apple tree.
In that house, our grandmother Martha cooked and fed four children, her husband and six field hands daily. She sewed curtains and all the children’s cloths. I remarked once to her how hard that life must have been, but she returned a blink of shock.
Well, she said slowly, as was her way, I was young and strong. I remember the air was sweet in the mornings when I opened the windows on the north side of the house. I remember the apple trees bloomed in waves of white that fluttered like snow. I remember your father in my arms and the girls sitting in the sun on the front porch. But no, I don’t recall it was hard.
Thus it is in memory we recall the best. And sometimes what we recall are simple moments – a scent on the breeze, a moment holding a loved one, a slant of light that tells the whole story somehow.