My Father’s Distant Smile

by Linda Fowler

When he was six, he smiled. That might have been one winter Sunday after church. Howard is standing in the sloping front yard of the large farm house on Amherst Road, just outside Morganton, North Carolina. He squints a little, and grins into the black box camera, tilting his head to the side and laughing like most carefree six-year-olds. The argyle knee socks stand out against the tweed knee pants and lace up shoes, the blouse, and matching overcoat that extends to his knees. As the sun shines on him and his hands in his pockets push the coat open, he is thinking, perhaps, of the pail of water, hanging on the side of the well on the screened back porch, with the dipper hanging nearby. He maybe thinks he’ll take a drink from the just-drawn water before rinsing the dipper and hanging it back on the well. Or, if the raw milk from Miss Maggie Moo is already in its jar, damp cloth wrapped around it and hanging in the well bucket, keeping cool, just how good that would taste.

He might be thinking he’ll change clothes so as not to damage his new ones his mother, Katie, just made for him, then visit the horse in his stall down by the corn crib. He may be thinking of the soon-to-come Sunday dinner, filled with good foods from the harvesting, the family of nine sitting down together at the large brown wooden table, passing the big bowls of beans, potatoes, squash, peas, the platters of chicken and tomatoes and the baskets of biscuits and cornbread. Or that he can go all the way down to the river after eating and explore the mink traps. He’s, perhaps, thinking he can check the cave in the side of the hill where it overhangs the small waterfall before you get to the railroad bridge.

He is not yet thinking of high school and the girlfriend he will have then, the one the family thinks he will marry. The one he will give a ring to after high school and before leaving for World War II. Or even imagining that war that will come then. He isn’t thinking how he will dream of joining the army and wearing a uniform, of how good he will look in it and how glamorous and exciting it will be. He isn’t thinking of how his brother, Henry, will bargain with him to keep him in high school until he graduates, promising to buy him a rifle as a pay-off. He is not yet thinking of the young women he will meet at the USOs in far off states up north, or how he will learn about sex with one of them. He is not thinking of how this will lead to a pregnancy, and his marriage; of how he will become a father, or of how it will shape the totality of his life. He is not thinking about how the smile will fade out, seen less often now by his family, seen too infrequently by his only daughter.

Linda Fowler is a life-long political activist living in Asheville NC. She is a former reporter, opinion writer and editor of Big Mama Rag, a national radical feminist newspaper published in Denver CO, in the 1970s and 80s. She currently writes creative nonfiction and memoir.