Daddy

Bull, Mr. Billy, Daddy, and Poppa Bear were all names for my father, William Homer Saunders.  The nickname Bull was given to him when he played football in high school and came from his tendency to put his head down and push ahead no matter what obstacles were blocking the way. This sometimes came across as stubbornness, which could be frustrating, but I will say that his Bull nature mainly served him well throughout life. He was known as “Mr. Billy” to most people in the community, reflecting a Southern blend of formality and informality. The title “Mr.” showed respect and recognized his social position as a farm business owner and community leader, and the nickname “Billy” was what his family and close friends called him. The name “Daddy” or “Dad” was used exclusively by his three children (me, my younger sister, and my brother), although in the final years one of his dear caretakers also called him “Daddy.”  His children sometimes referred to him as “Poppa Bear,” typically in his absence. It reflected his teddy bear side, as well as his occasional tendency to growl when in certain moods.

Daddy was born in the rural community of Stokes South Carolina on March 23rd, 1928, in the home of his parents, Homer Vardell Saunders and Lessie Parker Saunders, and spent nearly his entire life within one mile of his birthplace. Not many people today are so thoroughly a lifelong member of a geographic community. He was away from Stokes only three times: a brief time serving in the Pacific Theater of Operations in the U.S. Marine Corps., near the end of World War II (he enlisted slightly underage); a briefer time at the Citadel in Charleston, SC after military service and high school; and a short time in an apartment in Walterboro after he and Momma married in 1949, before they bought a house in Stokes. Some years later, in the 1970s, he and Momma built a new house next door, in a rural sense, to the old house. This was his home for many years until June 22nd, 2018, when he entered the Veterans Victory House Nursing Home in Walterboro.

To say Daddy was a workaholic is an understatement; he applied his Bull nature to everything that he did, especially work. From my earliest memories Daddy farmed, and he started out working in the fertilizer business with Mr. Horace Kinsey of the Colleton Fertilizer Company. I can also remember the very early days when he used to log timber: difficult and dangerous work. He eventually started his own fertilizer business and became a commissioned agent for Royster Fertilizer Company. Daddy and Momma owned and operated Saunders Farm Supply for nearly 50 years, a business that they started from home. My father did a good job and was honest, fair, and incredibly dependable. I owe my own work ethic and general approach to life (“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”) in large part to my father. Being in the farm and fertilizer businesses meant that he had a busy season; in the Spring and Summer he grew crops such as soybeans and corn, but he also spread fertilizer for other farmers who grew other crops, including cotton and hay. There was work going on year-round, but the warmer months of the busy season were off-the-scale in terms of hours of work per day. While growing up, we had many late suppers due to Daddy’s long hours and our family practice of eating together. He was not afraid of hard work.

Workaholic or not, Daddy always found time for his family. He would make up stories to tell us; many of them were about Felix the Cat–a cartoon character from the silent film era. Daddy probably started by recalling some actual stories from the series, but we loved Felix the Cat and demanded more and more stories, so Daddy had to improvise a lot. We also took yearly family summer vacations, after the busy season, to spend a week at Edisto Beach. When we were older, we also took vacations to the mountains of North Carolina. When I was small, I looked forward to these fun times with Daddy and thought this was just what fathers did. Years later, and with the sad knowledge that not all parents are as benevolent as mine were, I appreciate the creativity, energy, and time Daddy devoted to playing with us. I don’t remember a lot of the details, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Daddy spent time with us, went to a lot of trouble to amuse us, and enjoyed doing it. This was love in action.

Daddy was a bit of a teaser, especially when we were small. When we first went to the mountains and saw cows standing on the edge of a steep hill, Daddy explained that mountain cows had two legs shorter and two legs longer to accommodate the hills. I’m not sure we really fell for that, but it was typical of his stories.  When I was growing up, I found his constant teasing to be frustrating, because it often was difficult to tell when he was serious. I was stunned, years later, to learn that I had absorbed this trait when students I was teaching commented that they could not tell when I was being serious! To be on the safe side, it seems, they took notes on anything and everything I said in class, including my “jokes.”  

In his later years, Daddy gained another name. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren called him Gran Gran (or something approximating that for the younger great-grandsons).  He spent even more time with his five granddaughters (my nieces) and, later, with his three great-grandsons. His granddaughters helped soften his Bull side and, according to his granddaughters, he was the “greatest grandfather ever.” I now realize that he never forgot how to play, an unusual trait in someone so task-oriented.

It may not be possible for farmers to fully retire, because after retirement Daddy cultivated a several acre summer garden that included butter beans, bell peppers, squash, zucchini, okra, tomatoes, corn—a lot of sweet corn—and probably other things that I am forgetting. He also cultivated a smaller cool season garden that included broccoli, cauliflower, onions, cabbage, and potatoes. He produced enough vegetables to feed the community and beyond. I’ve eaten my share and hauled many vegetables from the Lowcountry to share with friends and family in the Midlands over the years. He tended the garden diligently, hoeing, pulling weeds, watering, and harvesting.

People looked forward to the produce, especially the corn, and Daddy gave it all away. He was known in the community for his generosity. Later in life when he became more physically challenged, he tried to enlist family members to continue this legacy of devotion to the garden with admittedly mixed success. Those in the immediate family, especially my brother and sister who lived near him, had to contend with Daddy’s obsession that nothing goes to waste.

When you plant too much, especially stuff that proliferates such as squash does in the summer, managing the excess county becomes challenging. People can eat only so much squash. And one had to be careful about just tossing it in the woods, so as not to be caught. Daddy didn’t eat much from his garden—he just expected everyone else to enjoy it—every bit of it.

He was able to work in the garden until his body had almost completely let him down, because he discovered that he could do many tasks while sitting on his riding lawnmower. When his walking became unsteady, he became a whole man again when he mounted the lawnmower. He was, in-essence, part man and part machine, a sort of retired bionic farmer. This man-and-his-machine was a master. He could tend the garden on the lawnmower. He could not only cut grass but blow leaves into piles to burn. His ability to corral leaves spread across a large yard into a small, neat pile would have put a talented border collie to shame, although admittedly leaves are even less sentient than the traditional quarry of border collies.

Shortly before he went to the nursing home near the end of his days, I would catch glimpses of him zooming through the yard on his lawnmower on footage from the front door security camera at his home. At first, I was concerned because this was not a safe activity for an increasingly frail 90-year-old. Then I realized that aging had not changed his Bull nature. There was no way to stop the charging “Bull;” it was best to simply clear the path for him.

In the last five years of his life, which also happened to be the years he was without Momma, he contended with one health challenge after another. He suffered increased hearing loss (his hearing had been poor for some time), blockages in two coronary arteries requiring cardiac catheterization, a badly broken leg due to a fall, macular degeneration in one eye resulting in loss of vision, atrial fibrillation that required a pacemaker, increasingly severe arthritis in his foot, ankle, knee, and shoulder, a bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, chronic urinary tract infections, and severe infections in the skin on his legs. These things slowed him down, but he never stopped moving until the end. Keeping up with him wore me out when I visited from my home in Columbia! His Bull nature kept him going, perhaps at times when it would have been better for him to rest.

One of the most remarkable things about him in his later years was how he coped with the loss of his wife of over 60 years, Ruth J. Saunders. She died February 8th, 2013, after nearly 10 years of advancing dementia. He visited her in the nursing home in Orangeburg three or four times a week for the several years she was in care, even though it was an out-of-town trip for him. My mother and my father had a very deep connection that persisted even after she was gone from this earth. He always spoke of her in the present tense, and contributions to his church were made in both names. He did not understand why his minister kept insisting that he “let her go,” because she was clearly with him. He felt her presence at nighttime and often commented on how comforting this was to him.

The decline and loss of Mom was difficult for him, but he adjusted. For most of their life together, in addition to working, my mother had done all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping, even selecting his clothes for him to wear each day. Somehow, as she became less able to manage at home and then left for the nursing home, Daddy took over the cooking, cleaning, clothes washing, and even social obligations such as sending birthday cards. This surprised me because, based on the strict labor division earlier in his marriage, I thought he would be lost without Momma. He asked one of his adult granddaughters to teach him how to clean, and he prided himself on having a clean house. It was inspiring to see him staying engaged physically, mentally, and socially. He simply did what had to be done. Having tasks to accomplish helped him cope, and it seems that he could cope with just about anything.

Daddy died on July 26th, 2018, at the age of 90 and was buried in the Saunders’ cemetery plot at Drs. Creek Baptist Church on August 1st. The burial service at the graveside was quite remarkable. As we left the church building to walk the short distance to the adjacent cemetery, a gentle thunder signaled impending rain. As a farmer, Daddy loved rain and I remember thinking what a nice tribute he was getting from Mother Nature, perhaps acknowledging his love for the moist soil that nourished plants. As we gathered under the burial tent for the U.S. Marine Corp bugle and flag ceremony at the graveside, it started raining lightly. The bugler played Taps. Then, in complete silence except for the gentle rain and thunder, two Marines slowly folded the flag that was on Daddy’s casket and saluted him. Outside the tent, the air was filled with hundreds and hundreds of dragonflies flying silently around the cemetery yard. There was a sense of release and serenity, the perfect farewell for Daddy. The rain and thunder stopped shortly after the burial. In some Native American legends, the dragonfly is a symbol of resurrection and renewal after hardship. Daddy’s very last days were not easy. But, thanks to the dragonflies, I am comforted that Daddy achieved peace on that day, in August, when he came to his final rest beside Momma.