He'd be 88 now.
I'm talking about my daddy, Walter Lee Jowers, who's been dead for 39 years. Everybody who knew him called him "Jabo." It rhymes with BAB-O, the scouring powder.
Eighty-eight. The number of keys on the pianos in the honky-tonks Jabo frequented, and the numbers on the badge of an Oldsmobile Super Eighty-Eight, Jabo's favorite car.
Jabo's been a long time gone, but as he's done for the last 39 years, he's dropped by to haunt and delight me for at least one more Christmas. Last month, on the day after Thanksgiving, Jabo just blew in like the wind and made himself at home in my head. He sat in my chair watching my TV, grabbed the last piece of pecan pie out of the fridge, and sat on a rock in my backyard smoking Lucky Strikes with no filters.
I wish he could've lived longer, but truth be told Jabo would not have been anybody's favorite octogenarian. He wasn't made for longevity, what with all the damage from the car crashes, the knife fights and the freak motorcycle accident that knocked loose a piece of plaque and sent it tumbling down his left anterior descending artery. When it's time for you to drop dead, the left anterior descending artery is the thing that drops you, instantly. Jabo's LAD (as they call it in the cardiology biz) dropped him on the floor of the Augusta, Ga., AMVETS Club in 1971. From the description I heard of Jabo's last sentient moments — during which he was enthusiastically dancing the bugaloo — he had just about enough time to feel a little pang and think to himself, "What the hell?" And that was that.
Jabo's last ride — well, his last ride while he might still have been able to hear and still had his own blood in him — took him to the funeral home. At age 48, he was doomed by bacon grease and bourbon, lard and low living, and his finely honed efforts to stay one step ahead of the law.
Now, while I'm thinking about it, let me explain something about me and Jabo and Christmastime: We never celebrated anything holy in the "I'm going to heaven and you're not" sense. Jabo built liquor stills. He was up to his eyeballs in lawbreaking. We Jowerses were agnostics. Even now, I still am.
As far as I know, I was the only resident of the Jowers household who ever set foot in a church. My mother, Susie Jowers, threatened to destroy the family television every time she heard a choir start singing through the TV speaker.
Religion-wise, I have just a dim memory of walking with my younger cousins into the Sunday-school classroom at the Langley Methodist church. Soon after I got there, I sat down, recited the names of Jesus' apostles and won a bottle of soap bubble liquid. I went outside to blow bubbles, and I haven't been back to church since. Christmas was way too Jesus-y for me. I was one of those smarty-pants kids who knew that Jesus was born in the springtime, not winter. For me, Christmas was all about the 24 cakes my mother and my aunt Coot baked, the big midday dinner with the extended family — and, after nightfall, throwing cherry bombs onto the lawns of the neighborhood curmudgeons.
I know, I know. Some of you gentle readers wonder how a grown man can get so sentimental about his long-dead daddy at Christmastime.
Well, I'm going to tell you. Somewhere along the way, Jabo and I each made a silent promise —me to myself, him to himself, and each to the other. I can't tell you the day that it happened, but Christmas for Jabo and me was always special and memorable. So I figure that the promise we made had to have been a Christmas promise. It was as simple as a promise can be: "I will not disappoint you."
Since then, everything that ever happened between Jabo and me was run through that filter, and still runs through it, if only metaphorically.
Just last night, daughter Jess walked up to me and with no fanfare or tedious explanations said, "You know that deal you had with your dad, the no-disappointment thing?"
"Yes, baby girl," I said. "I don't think I'll be forgetting that anytime soon."
"I want in on that," Jess replied. "It's worked since you were 12 years old. I say we keep it going."
And I do believe we will.
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