My dad’s old cowboy hat sits, perched high in my living room, atop the glass curio cabinet where I keep my life totems. My life so far, at least. The hat is Size 7 ½ medium. It’s 100 percent cotton corduroy. The color? Rugged bay brown.
The day I gave him that Christmas gift, my dad had been sober for years. After he tore into the crinkled newsprint wrapping, his black eyes lit up like a little kid’s.
When he opened the oval hat box, he lifted the faux Stetson high and flashed a wicked smile. The smile that’s made my heart melt since forever. The one with the perfect line of straight, white teeth. That morning its dazzling warmth filled the room and he looked, as always, like a movie star.
“I hope you like it,” I said when he put the hat over his jet-black curls.
Then a deep chuckle rose up as he sat cross-legged in PJ bottoms next to the glittering Scotch pine.
“This, my darling, is a real gem,” he drawled. “I love it.”
Once upon a dream come true
Once upon a dream come true, my dad wore fancy white hats in front of a spotlight on a glittering stage. He wore Hank Williams honky-tonk hats with silver bands and rhinestones and a white-and-silver suit with ruby-red stitching. But that Christmas Day, that simple cotton hat meant more to him than any hit record.
“Thank you very, very much, my sweet,” he said and gave me a quick kiss.
He hugged me hard and I let myself drown in the musk and sweat that drifted up from under his natty blue-and-white terry cloth bathrobe. I held on tight and forced back tears. Because ever since I was a girl, I could never let him see me cry. I don’t like to go into why.
My dad was known to others as “the guy who’d give you the shirt off his back.” When an elderly neighbor who lived alone down the street grew feeble, every night my dad would take him a hot supper. Towards the end of the old man’s life, my dad even changed the dying man’s soiled diapers.
Truth is, I was jealous of his generosity. Too often he held it back from those who loved him. His temper, especially when he got liquored up, bruised my heart for life, at least so I once thought. A story I learned only after he died explains his dark side. At the tail end of the Great Depression, my dad’s father, a sailor, had deserted his family.
A life of hardship
My dad’s mother became her young family’s sole support. To make ends meet, one winter day, she was called to “work away” (as Newfies have always called a job on the mainland.) She left my dad and his little sister in St. John’s, where a friend was to pick up them up and take them to Carmanville, his mom’s hometown, 250 miles away. That “friend” was a no-show. My dad never found out the reason.
So, at age seven, he and his sister, then 5, found themselves alone, hungry and penniless on the streets of St. John’s. Hitched rides with kind strangers and hours of steps in the snow landed them at his mom’s hometown. Then, the man-child he had become gathered his courage and asked the family patriarch, his Grandfather Parsons, who already had 11 mouths to feed if he could take in two more.
“You take care of me and little Mick and I’ll work hard for you, Grandad,” he said.
On the front stoop, they reached a deal and shook on it. As long as my dad went to church and did his chores, he and his little sister could stay. Dad made the best of a bad bargain. Because in Grandfather Parsons’s eyes, doomed to bring memories of the man who deserted his daughter, my dad was forever the “black sheep.”
Though he’d bargained himself a dirt-poor, barren life, my dad had kept his little sister safe. Still, when he was 10, he left school for good to work in the mills to meet Grandfather Parsons’s demand he “earn his keep.”
A love of music through generations
I do get it. It was 1939, hard times then in Newfoundland. Drinking, carousing and mischief were what men did. And my father, who had started to work like a man, soon began to drink like one, too.
The saving grace in his family was their love of music. Each Sunday Grandfather Parsons’s rich tenor pealed out to fill the town’s small, clapboard church. His handsome, though rowdy, grandson was also blessed with that voice and the perfect pitch that went with it. In time, that legacy became my father’s ticket to freedom.
At 17, he worked singing and picking guitar as the frontman for Larry Harvey and the Bay Boys in dance halls and on local radio shows. By his twenties, he had left The Rock for the mainland and married a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe lookalike.
That was my mom, a Newfie girl, just 14 when my 16-year-old dad first cast his eyes on her. That was long after Grandfather Parsons had kicked him out for always being “half-cut.” So, my dad found a new mentor, my great-grandfather, George Harvey, the local bootlegger. My father first saw my mom as they passed through her outport on a liquor run. A “good girl,” my mom’s religious family forbade her to see the bootlegger’s grandson. Even so, my dad swore one day he’d marry her. It took eight years, but marry her, he did.
Fame and fortune
She, too, had crossed the water and rode a train up to the mainland in the 1950s. They met once again on a blind date at Toronto’s local Newfie club. With her as his lyricist and manager, soon he was playing in Nashville.
He signed a record deal. His songs were on the Chum Chart Hit Parade. He had his own fan club and he appeared on country music television shows. A Billboard ad placed by King Records in April 1957 lists his two biggest hits and the name “Larry Harvey.” That meant he was a star.
His first singles did well, reaching the Top 10 in Canada and the U.S. He and other country greats like Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Marty Robbins, Roy Rogers, the Everly Brothers and Porter Wagoner founded the Country Music Association.
But within a decade, rock and roll and the British invasion hit the music industry. That and my dad’s love of hard liquor killed his music career. The tours were over and the spotlights gone. The whiskey stayed. Once again Dad fell into the prison of poverty. Now he had a young family to feed. He took odd jobs, first construction labor, later installing TV antennas.
Poverty once more
For more than a decade he walked the assembly line at an auto parts factory. He would leave at the crack of dawn, work 10 hours, shirtless, in the auto plant’s 100-degree-plus heat. Many nights after dinner I’d watch my mom dig pieces of steel that flew off the assembly-line machines out of his hands, his back and, sometimes, his eyes. When I asked him why he worked at such a bad place he had few words.
“That job feeds you kids,” he said. “And, Robbie, I don’t want my kids’ bellies aching from going hungry.”
Those were the years our house felt more like a prisoner-of-war camp than a home. Violence cast its angry shadow everywhere. My dad used words like bullets and would target the hearts of those he loved with gunslinger speed. His aim was deadly. His fists were worse.
“All Harveys are born with a drop of the devil’s blood in their veins,” he used to say.
Once, the devil inside him tried to kill me on a drunken Saturday night. Ever the mouthy one who’d adopted his tough shell, I’d told him to lay off my mother. I laughed in his face as his hands grew tight around my neck. Defiant on the outside, but with a heart filled with terror, I choked out these words.
“Go ahead. Do it. Then the cops will take you away and no one will ever have to put up with you again. I pray to God. Go, do it.”
I was only nine. My words snapped him out of his rage and he stormed out to the pub. That was the day he became Larry to me and never again, I thought, Daddy. I confess I became a stingy daughter and, for years afterward never gave him a hug, a kiss or even a smile. I called him by his first name to show I thought him unfit to be my father. And, as soon as I turned 16, I left home. That was five years before my father sobered up.
After a drunken bender, the cops had picked him up. Dad pulled a knife on a cab driver and maybe faced serious jail time. The next morning, we all gathered at the courthouse for his bail hearing. My sister and I met with the prosecutor and promised, if Dad got treatment, we’d stand by him. The judge agreed.
I’ll never forget my father’s slumped shoulders as we walked across the city hall square when he broke down in sobs and begged for help. My little-girl’s prayers were answered. No more booze meant no more devil’s blood.
Over time, the branded welts inside me began to fade and, little by little, I let him back into my life. I was shocked the day I’d rented a basement apartment in a rough part of town and my Dad came to install sturdy wire grates on all my windows to keep me safe. He really loved me.
Still, I only offered my unbridled trust when I saw the tender glee my own kids roused within him. By then, he was “Poppie” — their favorite babysitter. He’d regale them with stories of cowboys and Indians and battles at The Alamo. He also convinced them fairies lived in my backyard. And, that the lights flashing in the sky at night, came from the ships of friendly green aliens.
I learned we had much in common. I, too, was born with that fierce temper and a weakness for alcohol. For a time, I hated him for it and was even jealous of his strength in staying sober. But being his daughter came with gifts, too. I share his tenacity, love of life and mischief and his joy in making music and art. Growing up in our house, each kid was expected to pick up a guitar and riff off a three-chord progression by the time we were seven years old.
At age 14, I played a mean classical guitar. No one taught me. I learned by ear, no musical mystery because I think my dad had entertained us so often, his music slipped under our skin, into our hearts and slid back out our fingers.
A music man until the end
Daddy died about three weeks before Christmas, 2015. Back in his country-singer days, he had a brief friendship with Elvis Presley. They met once backstage at The Grand Ole Opry and had lunch together a few times. Over cheeseburgers and milkshakes, they talked of life on the road.
“It’s a rough haul, this business, isn’t it?” Elvis remarked. My Dad just nodded.
Years later, we got a Christmas card signed from, “The King and The Colonel.” My dad framed that card and hung it on the wall right next to his 45s and albums. Everyone who came inside our house had to look at it, be it the gas-meter man or the family doctor.
Daddy was feverish and delusional when the end grew near as I sat by his hospital bed. Then, suddenly, he sat up and pointed to a spot on the wall.
“Elvis is here, Robbie,” he said, using my childhood nickname. “See him?”
I reached over and shuddered at how slight his once-strong frame felt in my arms.
“So, Elvis is in the building,” I said.
Then I held Daddy close, rocked him and softly sang the words to Love Me Tender, one of his favorite songs.
“For, my darling, I love you and I always will,” I sang.
Those were the last words Daddy heard from my lips. He lifted his finger to wipe away my tears. And that was the last time I felt his touch. After he died, I asked for four of his things. His cowboy hat, his jean jacket, his rocking chair, and the grandmother clock he cursed daily because it never kept time. That clock has been silent ever since it’s graced my living room wall. It’s now set forever at 12:13 — the time he left us.
Daddy, if you could hear me now, I’d say I’m so glad we made peace with each other. More than anything, I wish I had let you inside much, much sooner. Long before it was it was time for you to go. And, hey, say hi to Elvis for me.