Sarah Hall column: Daddy's girl, at last

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 18, 2007

By Sarah Hall

Salisbury Post

“What adorable grandchildren!” people would say to my father, assuming this dignified, gray-haired gentleman herding a brood of three small children to the park must be a doting grandfather.

But no, we were a lively, sometimes fussy, joy to his middle age, the three of us born in a span of 31/2 years to a couple, both in their second marriages, who thought they were probably too old to start a family.

My brother came first, then me, then my sister only 11 months later, which also led people to assume she and I were twins. She quickly caught up to me in size, we had the same curly blonde hair, and we were often dressed alike.

Having a father a generation older than my friends’ fathers sometimes meant I lived under stricter rules and wore longer skirts during the miniskirt years. But I also reaped the life-long benefit of Depression-era values and mature decisions.

It also meant having to come to terms with life with an aging father sooner than friends my age, and at a time when I still had my own three children to watch over.

When I was a young child, my father had a seasonal job as a tobacconist, which took him out of town sometimes for a couple weeks at a time during the auction season. He was away during months that I was progressing from infant to toddler, becoming more aware of my surroundings. Consequently, I was skeptical about this man who would appear briefly every other weekend, requiring me to share my mother’s attention.

Even during the off season that followed, when he was at home, I’ve been told that I would cry if he tried to hold me. This meant he had to take care of my infant sister while my mother met my demands. And so my sister got to be “Daddy’s girl,” an appellation which persisted long after I learned my father was not someone to be feared.

Even though I was “Mama’s girl,” I was the child who looked most like my father, having been the sole inheritor of the Fuller family nose. I also inherited his dry sense of humor and love of words.

And I was the child with whom my father lived the final years of his life, when it became necessary for my parents to give up their house.

The last year, a typical conversation would go like this:

My father would look at me quizzically, and ask, “Am I related to you?” and I would reply, “Yes, I’m your daughter.”

Then he would want to know if I was married, and if we had children, and I would describe these people who lived in the same house he did as if he were hearing about them for the first time. He usually concluded the conversation with “How about that,” or “Well, you are a good-looking woman.”

I found some consolation in the fact that at least I didn’t have to worry about my father being bored. Every day had become new and interesting, without us having to change a thing.

But I was also struck by the irony of our role reversal, how it sometimes felt as if Daddy, or Fate, was paying me back for those early days, when I did not recognize my father. I’m sure my obstinacy made his life more difficult than it should have been.

Finally, Alzheimer’s caused my father to forget more than names and faces.

He forgot how to walk. Then how to swallow.

But near the end, the cloud of confusion lifted suddenly. For a little while, my father knew who we all were. He was able to tell us he loved us. And he said “I’ve lived a long, wonderful life.”

And we were able to tell him how we felt, and see the understanding and recognition in his eyes that had not been there for a while. These few hours of clarity were a last gift to a 93-year-old man, and to us all.

Contact Sarah Hall at 704-797-4271 or