A Tribute to My Dad

Pinkie Around Christmas 2010 183

My dad, Maurice Gilley, began having health issues about the same time as Libby’s cancer returned, in fact, Libby and I were visiting the assisted living facility with my dad on the day before Libby was admitted to the hospital.  My dad’s Alzheimer’s took his mind away from us over the next two years while Libby’s cancer took her away from us over the next three months. The following is the tribute that I delivered during my dad’s funeral:

I met an old man in 1985 who, as a young man, knew my dad’s dad in the early 1900’s and he told me about a time when my Granddad (L.H. Gilley) was building houses in Chattanooga and St. Elmo, then selling them to war veterans returning home from Europe. My Granddad eventually became a one-stop-shop for the first-time home buyer, personally financing dozens of houses so the buyers didn’t have to go to the bank for a loan.

My friend also said that by the 1920’s L.H. Gilley, had become one of the wealthiest men in Chattanooga; at least until early September of 1929 when he was warned by his banker to gather as much cash as possible because something “bad” was about to happen. As the Great Depression swept the country, the housing market crashed and Granddad lost his fortune, one house at a time, becasue tenants were unable to repay their home loans.

With a few hundred dollars to his name, my Granddad left Chattanooga and moved his family fifteen miles South to High Point, GA where he bought a farm and few animals, just to feed his family. That depression left an indelible mark on my Granddad, changing him from a freewheeling confident businessman to a cautious, somewhat cynical man, who believed everyone was one bad decision away from poverty.

I had heard bits and pieces of that legacy growing up and I remember telling my Granddad with a childish whine in my voice, “You should have made those people pay you back for those houses”. It was difficult to get him to talk about it but I kept pushing the issue until he answered, “You don’t understand, no one had any money, no one. What I had was eight children to feed, I needed beans, corn and milk, not money, besides those poor people living in my houses needed their money to feed their kids.  We were all just trying to survive.”

My dad, Maurice Paul Gilley was born into this, hardworking, strictly disciplined, but ironically compassionate family in December of 1928 just as The Great Depression was ending; its influence, however, would continue to shape him and our family, for generations.

Libby used to tell a story about how resourceful my mom and dad were and how cautious they were with their money; my parents had just moved into their new house in Winchester and decided that the seven tall windows facing the lake needed window blinds. Walmart had some blinds on sale for $9 each, but they were six inches too short.  Custom blinds would have cost $45 each so my mom and dad bought the cheap blinds along with one extra blind, then they took out enough string and slats from the extra blind and lengthened each of the other blinds by sewing the ends of the strings together and adding slats.

My dad hated spending money but he was always very generous with his time. I can remember as a teenager, my dad would gather the older boys and put us in the back of his pickup truck after school to work on a side job.  Dad would say, “Our neighbor needs a new roof but he can’t afford to pay someone to put it on, so we are going to help out and you boys will get to learn a new trade.”

It could be a neighbor, a family member or even a stranger who needed our help, but we knew we would be working until dark every night, we also knew that there was going to be a serious argument when we finished. That argument always started the same way when our neighbor would say, “Mr. Gilley, how much do we owe you for the help?” “Nothing” my dad would mumble gruffly (as if he was offended by the offer) as he headed toward his old blue pickup.  Our neighbor would shout, “Mr. Gilley I will not take charity, please take something for your trouble.”

My brothers and I would load up the tools and settle down in the back of the truck, because we already knew how this was going to end, our neighbor never had a chance of giving anything to my dad “for his trouble”, because the more he insisted on paying my dad the more stubborn my dad became.”

We always perked up a little when our neighbor would say something like, “If you want take my money, at least let me take your boys down to Pace’s Grocery so I can buy them a Coke and some candy”. But when my dad shot us a stern look we repeated the stock Gilley answer, “No, sir we couldn’t accept anything for our work, besides we may need your help some day and then you can pay us back”.

Those who knew may dad well understood that he didn’t want to be paid back for helping, others had to learn the hard way. Dad’s neighbor from Winchester called me yesterday with condolences and told me how dad helped him complete a botched deck project and managed to get it ready just in time for his daughter’s wedding, but then he said that he made the mistake of mailing a check to dad for his labor. “Oh no” I said, “What happened?”. “Well “, dad’s neighbor said, “He brought the check back over here, stood in my doorway, tore up the check and threw it on the floor, then he didn’t speak to me for the next two weeks.”

My mom and dad started their second life when they retired and moved into the last house that my dad ever built on Tim’s Ford Lake in Winchester, TN. Daddy called me one night from the lake and said, “I think I may have to get Joyce to take me to the hospital.” “Why” I said. “Well my right arm hurts and the pain goes across into my chest”.  “What?” I said, “Why are calling me?  You need to get to the hospital now. That sounds like a heart attack.”  “No,” my dad said, “ I’m pretty sure it’s just a pulled muscle”. “Dad, you are not a doctor, besides what makes you think it’s a pulled muscle?” “Well…….” he said, drawing out each word for maximum dramatic effect, “ I was out in the boat…………The rockfish got into the ‘jumps’………….I started catching fish, one after another until I had 25 fish in the boat………… each one 18 to 20 pounds.  My arm is so sore I may have to fish left handed tomorrow.

Dad enjoyed his retirement and his fishing. He LOVED fishing, he loved talking about fishing, preparing to fish, cleaning up from fishing and woodworking, when the fish weren’t biting. But it wasn’t hard too hard to convince him to come out of retirement for a year to build a new sanctuary for the church where four generations of Gilley’s had worshiped (Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene).

We had one particularly interesting conversation one day soon after Dad started the church project, he called and asked if I had ordered a portable toilet for the job and I told him that I had. He asked, “How much is it?”  “Seventy-Five dollars a month”, I said, “Why do you ask?”   “Cancel it” he said” I’ll do something different” and he hung up his flip phone.  Now, I wasn’t sure what he could do IN LIEU OF a toilet (pun intended).

By the time I got to the job site that afternoon my dad had built an outhouse from scrap plywood, sat it on top of a plumbing clean-out and ran water to it. We had the only flushing outhouse I have ever seen.  I said, “Dad, the rental is only $75 per month for a portable toilet” . “That’s right”, he said, “And $75 per month might be all that some little old lady is able to pledge  toward the building fund.  Now, do you want to the be one who tells her we are taking her life savings and literally throwing it down a toilet……… and a rented toilet at that”

The Winchester house lost most of its luster when my mom died. We eventually had to move my dad back to the Valley when his Alzheimer’s progressed to the point that he got lost going to Walmart and Hardee’s, two life sustaining essentials for my dad.

Not long after we moved dad into his new home in Flintstone, GA, dad started getting lost in his subdivision with its four parallel roads so he made the decision to try an assisted living arrangement, but he couldn’t remember the name of the local assisted living center so he referred to it as the place that Libby said he would like.

Dad’s Alzheimer’s continued to progress over the next several months and although he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast that morning he could often remember his childhood in vivid detail. I picked him up from Rosewood a few months ago and drove him by the old home place in High Point, just to see if he would recognize anything. Dad sat in the passenger seat of my truck and it appeared that he didn’t even glanced at his old house as we passed by.  Another minute or so passed and he said, to no one in particular, “TEN IS DEAD”.  I thought at first it was the dementia talking, so I waited another minute to see if he was going to elaborate, then I asked, “TEN is dead???”………”What does that mean?”

In a rare moment of clarity, my dad explained, “Your Granddad had a strict rule for his daughters and their dates, the girls had to be home no later than 10:00, so my sister took a pocket knife and carved the number 9 into the cedar tree on the left side of our driveway then she carved the number 10 into the tree on the right side of the driveway.  The next morning”, my dad explained, “When your Granddad asked what time my sister got home from her date she would always respond, ‘Daddy, I came in between 9 and 10 last night’.”

Finally, my dad’s comment made sense to me. There, next to the driveway, was a rotten stump where a large ancient cedar had once stood.

Ten was dead.

The Gift

reduced Libby and GrandadGrowing up in a household with three brothers and no sisters, I rarely remember any of us boys volunteering to help my mom cook, much less clean; and with five males under her roof it’s easy to understand why mom rarely got her way, that is, until Libby came into our family.  Now, just so there is no misunderstanding, my dad was the final authority in our home, not that he ever made threats or even raised his voice, but all of us boys knew better than to question him or ever cross the line, that is, until Libby came into our family.

On June 9, 1979, in what I thought was a simple wedding to my best friend, the male dominated world of my youth saw a subtle, but lasting, power shift. A few months after our wedding it was apparent to everyone in the Gilley family that two women working in tandem easily trumped the four remaining men in my parent’s house.  My mom finally had a daughter and suddenly she went from being the “house minority leader” to the “house majority leader” without an election.

It all started the Christmas following our wedding when my dad decided to make use of his new “daughter” by having Libby do his Christmas shopping for my mom.  Libby, for her part, was excited about the opportunity to go shopping especially since my dad gave her three hundred dollars to spend on a gift. Keep in mind as you read the remainder of this story that three hundred was a lot of money in 1979 and it was way more money than I ever remember anyone spending on a Christmas gift.

Christmas morning the excitement around the tree was palpable following our traditional breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, becasue all of us guys couldn’t stop staring at the one package neatly wrapped beneath the tree. When my mom was finally handed her gift, my dad couldn’t hide a huge grin as she carefully peeled back the delicate wrapping paper bound with an expensive bow.

Opening the small jewelry box my mom found an exquisite ring which had a center diamond surrounded by four birthstones representing each of her boys.   The ring definitely trumped the Popsicle stick napkin holder I made from scratch using my own glue when I was in kindergarten. Tears threatened to spill out of mom’s brown eyes as she looked questioningly from face to face to determine responsibility, finally Libby admitted, ” Well, I sorta of picked it out, but the gift is from your husband”.

When my mom left the room to regain her composure under the pretext of, “checking on the turkey in the oven”, my dad turned to Libby and whispered, “Wow, I don’t know much about jewelry but that seems like a really nice ring for three hundred dollars!” “Oh”, Libby said innocently, “It cost way more than that, I put the three hundred dollars down as a deposit and the little man at the store said he would finance the rest.  Wasn’t that nice of him?”.  Before my dad could respond Libby said, “Don’t worry there is no interest for a year,” then reaching into her pocketbook, she said, ” Oh, and here is your payment booklet”.

All eyes were now on my dad because Libby had definitely crossed the line; a line which she didn’t even realize existed, so it was a shock to everyone that Christmas morning when dad started laughing as he tucked the payment book away in his shirt pocket and said, “Well, I guess that’s the last time I will ask Libby to shop for me.”

In our shock and confusion the four Gilley brothers and their dad implicitly understood that there had been a power shift and we were just beginning to realize the influence that the “weaker sex” could wield in what was (up that point, at least) a male dominated universe.