Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Contradictions of My Father

My father, Jerome Jackson Hopkins, was born in Crab Orchard, Kentucky on December 28, 1909. On his and my mother’s marriage certificate his occupation is listed as “farmer,” but before they came to Ohio to live he had already worked for a time in the coal mines. In the few pictures we have of him from this time, his chin is tucked in, and there is the beginning of a shy smile that only hints at the quick, homespun wit behind it—reminiscent of a Will Rogers.

His sister told of one occasion when she was chiding him for his choice of ties to wear with a certain shirt.
“Oh, ‘Rome,” she insisted, “that doesn’t go.”
It goes if I go!” was his quick reply.

Certain characteristics of my father seemed to contradict one another, it seemed to me. For one thing, though he was unschooled, he was, nevertheless, quite intelligent. If he went to school at all as a child, his education must have left little impression on him, for he never spoke of it. Though he could be self-effacing at times, I’ve seen him converse often and confidently with people far more educated than he. He was aware of the advantages of a good education, but never allowed his lack of it to keep him from providing for his family and making his mark in life.

At first encounter, he could seem brusque and “crusty,” but this trait only belied the fun-loving, truly kindhearted man underneath. My siblings and I grew up with merciless teasing that prevented us from being thin-skinned as adults and able to laugh at ourselves when necessary. If I stumbled while walking, he might say, “That girl would fall over the flowers in the rug!”

Much of his “harrumph,” however, was employed merely to keep a tender heart from becoming too visible. Outward manifestations of affection were hard for him, and those times when his emotions reached his eyes were visibly painful for him. He had the heart of a musician (with a good deal of the talent, too), and he could be moved by its beauty. I’m told that I, the youngest, am the only one of the children who ever saw him kiss my mother. Yet he loved her dearly—for sixty years. Nor did any of us children ever doubt that he loved us, because, on the contrary, we knew that beneath that crusty exterior lay a caring heart.

Anyone who knew my father would have considered him a colorful character, yet there was never anything off-color about him. With all of his jovial banter, there was never an edge of suggestion, or mean-spiritedness.

He would regale us with stories of people, he knew as a child, like the family down the “holler” whose children were unable to speak very well. When their little dog, Rat, would try to follow them to school, one of them would call, “To pa theah waa” (Go back there, Rat). And when the daughter, Stella, fell down while carrying a bottle of milk, her brother reported, “Telty pell down and pilt it.” To my childish mind there was no hint of ridicule to these stories, simply a statement of life as it was when he was boy.

My father became a Christian when I was quite young, soon after my own salvation experience at the age of nine. Although he had expressed a belief that it was impossible to be a truck driver and a good Christian at the same time (I’m not sure why), he managed it handily till the day he retired. Over the years, he was a deacon, Sunday School teacher, choir member, and consistent witness. I learned from someone who had often been his visitation partner that his standard greeting was, “Hello, my name’s Jerome Hopkins, but people call me ‘Hoppy.’ I’m on my way to Heaven, and I just thought I’d stop by and see if you’re interested in going with me.”

My father died on November 10, 1996 at the age of 86. He left behind five children, thirteen grandchildren, and thirty great-grandchildren. More importantly, he left behind a legacy of love and devotion to God and his family.

Perhaps some might think that the greatest contradiction of all about my father is that this obscure, rascally boy from the backwoods of Crab Orchard, Kentucky would one day be walking on streets of gold. Don’t tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor!

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