If you'd read my father's obituary in August 1977, you would have learned that his name was James Burwell Fricklen III and that he was a Presbyterian minister. You would have learned that he was 64 when he died from a heart attack in a hospital.
But you wouldn't have learned that when he was a small boy he was called Jim-B, that he grew up to become a gentle, principled man who liked applesauce, and that he puttered around in the mornings.
MY FATHER had the look of a proud and sometimes even a disdainful eagle. This was because his nose was like a beak and he had a formal public facade. His face was acne-scarred and his hair had begun turning white while he was in his 20s. As a result it was difficult to tell how old he was at first glance. By the time he was in his 40s his hair was completely white and when he stood directly under a light it gave him a halo effect. If he happened to be wearing his ministerial robes the total effect was fairly intimidating.
My father had his own vocabulary and phraseology. Many were Southernisms he'd grown up with that surfaced from time to time. Sometimes a mere thank you didn't suffice. "Well now, that's right thoughty of you," he would say. One of my favorite phrases was "a huckleberry beyond my persimmon," used as in "Now that's a huckleberry beyond my persimmon." He didn't know where the phrase originated; it was just something he'd grown up knowing and it was translated as meaning something outside his frame of reference. He would also refer to something (usually my room) as a "pluperfect mess." I almost went into shock when I learned that "pluperfect" was a verb tense. I have a feeling he just made up the new use of the word because he liked the way it sounded.
My father disliked fried chicken. It was the traditional fare served to company in the South, and after a few years as a young unmarried minister invited out to meals, he'd had his fill of it. While I was growing up I don't remember us having fried chicken at home even once. Eventually my father was able to face a piece of fried chicken; in the last few years he was alive he actually got to the point where he could enjoy it again.
My father liked: Hubert Humphrey, taking walks, Civil War history, shrimp, chrysanthemums, Ralph McGill, realistic landscape paintings, pork barbecue, the Rockettes, shade trees, Jack Anderson's column (he filed the ones he thought were most important), collies, books that told a good story, Carl Rowan, churches to be provided with adequate parking facilities, The Reader's Digest, the color green (because it was restful), fruit sherbets, Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," well kept-up houses, Robert E. Lee, fish-roe cakes, Jimmy Carter, Parade magazine, horseradish sauce and (much to his daughter's chagrin) Lawrence Welk.
Unless he was working in the yard my father always left the house wearing a suit jacket. He seemed constitutionally unable to go to the drug store in just a sport shirt. Once about 2 a.m. one of my sisters was in a car accident near our house. She called my parents and when my father arrived at the scene of the collision 15 minutes later he was fully dressed - and wearing a tie and a jacket.
My father was a Presbyterian minister for 39 years. The first 20 were spent in pastorates in North Carolina and as a chaplain in the Army during World War II. The next 19 years were spent in Washington, D.C.
In 1956, my family was living in Raleigh, N.C. When my father had accepted the call to this particular church, he had been told that the congregation previously had leaned towards the conservative side but the conservatives had moved to other churches. This turned out to be only partially true.
By 1959, integration was becoming an issue throughout the South. As a result my father had two major disagreements with his congregation: integration and his conviction that they needed to spend the money to replace the ancient Sunday School building with a modern education building. He was hitting their minds and their pocketbooks at the same time.
The session (the local church's governing body) finally and grudgingly approved the new building. They also discussed the fact that Negroes were systematically going to white churches on Sunday mornings and trying to be seated for the services. What would they do if it happened in their church? Not seat them, they decided. My father disagreed. In his carefully couched phrases, my father told them that the situation might never arise and, frankly, that if he were a Negro he wouldn't think of trying to worship in a church that had a congregation like this one. He'd have better places to go. They took his meaning.
He, on the other hand, did not have a better place to move to. So, despite the ideological differences, we stayed there. No blacks ever tried to come to the church, there were groundbreaking ceremonies on the new education building, and we began to feel we needed to move.
In those days, ministers wanting a new church put out feelers by telling their ministerial friends. Then word eased out over the grapevine. It was a slow process.
In the meantime, as far as I know, there were no direct threats made to my family. But there was anonymous phone calls, a number of them. My parents waited to see if and when my father would get a call to another church. I was 8; I got an ulcer. In January, 1961, we moved to Washington. Not only had my father gotten a call, he'd gotten a promotion.
He was in church administration, the head of a presbytery (similar to a diocese) with 50 churches. In the Southern Presbyterian Church he was what is known as an executive secretary and in the Northern Presbyterian Church as the general presbyter. (We used to explain it by saying it was like being a bishop, only you couldn't tell anyone to do anything.)
I don't think that it occurred to my father for more than a minute to join the famous march to Selma, Ala. For one thing, it cost money to go, and although his job provided certain trappings such as a house in Cleveland Park, we never had any actual cash. So instead my father took over the pulpit for a local minister while he went to Selma, and he explained to the congregation where their minister was that Sunday and why.
As an executive secretary, one of my father's responsibilities was to help find ministers for churches when there was an opening. The first step was usually to call up another executive secretary in another part of the country and talk about possible candidates. It was all very insy, as most Southern Presbyterians knew each other or knew of each other's family. It was archaic but worked fairly well in a small denomination.
With his own experience fresh in his mind, he would call and find out if a minister in that area was in trouble over a pro-integration stand. Then there'd be the usual process, a flurry of phone calls, a congregational delegation coming to hear the minister preach, and often the beleaguered minister and his family moved north.
I've wondered if my father ever told them how he first heard of them, or if at some time in the 1960s a group of ministers in the area realized they had all come from similar, troubled church situations.
My father was not a liberal. I know he wasn't because he said he wasn't. He said he was a moderate. As a Southerner and as a moderate he came to feel that he could probably never feel comfortable if he ever lived further south than D.C. He continued to love the South and his southern roots. But he chose to be buried with my mother's family in a country cemetery in New York state.
My father's greatest insult was to call someone a fool. Evil was a directional choice a person might make and it could be combated. But if a man was a fool, he felt, there was very little hope; a fool doesn't recognize his foolishness and we, with God's help, have to put up with it and try to cope with it.
My father was slow and methodical. He checked his addition and then he double-checked it. He never went over the speed limit. He said he could get things right as long as he wasn't rushed.He usually wrote in capital letters, both to be legible and to stress important ideas. If something was really important he underlined it.
I've gotten notes from him written entirely in capital letters and underlined. His own carefulness and slowness made him patient with people. He often needed time to think things through and understood that other people might need time too.
Born out of years of Sunday mornings looking out over congregations, my father could look at a crowd and immediately give an approximate head count. Whenever we, his daughters, came back from a party he'd ask how many people were there. We never knew. Ten? Thirty? A hundred? Oh, Daddy, we'd say and dredge up a number. He always felt better after he knew how many people were there.
When I was in high school and friends phoned me at home, they hoped my father would answer the phone. His Georgia accent had muted over the years, but it was still mellow and fluid. It sounded just as impressive over the phone as it did when he was preaching a sermon. "Hay-low," he would say as he answered the phone, and then he would chat a while before calling me to the phone.
After I had moved away and my father would call me, the conversation always began the same way."Hay-low, Ellen? This is your father speaking." (He said this somewhat self-mockingly, since I could hardly fail to recognize that voice and that accent.) Then he would continue, "Is this a convenient time for me to chat with you?"
I think my father was always a little non-plussed to have three daughters. Sometimes I had the feeling he didn't know quite what to do with girls, how to share his life with us. Even though he had back problems, he bought us a ball and bat and taught us how to play sofeball; he took us with him to various churches to hear him preach.
As part of his job he was often the guest minister in various churches around the presbytery (originally encompassing Northern Virginia and Maryland.) Usually he'd take one of us along; I think it kept him from being lonely on some long drives and gave him a chance to get to know each of us better and to talk to us without constant dinner table interruption.
On the trips to and from the churches he'd often tell us Civil War stories and explain what part of the war was fought in the area we were driving through. He could always tell us how many soldiers had been killed, if the battle had been a turning point in the war, even important background such as there'd been a supply slowdown 30 miles up the railroad track that had delayed food or rifles that might have helped win the skirmish. He made it very real and not at all distant.
My father also made it a point to tell us that he was glad the North had won the Civil War. He was especially interested in the philosophical ties to family and homeland that had caused a number of West Point-educated leaders to make the undoubtedly difficult decision to fight for a secession they did not fully agree with. He had an especially deep and abiding affection for Robert E. Lee. When my father grew a beard in the last several years of his life - because shaving drained him of so much energy - he looked a great deal like Lee.
After my father had his first heart attack he allowed himself to cry. I don't remember ever having seen him cry before then unless they were tears of laughter. He was easily touched and often moved to tears, but until then he'd always held the tears in check and looked fierce instead.
He figured that one of the reasons he'd had a heart attack, though, was because he'd internalized so many feelings all his life. He also concluded that he had headaches for the same reason. He decided it was healthier to let his emotions out.
A well-preached sermon often affected him emotionally, and he'd sit in the congregation and gently dab his eyes. Later, after his retirement, when he stopped going to church, it was partially because he knew he would cry.
After my father's first heart attack I began crying more often, too, and for many of the same reasons. But partly it was because at age 20 I had realized that my parents were mortal and that I had almost lost one of them. Individually, my father and I were both easy marks, and put us together in the same room looking at the same TV show, even a sentimental commercial, and there'd be instant waterworks.
Usually we'd just begin to tear up and look at each other out of the corners of our eyes. Then we'd give each other wobbly grins. My father would take out his handerchief and wipe his eyes; my husband would sigh take out his handkerdhief and hand it to me.
It was Woody Allen who said, "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Which pretty much sums up the way my father felt about his death. He knew that he was dying. He had come to terms with it and his faith was so well intact that he could look forward to an end of his earthly experience; he had made his peace.
It was the probable process he minded, the pain he undoubtedly would have to go through. In his last several months he read about the research of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the reports of people who technically had died but had been brought back to life and were able to tell about the experience. He was fascinated by this possible confirmation of an afterlife, by the glowing figure, by the relatives and friends that met the dying person. But the fear of the pain was still there.
The day he died my husband and I went to see him in the intensive care unit of the hospital. The heart attack that was to be fatal was beginning and he was in pain, frightened, disoriented. He held on to my hand to feel focused in space. Then with great effort he turned and introduced, by name, the nurse on duty. Within a few minutes they made us leave the room.
While my father was dying we cried. After he died we cried. I still cry. Sometimes I see an older white-haired man and I think it's my father for a moment. The old men who move slowly, deliberately, yet determined to accomplish their errands affect me most. If they're courteous and courtly and make an attempt to chat and pass the time of day with shop clerks, I can hardly bear it. I remember his smile, his ability to find simple satisfactions, the way he got sweeter and gentler as he aged. The way he tried to put up with the pain, the inconvenience, a lessened life.
The day after my father died I sat in the family living room. My eyes were swollen, my nose was stuffy; it was hard to breathe. The world seemed to have a haze over it, just as if it was a summer morning and the sun hadn't burned the fog off yet. I knew I missed him horribly. I knew that only time could lessen my pain, but also that each minute was too long and I didn't know if I could stand the wait. The world hadn't stopped. I just had to step aside for a while.
And it occurred to me that this may have been the way he felt, too, on a different rhythm. Slowly distancing himself from the world. Slowly fading away. Waiting. Expectantly. Trying to limp gracefully to the end. He must be so much happier now, I thought. This was probably the first time I began to accept his death. A few moments later I started up the stairs to tell him lunch was ready.
Death in the end is hardest on the survivors; it's an empty loss, not a completion. Almost two years later the pain is still there, but it's not as sharp, it has dispersed. And, of course, we still have the memories of him, but they're dispersing, too. But there will always be enough memories to give me comfort and counsel. I miss him because I loved him. CAPTION:
Picture 1, no caption, By Mike Mitchell; Picture 2, Ellen Ficklen and her father in 1952. By Carolyn Ficklen