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Past Perfect

This author is a recipient

of the Sigma Tau Delta Award

Sigma Tau Delta Awarde

Shalynn Ford Womack ('84)

is a freelance writer whose op-ed, travel, and feature stories have appeared in The (Moline) Dispatch, The Huntsville (AL) Times, The Tennessean, The Tennessee Register, and elsewhere. She holds a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology and is the author of "Ice On The Wing: Essays on Life and Other Difficult Situations" (Spearhead Press, 2012). She is also the co-owner of Twice The Talent Editorial Services. Ford Womack resides in Nashville, Tennessee.




Eight days ago, my uncle died suddenly. Heart attack. Today, my father died. Also a heart attack. Like genius and insanity, heart attacks ran in the family.

My dad and Uncle Thomas were born and raised in Nashville during the post-WWI years. Their boyish pranks were the stuff of family lore and regularly incited the wrath of my grandfather, a Freewill Baptist preacher with an excitable temper and plenty of peach tree limbs at his disposal. My grandfather, who insisted on being addressed by his full name—the Reverend Thomas Jefferson Gillespie—kept both his congregation and twelve offspring on a short leash, delivering fiery sermons both at home and from the pulpit. And when it came to disciplining his disobedient progeny, a branch from his favorite peach tree usually accompanied the stern admonishments.

Decades later, my dad told me that he took great pride in remaining stoic throughout, promising the pain only lasted as long as the whipping and was well worth the cost of having fun.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, my dad and his brother decided to enlist in the Army. My uncle was accepted and quickly deployed to the Pacific. But doctors discovered that my dad had an enlarged heart, thereby disqualifying him from military service. He was devastated. Being rejected for active service meant he and Thomas would be separated by thousands of miles. And worse, my dad would not be able to do his patriotic duty, which at that time was tantamount to personal failure. And it may explain why he quickly lit a match to his life. Before the ash cleared over Hiroshima, my dad had married and fathered three children.

When Uncle Thomas, also the father of three, returned home from the war in late 1945, he and my dad quickly picked up where they'd left off and migrated north in search of factory jobs and a fresh start. Both men hoped to outrun their respective demons, which between them now included two disgruntled ex-wives and six young children. And in Thomas’ case, a Purple Heart and severe post-traumatic stress.

Enough baggage to bring down a jumbo jet.

My uncle fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal and took a bullet to the head. A metal plate held his broken skull together. Nothing could repair his broken spirit.

In the summer of 1960, Thomas was seriously injured in a car accident. A piece of the metal plate dislodged and became embedded in his brain. Amazingly, he survived. Again. But he also sustained permanent injuries including paralysis and brain damage, which resulted in a severe speech impediment. My dad and I could eventually understand Thomas’ slurred speech. He and the rest of the world did not communicate. Which is why my dad, being the responsible sort (responsible for a lot of misery, his ex-wives agreed), immediately stepped up and oversaw his brother’s care at the local nursing home.

My dad visited his brother every Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon. He spent every Friday night with me. Sunday afternoons were reserved for my younger half-brother who lived with his mother, one of Thomas’ former nurses. And on weekdays, he worked twelve-hour shifts at a local factory. At any given time, my multi-tasking father also had a girlfriend. Or three.

Although chronically overbooked, I could set my dime-store watch by my dad’s punctuality. Every Friday at the stroke of five, he’d magically appear at our back door, smiling and ready to discuss everything from astronomy to archeology to algebra. Four hours later, he’d wave goodbye, and I’d watch him drive up 32nd Street and disappear into the mist. My dad was juggling a lot of people—including several disillusioned women with conflicting agendas and varying degrees of animosity toward one another. Adhering to a strict schedule and compartmentalizing were basic survival strategies. For all of us.

Now both brothers are gone, leaving behind a trail of wreckage.

In Thomas’ case, death has provided respite from the indignities of a broken body. He is no longer in pain and his soul is at peace, I tell myself with adolescent certitude. Still, I will pray a rosary for him every night. Just to be sure. The nuns have taught me well.

My dad is a different story. Who am I without the man who first showed me the brilliant rings of Saturn through the refractor telescope he built for us? Where do I go for a hug, or even help with my homework? When will I see him again—what if there is no heaven or hell—just a black void? How do I survive this tsunami of tragedy? I won’t. I will die, too. One pulse point at a time.

In recent days, my father looked bereft. Lost. Heartbroken. Almost haunted. Losing his brother—his best friend—had exacted an incredible toll. The missing paperwork didn’t help. The business side of death, I’ve learned, includes Kafkaesque documentation and a ticking clock. Especially when military service is involved. In Thomas’ case, misplaced discharge papers meant my uncle couldn’t be buried at the Rock Island Arsenal until the matter was resolved. That was a real problem, lamented my grief-stricken father, because the local funeral home wanted my uncle buried in a timely fashion so they could free up space for the next arrival.

Finally, after five straight days of pleading with long-distance bureaucrats, my dad procured the official copy of his brother’s honorable discharge from the Army and my uncle was buried with military honors. After Thomas was laid to rest, my dad looked visibly less troubled.

Upon his next visit, my father actually proposed the previously unthinkable idea of taking me home to Nashville to meet his family. For Christmas. That is, with my mother’s approval.

Wouldn’t it be nice for their only child to meet her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, asked my dad in an unusually conciliatory tone during his Friday visit. Something nice to look forward to after losing his beloved brother, he added, playing on my mother’s last sympathetic nerve.

I glanced across the kitchen at my mother, trying to discern her thoughts about this sudden turn of events. She did not look pleased about this unexpected invitation coming on the heels of other jarring events. Her narrow lips were pressed tightly, and her weary but vigilant hazel eyes were on alert. Permanently cast in the role of prey animal, she was clearly horrified by the prospect of me spending Christmas with my dad and his family–and the idea of spending a holiday alone with her own demons. She’d never let me go. We must serve our time together in the House of Numb.

That’s how it was in a compact family. And we were the definition of a tiny, firmly enmeshed family. My mother was an only child, and I was her only surviving child. Just the two of us. Shackled together. My dad, on the other hand, was one of twelve and always headed home to Tennessee the minute the factory went on winter shutdown. His annual escape had been a long-running sore point between my parents.

Especially because after returning from Nashville, my dad was always full of fascinating tales about the family genius who was an up-and-coming rocket scientist at NASA, a sister who just divorced for the third—fourth—fifth time, an aunt released from the local psychiatric hospital just in time to celebrate the holidays, and other juicy family dramas that have unfolded over the holidays. My dad’s captivating stories had long since elevated the Gillespie clan to mythical status. I wanted to meet them. Desperately.

And then there were the photos. I’d seen them. Surreptitiously, of course. The proud Southern clan seated around an enormous dinner table at my grandmother’s house. Bright holiday decorations, assorted meats, exotic vegetables—green in both name and appearance—collard greens, turnip greens—and lavish desserts showcased on a table stretching from frame to frame. Presents stacked beneath a gigantic tree in a living room accented with family photos and handmade Afghans and pillows screamed cozy. Smiling children buried in piles of toys and games. Basically, the antithesis of our Christmases, which were defined by abject poverty. My mother’s chronic depression. And on Christmas Day, a frantic run to the neighborhood 7-11 to buy a frozen pizza. The Tombstone Tradition. Not exactly the stuff of Hallmark memories.

My parents rarely agreed on the time of day, so when I heard my mother reluctantly concede to my dad’s spontaneous proposal, I was stunned speechless. I think my dad was, too. “I suppose,” repeated my mother with a marked lack of enthusiasm after both my dad and I failed to acknowledge her concession the first time.

The events of the past week must have dazed my mother, dampening her certitude that the Gillespie clan were troublemakers who we needed to actively avoid. Uncle Thomas’ death had inadvertently led to an unprecedented opportunity to go home with my dad, to be part of a real family, I suddenly realized. I was going to have the best bittersweet Christmas ever.

My mother’s unexpected largesse had also rendered my dad a bit gobsmacked, so after muttering thanks, he stood up and headed straight for the door. Exiting before my mother had time to change her mind. “Besides,” he winked at me, “I have other fish to fry.” Meaning a late date.

“I love you pumpkin,” he said, hugging me goodbye. A quick wave from the sidewalk as he approached his new Ford Galaxy, parked at the end of our driveway.

“I love you, too, daddy,” I yelled back. “And I can’t wait to go to Nashville with you.”

Even at that hour, the sultry July air was thick enough to suck through a straw. Ecstatic moths clustered around the back porch light and June bugs clung tenaciously to the screen door.  This was their moment of pure rapture. A car door shut in the distance. I glanced at my Timex.  Exactly 9:00. The last time I would ever see my dad alive.


I do go to Nashville. But not for Christmas. Instead, I am going to bury my father.

My inaugural flight into adulthood begins the moment I arrive at the Nashville airport, bewildered and lost in grief. It’s been a week since my dad dropped dead from a massive heart attack. My mother’s employer sprang for a plane ticket so that I can attend the funeral. His generosity did not extend to two tickets, so I am alone. Both in fact and symbol.

Recalling my mother’s mantra that tragedy is no excuse for bad manners, I manage to craft a passable smile and politely thank the ground hostess who escorts me to the arrivals area. “Responsible adults are on the way,” she promises before floating away to pick up her next charge.

Minutes–or hours–pass. My Timex went in the trash the day my dad died. Time is not my friend. Fridays and Christmas dreams are part of the past. Lost to death.

I barely register the elderly woman shuffling towards me. She is holding something in her hand and appears uncertain whether to approach or avoid me. She takes a few steps forward, and I see a small photo peeking out from a wrinkled hand. Suddenly, she boldly leans into me, thrusts the tattered photo next to my cheek, squints tired mink eyes that look oddly familiar, and nods her head. I glance sideways and see the image in her hand. It’s me, circa third grade.

Apparently convinced the child with bright brown eyes and the shattered teenager standing before her are one and the same, she motions to a gaggle of middle-aged women standing nearby, and announces for all to hear, “Well, I declare, she’s James’ kid.” The other women approach with a combination of curiosity and contempt, sizing up their recently deceased brother’s indiscretion. Surveying the damage. None of them are smiling. The disapproval is palpable.

Admittedly, my dad was no Ward Cleaver. But he still managed to show up in every way that matters to a child. And to this day, he remains the only man who ever made me—a nerd before it was cool to be so—feel safe and loved. Just as I am. That’s why I can forgive his sins.  Even though they’ve been visited upon me with relentless cruelty.


My father’s funeral is an interesting…affair. He looks especially handsome, sporting the sage green dress shirt that I’d given him just a few weeks ago on Father’s Day. A card with a note is pinned to the satin lining of the steel blue casket. I picked out the casket. And I wrote the note. The contents are personal, not for public consumption. When I lean down to hug him, I whisper the words he’s heard a million times since he and my mother split up the year I turned six. “Could I please go with you? Don’t leave me behind.”

My tears stain his starched shirt; he does not hug me back. Instead, his hands remain neatly folded, cold and stiff. Silence is my answer. And then an endless stream of wary relatives forms a long line and they introduce themselves.

Before the “Loving Father” floral spray atop my dad’s casket wilts, I will learn that I have both older and younger half-siblings living in three different states. And it seems my charming father, not one to let moss grow beneath his feet, was engaged at the time of his death.  To two different women. Each of whom believed she was on the threshold of a new life with my dad.

So my father died just as he lived: full of surprises. And we were all present at his funeral. Each in our own way mourning his absence. And in some ways, mourning his presence in our lives.

Someday I will move to Nashville. To live among the dead. Or perhaps to reclaim the past, where my dad and Christmas dreams still reside. A place that always feels like a cozy, beloved childhood home. Ensconced in the past perfect. Inviolable.  Sacrosanct. And beyond the reach of death.


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