On a bookshelf just above the television set is my favorite photograph of my father and me. My father is 75 in the photo and I am 37. I am wearing a white lace dress and he is in his tuxedo. We are dancing. Texas Monthlyhad assigned photographer Matthew Savins to illustrate a piece I’d written called “The Way to a Woman’s Heart.” Sensing my father’s anxiety about being photographed in a stark studio, the photographer put on a recording of thirties love songs, and somewhere between “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” he captured the lifelong mutual admiration society of a father and daughter.
My dad would have been the first to admit that he was not a good father for a boy. He couldn’t throw a ball and had no interest in the outdoors unless it was groomed for playing golf. My brother was born in 1938, before my father grew up.
He remembers the year Santa didn’t come because Daddy, the newly minted editor-in-chief of the Texarkana Gazette, had lost the Christmas money in a craps game with the printers. Getting out two editions of a daily paper meant that my dad was not much inclined to help with Boy Scout badges in his leisure time. After my mother died, in 1996, my brother admitted that he had trouble writing letters just to Dad. He had always written for Mother. Funny, I had always written for Daddy.
J.Q. Mahaffey was not a handsome man, but he didn’t know it. I could never view either of my parents objectively enough to assess their physical attractiveness. Was my mother pretty? I couldn’t tell. Both of their faces were too intimately imprinted on my brain as My Parents, as though they belonged to a separate category of beings who looked, well, exactly as they should look. In one of the earliest photographs I have of my father, excluding those Edwardian baby portraits of him in a long white dress holding on to a metal chair, he is about three years old and wearing his “Milwaukee suit,” a short-pants outfit with a broad-brimmed hat. In this photo, he is adorable Bud Tot, as his much older siblings called him, ready to sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” to soften up the stern Victorian attorney he called Papa. He was the indulged baby in a family of four children. In her early forties at his birth, his mother, an active suffragette, left him in the care of a black servant so frequently that his dinnertime recitations of the day’s activities often had a decidedly black slant. His recounting of a trip to the circus included so much exclaiming over the derring-do of “that white man on the high trapeze” that his father drolly asked his mother, “Susie, does our son know he’s white?”
My father was vain. I never saw him pass a mirror or shop window without cutting his eyes to admire his reflection. He was about five foot seven, bald-headed from the time I knew him, a little overweight, and stoop-shouldered from hours spent writing and rewriting news copy on an old L. C. Smith manual typewriter. He had protruding teeth so bizarre and crooked and discolored that even if orthodontic treatment had been available in his youth, I do not think anything short of extraction could have improved their appearance. Did I mention that he stuttered? He had small, soft hands and wore size 7 shoes. As he aged, an odd bone disease called Paget’s bent his left shin in such a way that my mother speculated that archaeologists would someday dig him up and think they’d found an Indian artifact.
In spite of his teeth, his height, and his stuttering, the young man who became my father was a “jelly bean.” My dictionary doesn’t define this long-gone slang term, but young “Buffalo” Mahaffey did. It had nothing to do with his elliptical balding head or the sweetness of his personality or his penchant for repeating, to anyone who mentioned the city of New York, a hilarious and humiliating story about the bell captain’s white gloves and the case of homemade blackberry jam in the trunk of his car at the Waldorf-Astoria. During the Roaring Twenties, jelly beans were the male equivalents of flappers, best known for their sharp dressing and flirty flattery and their ability to dance the Charleston. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined “jelly bean” as “one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle … I am idling, I have idled, I will idle.”
Born in 1907 in Texarkana, my dad grew up relatively privileged. I look at old photos of my hometown and picture him jerking soda at Gallagher’s or loitering in front of Jimmy’s Confectionery with his Sixth Street gang, all of them thinking they were the cat’s meow. He remembered the first Model T’s, the installation of electric lights in his family’s home on Olive Street, and World War I recruits drilling in front of the house. He was a regular at the local movie theater. His earnest attempts to emulate the menacing squint and swagger of Tom Mix, his favorite silent-movie cowboy, often caused his father to suggest that perhaps the boy needed a purgative. He conjured up for me such a clear picture of his boyhood in Texarkana that I often forget that the trolley tracks he mischievously soaped were long gone when I was born, in 1944.
When it was time for him to go to high school, his father sent him away to Columbia Military Academy, in Tennessee. He returned the first Christmas resplendent (he thought) in his uniform with cape and saber and headed straight for a popular young lady’s house. Her new boyfriend answered the door and yelled over his shoulder, “Nancy, there is someone here to see you. I think it’s the postman.”
He went away to Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina, in a yellow convertible and blew a great deal of his father’s money that was intended