Sunday, June 18, 2006
My Favorite Father
Comparatively small in stature, compact, always neatly turned out – my father was not what you would call handsome. He could be cutting and sarcastic and seemed to be unaware of the power he held over people. He had a sweet, soft speaking voice, a crystalline intellect, and a terse, to-the-point way of speaking. It was not easy to read him.
Morris Timbes was a wordsmith. His career as a journalist began in high school, when he took his first job as a copy boy at the Mobile Press Register. He went on to better jobs at other newspapers and eventually to found his own advertising agency. As a teenager he wore glasses and had bushy, curly black hair that he didn’t know what to do with. The style in those days was sleek, glued-to-the-scalp “sheik” hair, and he knew he would never have it. He needn’t have worried; in later years most of it would be gone and he would wish to have the curls back.
Awkward and self-conscious about his appearance as a young man, he tried to be funny, but in all his life he never really learned to do that. Laughing out loud was difficult for him. Sneezing out loud was impossible. If he learned a joke he would attempt to tell it but would not be able to get to the punch line without a great deal of physical effort to suppress the laugh he knew was coming. His ineptitude at this simple skill was more amusing than the jokes he told; it was oddly endearing watching the attempt.
He would have wanted more than anything in life to be a salesman. He envied the men, less gifted than he by far, who could charm the birds out of the trees, spellbind an audience with apparent ease – and motivate them to buy a product. He tried to write like that, but his solid, workaday prose was almost too good to serve its main purpose – selling products to a consumer. He could write product copy for mundane objects to be published in ads for trade publications; he could write persuasive letters that flowed like great literature. Why he chose to do this as a career is as mysterious as everything else in his life.
He came from the era of the “self-made man.” He prided himself on never having been to college and in being able to out-think those who did. It is almost tragic that he was forced by circumstances of his time to defend this position – to cling to it – or else admit that the emphasis in his life might have been wrong, perhaps even forged by wrong choices for the wrong reasons. Almost tragic, but not quite, because most who met him knew they were in the presence of an extraordinary man – not in wisdom; not in achievement; not in philosophy – but in potential. That he chose to live in an ordinary way, hoping for a financial killing somewhere, barely supporting a family of five in a tiny village because his wife couldn’t abide the life of the nearby city, was a point that would confound many (including me) who expended much energy and spent many years of their lives trying to understand him.
The challenge of writing about him is the challenge of being good enough. I want you to picture him, to know something of what it was like when he was around. He made you want to be better, to be brighter, to rise to his level – but he did this so subtly that even he didn’t know he was doing it. This is the part of my father I carry with me in every endeavor – the transferral of his judgment of me to my own of myself.
He could be brusque and he did not stand on ceremony. When my first cousin drove in for a visit from Meridian, Daddy was doing a crossword puzzle at the kitchen counter. Kevin, in his late teens, was an extrovert and a big puppy dog of a guy. He walked in the door, and, without any acknowledgement of the visitor, Daddy looked up from the puzzle and said, “What’s a five-letter word for ‘contraband’?”
He was not a Hallmark card “dad.” His attitude as a father was old-fashioned; he didn’t claim to know how to do it. It was thought in those days that the mother’s role was crucial in the lives of children, but the father’s role was less defined, and he was uncomfortable with it. He seemed to feel that we would get what we needed from him by osmosis, or by his treating us like flawed adults that he would have to manage into his way of thinking. My sister and brother despised this treatment – to me it was just part of the obstacle course laid before us by adults as we made the transition from childhood to the fringes of their world.
I will say that he and I enjoyed a special relationship and it took me a great deal of soul-searching after the fact to come up with a theory as to why. He was very controlling and demanding of my sister and brother, and, although he could be bossy and judgmental of me, I always felt I had a direct line to him.
Morris Timbes Advertising had a staff of about five. Once in an attempt to expedite the workload and define their talents he hired a psychological consulting firm. Each of the employes was given extensive testing and the evaluations written out. As in the case of most consultants, none of the material was ever used. After his death, Mama and I were going through some of the personal files he had in his office and we came upon those documents. We read some of them, describing members of the office staff who were clearly identifiable. One had us baffled for a few moments. It stated words to the effect that this particular person, while brilliant and capable of succeeding in any field, was suited most for the arts and creative endeavors – and that it was most remarkable that he had ever chosen to go into business. We knew it had to be him.
My father could write business letters that seemed to come from his soul. They were adroit, clever, smooth, succinct, and made their point, sometimes with humor and sometimes with gentle persuasion. He spent a lot of his career writing ad copy for his major client, which happened to be a manufacturer of truck trailers. Year after year he came up with new, clever campaigns for this client, to be placed into trade publications. Only once, his secretary of many years came upon him in his office at the little manual typewriter on which he had hunted and pecked such delightful proposals, campaigns, ads, and letters, and found him staring silently ahead of him.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “I cannot write one more word about truck trailers.”
But the next day he was at it again.
Everybody was a little scared of Daddy. Even the laundry man once told me (years later at Manci’s Antique Club in Daphne), “Everybody was scared of your Daddy – but I never was. He was always nice to me.” As if there were ever any reason for him to be otherwise.
If fatherhood was difficult for him, grandfatherhood was intolerable. As he entered his sixties and his children began to beget more children, he announced that he would not allow the offspring to call him “Grandpa” or any such thing. They were to call him by his first name, “Morris.” This was fine with us, his children, because it opened the door for us to call him that too.
Beginning when she was an infant, I brought my daughter Alison down to Alabama as often as I could. At the age of three or four, it was clear that she had a lot in common with the old man. She was one of those speed-demon babies who learns everything fast. She was very verbal, and she could trade quips with him. There was mutual admiration there. Once at about this age, he had gone out of his way to stop at a produce stand and buy some stalks of sugar cane to show the precocious youngster. He sliced it into bite-sized chunks and presented her with her share as he showed her how to chew and suck on it.
I’ll never forget the sight of them standing there, sucking on sugar cane, when, as she ate, she said, “I love you, Morris.”
There was a pause, more sucking on sugar cane from both of them. When his mouth was clear, and without looking up, he said to her, “Well, honey, you should.”
Mama and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
Back in New York, my shrink said, “That must have come down like the voice of God to your little girl!”
I understood perfectly.
Daddy died suddenly at the age of 64, two months before he would have retired. He was experiencing tightness in his chest and his face had lost color, and he actually missed two days’ work – which he had never done in his life.
Everybody who knew him was stunned. T.J. (“Jocko”) Potts, the Alabama media ace who got his start with Daddy’s agency, made the comment about Daddy’s death that resonated most with me when he heard the news.
“Mr. Timbes died yesterday,” he was told. In a pause worthy of his mentor, he thought the information over.
“I’ll bet he’s pissed off about that,” said Jocko.