Like many from his generation, my father was not an expressive man. Seemingly, he managed to go his entire life without experiencing any kind of emotional highs or lows- a trait that, apparently, is genetically passed on to one’s son.
He was an important man in his chosen field, and worked long hours. Most of my childhood memories don’t include him, but instead center around my mom and brother. To have dad around for a fun weekend was a rare, if often underwhelming treat.
Don’t get me wrong- my father loved his wife and his kids. When he wanted to be, he was subtly affectionate. I’ve never experienced a single second of neglect or abuse in my entire life. He was a good man, and I loved him and looked up to him just as every little boy does.
I was still a young boy when my father passed away. And while I’ve often felt robbed of the years of potential memories that we could have made together, I am thankful that I have one really, really great memory of a day with my dad. I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet, so you’ll have to forgive me for any fuzziness regarding the details.
You see, my dad was an Auburn fan. Like myself, he attended a different university, but loved the school as much as any alumnus could. I guess lots of things are genetically passed on to one’s son.
My dad took me to my first Auburn football game. I can’t remember the season (had to be around ’87), and I can’t remember the opponent. I can’t remember exactly where we sat, and I can’t remember what we were wearing. However, there are two things that I remember from that day: The trees, and my dad’s face.
Auburn was obviously victorious, because after the game I rode on my dad’s shoulders to the corner of College and Magnolia for the ceremonial rolling of Toomer’s Corner. The crowd was thick, and the streams of toilet paper were plentiful. I vividly remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders under those branches, with my head back and my hands stretched as far as I could get them into the sky. Somehow, I remember smiling until my face hurt. The structured chaos of a Toomer’s celebration was almost more than my tiny heart could stand.
Then, there was my dad. For the only time that I can remember, he was not the emotionless picture of stoicism that he was at home. In that moment, he felt the same joy that I did! He shouted. He cheered. He pumped his fist. My father didn’t not engage in such acts of undignity. But he did on that day. I still remember him looking up at me with an uncharacteristically broad smile. I knew that it was a special day. I assumed that we would have lots of special days like that.
When you are a small boy on your daddy’s shoulders, looking straight up into the inner workings of those live oaks- the trees seemed like giants. Invincible. Impenetrable. Powerful. Undoubtedly permanent.
Kind of like how we see our fathers.
When my father passed away, it broke my world- the same way it would break any little boy’s world. And though I’m not without my related issues, there is one thing that gave me the strength and encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other- my family.
All of my family felt the pain of my father’s death- I’m not so foolish to assume that I’m the only one who suffered. Despite their grief, though, they showed love to a small boy and helped me become the man that I am today. We all felt grief but we leaned on each other, loved each other, and occasionally carried each other during the more difficult days.
Since my father’s passing, Toomer’s Corner has symbolized something so much more than just athletic conquest. Since that day, I have associated Toomer’s Corner with that wonderful day I spent with my dad. The way he looked that day under the branches- that’s the dad that I choose to remember. When his name is mentioned around the family dinner table today, I don’t picture him coming home late in an expensive suit- I remember him pumping his fist like a commoner while I tried my best to reach for the branches.
The trees have always reminded me of my dad. And, just as a naïve young boy assumes of his father, I thought that they would always be around. I assumed that as an old man I would gingerly hobble into Toomer’s Drug Store, order a lemonade, and sit silently as I reminisce about better days with my father.
Now, we all know that won’t happen. The trees have fought hard, but are slowly succumbing to the poison of a bitter man. The branches I reached for as I sat atop my dad’s shoulders will be gone, sooner than later. Whether or not it makes sense to outsiders, it’s like losing a loved one all over again.
However, the absence of the Toomer’s Oaks will not signify the absence of my memories on that hallowed ground. Sure, I may not drive by and see the branches- but no imbalanced, hateful man can ever take the memory of that day with me dad away from me.
And no man can ever take the memories you’ve made under those branches away, either.
I mentioned earlier that it was only the love and support of a family that carried me through the difficulty of losing my father. We are all experiencing pain over our trees being hurt, but we are not isolated as we feel this grief. We are a part of a family.
I know that outsiders roll their eyes when they hear us speak of the "Auburn Family." They assume that it’s a marketing ploy designed to make mothers feel good about sending their babies to the Plains. Maybe they’re right, to an extent. But I know what the strength of a family can do for those who are hurting. Now is the time for us prove the cynics wrong. Let’s lean on each other. Let’s hug each other. Let’s cry together. Let’s break bread together.
The Auburn Family is strong. We can get through this together. We need each other.
See you in April. I’ll be the guy unsuccessfully reaching my hands towards the branches one last time.
War Eagle, Dad.