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 for books on hiring Ted Weems’s Orchestra to play at a local hotel. The Jazz Age and Prohibition were in full swing. In a small-town Southern way, my dad walked right out of a Fitzgerald story in his raccoon coat. His college yearbook pictures him as “biggest sheik” and “best dressed” and describes his leaving a trail of broken hearts all the way to Converse College, in Spartanburg. So vivid were his tales of leaving a dollar on a rural porch and returning later to retrieve a mason jar of moonshine that I sometimes think I lived the whole century with him. He knew our hometown when it sparkled with new wealth from the timber industry, and he could recreate for me the glamour of summer dances on the roof of the Grim Hotel, where tall electric fans blowing over tubs of ice cooled the perspiring dancers.
The Great Depression and marriage to my smart, no-nonsense mother cut short the jelly bean’s idling days, but he retained his dapper style, his ability to flirt, and his soft Carolina accent. He never doubted that he had married a woman of superior intelligence. My parents’ friends often compared them to George Burns and Gracie Allen, except that the roles were reversed. Daddy was Gracie.
My first encounter with my father was immortalized in his newspaper column, in speeches, and in our countless introductions of each other at public events through the years. The story goes that, on seeing my unfocused eyes just after I was born, my father cornered the family doctor and said, “Give it to me straight, Reavis. She’s blind, isn’t she?” Dr. Pickett replied, “J.Q., the child is less than an hour old. What do you expect her to do? Write an editorial?”
That was my father’s job for most of his life, writing editorials. His journalism career, first as a reporter, then as the editor of the Gazette and its afternoon counterpart, the Daily News, spanned four decades, from the stock market crash in 1929 through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He chased bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde all over Bowie and Red River counties, interviewed Will Rogers, worked round the clock to get out World War II reports, and contended with the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and the national and international press when they were all drawn to our town in the forties by a series of still-unsolved murders. Reporters dubbed the unapprehended criminal the Phantom Killer, and my father gave interviews on these events well into his nineties.
By marrying a fellow reporter at the Gazette and by keeping her on the staff sporadically even after I was born, he saw to it that I grew up amid the heat, the grime, the smoke, and the excitement of a fifties newspaper office. Almost everyone and everything of interest in town came through the doors of the newsroom. I met every president from Truman through Nixon. I also saw club women, civic leaders, preachers, circus folks, and regular townspeople, proud or grieving, all in search of some notice for themselves or their children. Old Associated Press and United Press International wire-service machines rang bells to announce incoming stories. The whole place fairly vibrated with a sense of urgency. Typewriters clacked, ashtrays overflowed, coffee grew cold and rancid, and telephones never quit ringing. The aging society editor, Annie Mae Turner, frequently became so engrossed while gathering the latest social gossip that she set her frizzy hair on fire with a cigarette in the hand holding the telephone receiver to her ear. “Somebody put Annie Mae out!” a reporter would yell and another would beat the burning locks with a telephone directory. More heat from hot lead poured into the windowless, unair-conditioned newsroom each time a proofreader handed copy through the sliding glass window to the typesetters in the clattering composing room.
Overseen by a penurious, eccentric publisher, the Gazette office was rife with absurdities. Dank toilets in a dark hallway were supplied with a roll of newsprint in lieu of real toilet tissue. Memos from the publisher about wastefulness were often followed up by his ferreting out discarded pencil stubs in trash baskets, sharpening them with a pocketknife, and returning them to the offender’s desk. My father maintained that his requests for small raises were always met with, “Why, John Quincy, if I hadn’t hired you, do you know what you’d be doing now? You’d be a ribbon clerk at Ben F. Smith’s.” Years later, when I lauded my father’s hiring of women to cover police beats and city council meetings at a time when they were usually relegated to reporting teas and fashion shows, he burst my feminist bubble by explaining, “Oh, honey, I had to hire them. They’d work for less.”
My father loved the news business, and as a family, we always felt sorry for the “outsiders” who would never know the funny, cynical, irreverent camaraderie of newsrooms or the triumph of getting the story and being on the inside of almost everything that happened in our town. No pretentiousness was attached to writing in my family. It was a taken-for-granted motor skill that my brother and I improved by writing letters home, which were sometimes returned to us proofread and corrected. In lieu of gifts, my father wrote a love letter to my mother each Christmas, an especially touching one the year he gambled away Santa Claus. My father could write and edit a hard-news story, but he remained an old softy with a sentimental streak that touched his readers and kept the father-daughter dance going his whole life. When I was ten, he wrote a column that began, “If a man has ambition to grow in character as the years rush by, I can’t think of anything he needs more than a daughter.” And when he was 89, we sat in the kitchen of my parents’ house, both exhausted by the frustrations and sadness of my mother’s final illness. He looked up from our cold supper and said, “You know why I’d like to live forever?”
“Sure, Daddy, so you could wear out that Brooks Brothers sport coat I gave you for Christmas and watch the Masters golf tournament every spring.”
“No, so I could keep on loving you.”
Small wonder that my father was never without some romance in his life. He liked women, and right to the very end he expected them to like him. Secure in a marriage that lasted until she died at 86, my mother tolerated, even encouraged, his flirting as he tolerated hers. He was always falling in love with a choir member at the church, absolutely certain that the soprano soloist sang just for him.
In his nineties, without my mother to deflate his ego, he worried that his friendship with a bright young Gazette reporter who occasionally took him to lunch or a movie might be mistaken for something more. “You kids don’t need to worry,” he said. “Your inheritance is secure. I’m not going to get married again, even if she is pretty sweet on me.”
When his poor old bent back and breathing problems made it difficult for him to shuffle outside his apartment, romance came by mail. It started with a condolence note from Cousin Kay, known to me only as his uncle Presley’s daughter.
Several weeks later, as I sorted through Daddy’s accumulated mail—cards from his Sunday school class; long, hilarious letters from his old newspaper buddy George; and AARP magazines—he reached for a stack. “Don’t read these. They’re sort of mushy,” he said, stashing several envelopes with decidedly feminine handwriting in his desk drawer.
He had not seen Kay Corley since 1922, when he was fifteen and she a year older. Her letters brought back one of his sweetest memories, a dreamy Christmas afternoon in Clarksville at Aunt Mattie Marable’s. He remembered Kay’s beautiful strawberry-blond curls, and she remembered how handsome he was in his military school uniform. They danced all afternoon to the Victrola in the parlor, and at the end of the day, noting his moony expression, his mother jerked him up and said, “You do not fall in love with your first cousin!”
With no one left to object, the “dance” resumed 74 years later. Her husband, Bill, had been gone for many years. My mother’s death had sent my father into a deep depression. I give Kay’s lively letters as well as the prayers of Baptists and Carmelite nuns as much credit for his recovery as I do the miracles of pharmacology that his young psychiatrist prescribed.
Kay’s correspondence from Cuero, where she had moved to be with her daughter, invariably began with the salutation “Dearest sweet man” or “Honey.” They were full of picturesque recollections of relatives they shared and picnics in the Piney Woods and sometimes ended with resolve: “Let’s kick and wiggle as long as we can even if our derrieres aren’t quite what they used to be.”
I knew from another cousin that Kay’s health was at least as bad as my dad’s, but reading her sweet and funny letters (he eventually had me read them aloud to him) buoyed us both. During the four years of their “romance,” my father’s physical health steadily declined. At one point, I asked him if he’d like to see Kay. I thought some time away from his retirement apartment might do him good. I was prepared to make the trip from Texarkana to Cuero leisurely, with plenty of bathroom stops and lots of picnics along the way. His answer surprised me. “Oh, no, honey, I don’t want to see her. She probably looks just like these old women who live here. I like the way I see her right now. She’s sixteen, so lovely and graceful, a wonderful dancer.”
As he grew weaker, her letters piled up on his desk. He reproached himself for not answering them, an unthinkable breach of etiquette to a South Carolina-educated gentleman. He apparently wrote her one last letter the week before he died. When I cleaned off his desk after his death, on June 29, 2000, I found her reply.
My dearest, sweet J.Q.,
I have just received your letter marked finis, final, exit, deadend, point of no return. Of course, I understand it, honey. You closed the door, never to be opened again, my love. That is all right with me, but you forget that I’m a very diminutive person and I can easily crawl in a key hole and there I am—aha!
Do you think for one minute that I can’t realize the discomfort you have, the efforts to breathe that you are making? Oh, but I do and it breaks my heart. Certainly I’ll not intrude on the private battle you are having just to say I love you, sweetheart. If I have one outstanding trait, it is compassion. Thank God for that, but it means also that I hurt for you.
So now I’ll go quietly and tiptoe out of your life all the while thinking beautiful thoughts of the boy I loved once long, long ago.
You’ll understand why I sometimes have to pull off the road when I flip through the stations on my car radio and hear:
Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.