Love Lies To My Father
By Barbara L. Sherf
Lies to my father come tumbling out of my mouth with increasing frequency these days. I call them “love lies.”
You see, at 87, Dad has dementia and is often confused about where he is and why.
On my visits to the Veteran’s Home in Vineland, New Jersey, where he is being treated with dignity and respect, the lies roll off my lips in rapid succession.
Dad opens a Christmas card from me with an illustration depicting two horses and a sleigh pulling a pair of passengers.
“This looks familiar,” he says. I marvel as I had recovered the cards along with his personal papers nearly three years ago, before getting him settled into the home.
“I never liked them because of the way the horses hoof is bent at an awkward angle. It isn’t right,“ he says pointing to the disfigured joint. I look closer and indeed, it is not right.
There is a glimmer and a connection before he starts with the questions and the “love lies” start rolling.
“How long am I staying here?” he asks.
“Until you’re better. They are taking good care of you here and this is where you need to be.”
“What’s wrong with me?” he’ll ask.
“Well your legs aren’t strong and your brain is fuzzy, probably from too many falls off the animals in the rodeos. Remember those days?” I ask, trying to divert further questioning while reaching into the top drawer of his bedside table and pulling out the book we wrote together and presented to partygoers seven years ago, for his 80th Birthday.
The cover is worn, but the glossy image of father and daughter sitting on horses outside of Monastery Stables in the Wissahickon Valley still shines.
He is on Wyatt, and I am on Seamus. Both horses are retired now. Wyatt’s owner died too quickly; too young. But maybe that’s better, I think.
The front title shouts out in bold black letters: “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived….Not Preached.” By Barbara L. Sherf and Charles Sherf.
“I wrote this?” he asks.
“Some of it and some of them you told to me over and over while we were riding and I wrote them down. They are still great stories,” I say as he closes his eyes and listens. I read the story about a bull named Rodger’s Pet, who traveled the rodeo circuit from places like Sally Starr’s Ranch to Cowtown Rodeo to Totem Ranch. There’s a photo of Dad as a muscular teen riding the bull.
He opens his eyes.
“I remember. Nobody could stay on that bull for 8 seconds. They’d pay you fifty bucks if you did, but nobody could get the job done,” he smiles. “Many tried.”
I read him the story about the happiest day of his life. It was during the Great Depression, when as one of five kids, he had managed to save $75 picking tomatoes and delivering them by horse and buggy to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden. While he gave a good portion of the weekly pay to his mother, she would hand some back to him every week, and when he had saved $75, he and his best friend, Charlie Pfluger, traveled on Pfluger’s horse from Maple Shade to Ray Hinkson’s Dude Ranch in Camden. Once there, my father settled on a one-eyed horse and named him Paint, because of the brown and cream colored splotches on his coat. He loved that horse. Still does.
While my father never even kept a copy of his Birth Certificate or Divorce Decree, he still had the receipt for that horse.
“How’s Paint doing?” he asks.
“Oh he’s getting older; very mellow. He let’s me hop on him, but only bareback. No saddle.” I “love lie” again.
“Yeah, I paid $75 for him and didn’t even have the $5 to pay for the old army saddle. Rode him home bareback. He likes that. It’s good to ride bareback. You’ll become a better rider,” Dad lectures.
I turn the page. There is a photo of Dad coming out of the shute at Cowton Rodeo on Paint during a calf roping competition as his younger brother, Tommy, sits on the fence watching in awe.
“How’s Tommy?” he asks.
“I heard he was here this morning and seems to be doing well after his heart surgery,” I reply.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I remember,” Dad says. I sense he does not remember, but let it go.
“How is my mother doing,” he asks.
“Oh she’s slowing down too, but she still gets out to collect the eggs from the chicken coop and makes them for Grandpop nearly every morning,” the “love lies” are flowing smoothly now.
“That’s good. I loved that farm. Did I ever tell you the story about how we boys would go skinny dipping in the fishing pond?” he asks.
“No, ” I “I love lie,” “tell me.”
He proceeds to weave the yarn about how his brothers and Pfluger would all jump in the swimming hole “buck naked,” and if his sisters or any girls would come near, the boys threatened to run out and expose themselves.
“That scared them away,” he laughs. “I don’t think we’d have the guts to do it, but it kept them away,” he chuckles, as I turn the page.
“I like this one” he says of a photo of himself on Paint right next to Pfluger on his horse as an 8 or 9-year-old Tommy balances himself with one knee on both of their shoulder in a triangle formation; no helmets, no nets.
“You’d never be able to get that shot these days. Look, nobody is wearing helmets. Uncle Tommy could have fallen off and gotten stomped to death by those horses,” I exclaim, realizing that this is no lie and wondering who took the photo.
Craning my neck looking over his shoulder, I ask him to move over and we continue looking at the pictures. His eyes close as I read more stories. He is back there on the farm or maybe we are riding in my beloved Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park.
Gently removing his glasses and putting aside the book, I slide down and cuddle up next to him.
Half asleep he pulls my hands to his chest and murmurs,
“Oh this feels good. So good.”
The tears come rolling down my cheeks, but I do not move and try to muffle the weeping.
I hold onto him like he held me as a little girl. Time stands still.
Dad is fully asleep now; twitching and dreaming. I imagine he is back on the farm riding Paint through the fields, or picking tomatoes to get more money for a saddle and feed.
We lost Mom in May, so he’s the only parent I’ve got left and I tighten my grip.
He is sleeping.
Slowly, methodically, I untangle my arms and hands without waking him. Smoothing his thinning gray hair, I kiss him gently on the cheek.
Do I wake him to say goodbye?
No. He is at peace, dreaming, and so I exit out a back door so the staff do not bear witness to the river of tears streaming down my face. The realization sets in that I have really lost both parents and the guilt surfaces that Dad didn’t hear me say goodbye. But I knew if I had awakened him, the painful questions would have come again.
“Where am I? Why am I I here? When am I leaving? Are you coming back tomorrow? Who is taking care of Paint?”
Safely home, I speed dial the nursing station.
“Was my father upset when he woke up?” I ask with hesitation.
“Oh no, he was in a chipper mood and he just went down to dinner,” the aide shares.
“I’m glad. Please tell him I won’t see him tomorrow because I need to take care of his horse, Paint,” I ask the aide with hesitation.
The aide assures me he will relay the message.
He understands the love; the lies.
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf is a writer and personal historian. She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.