It was the armadillo that finally did it. It was bigger than you’d imagine an armadillo to be, at least if you grew up in Appalachia, where armadillos were uncommon sights, and had only ever glimpsed them from a speeding car window, flattened on the sides of various Florida interstates. It was uglier than you’d think too, and hairier, inexplicably whiskered and patchily sprouting these awful little bristles, and it was also dead and taxidermied (poorly) and perching on our kitchen counter.
It makes reasonable sense, looking back, that my mother was upset.
My father’s beaming pride over having brought home a dead armadillo did not lessen my mother’s dismay, but it was understandable; he had, after all, won the thing. The dead armadillo was a prize, handed out annually at a tournament the country club always staged to coincide with the year’s first Tennessee football game, passed from household to household each fall by the golfer with the lowest net one-day score. (The tournament doesn’t exist anymore, so whoever won it last has been forever stuck with an armadillo to work into their living-room palette.)
This particular armadillo’s path from birth to the Oak Ridge Country Club is somewhat murkier. The nine-banded armadillo began migrating in Tennessee’s general direction, moving north with warming climates, sometime in the 1980s, but (to my vague relief) I’ve to this day never seen one loose within a 10-hour drive of our kitchen, which only heightens the chance that somebody at the club had purposely toted a dead armadillo across state lines to serve as a golf trophy. At some point along the way, a previous custodian of the critter had given it a pedicure. While I cannot prove having a dead armadillo with shocking-pink toenails in the house was actively detrimental to my mother’s mental state, I am certain it did not help matters.
The armadillo was summarily banished to the guest room. It would, over the ensuing year-long stay in our home, occasionally find its way downstairs—next to the television in an infant-sized Tennessee onesie for the bowl game; in a tiny Santa hat and beard on the mantel at Christmas (that drew some screams)—but its lasting legacy would be as shorthand for why my father had to keep his things confined to the most out-of-the-way parts of the house.
In this, I truly feel my mother to be blameless. There is a small but lucrative industry that has cropped up around the concept of Man Caves, remote rooms to be filled with billiard tables and beanbags and all the trappings of fratty life men would festoon the rest of their homes with if only their benighted womenfolk did not insist that their homes look like grown-ups lived in it. Gentlemen, I will now divulge a secret of Man Cave marketing, which is that said womenfolk are only too happy to have you cheerfully out of the way in your own designated playpens, because dead armadillos with painted toenails are exactly the kind of shit you get up to when you are allowed to bring items indoors.
And it’s not as though my mother doesn’t appreciate my father’s athletic accomplishments. Some years later, having been afforded a reasonable amount of time to get over the armadillo episode, she even made him a miniature trophy case for his hole-in-one balls. There are three of them, propped on tees in tufts of fake grass, with the announcements—it seems impossible sometimes that holes-in-one are still printed in local papers, but here they all are—preserved for posterity in neatly trimmed newsprint. She hung it in the downstairs powder room; in time, other totems of the game began to coalesce around it.
And this is how I came to learn my father had been writing poetry.
Ours is not a family big on acknowledging anyone’s inner life. Everybody seems to love everybody, near as I can tell; my brother and I enjoyed a blessedly uneventful middle-class upbringing and have grown into tax-paying, lawn-mowing adults who would sooner walk around with our intestines outside our bodies than with our feelings on display. Like our parents, we developed a way with words and a pronounced ineptitude for discussing human emotions. To this day, I have never been told how my parents met; it also has never occurred to me to ask.
I first became aware of my father’s gift for writing sitting on a hard church pew in the little town where I was born, listening to him deliver his own father’s eulogy. A deeply spiritual man, his public speeches—a toast at my brother’s rehearsal dinner, thanking the crowd at his own retirement party, welcoming revelers to my wedding reception—have always carried a chapter-and-verse cadence of prayer. When I turned 25, my first birthday since fleeing from college to the West Coast, he sent me a long email written with that same formal resonance, telling the story of the night I was born (weeks late, timing my appearance to coincide with a paralyzing ice storm).
Today, in that downstairs bathroom, which has roughly the square footage of a Nissan Versa, you will find the diorama my mother made hanging on the wall opposite the toilet. It’s surrounded by a stack of James Dodson books, a book of golf cartoons from The New Yorker, a tissue-box holder printed with golf tees, a framed panoramic portrait of the Old Course at St. Andrews. And next to the door, positioned in such a way that you might not notice it until you’re on your way out, is a long poem, printed and pressed in a floating glass frame, dedicated to my dad’s playing partners, whom he dubbed the Dewsweepers.
To be cognizant of my father’s skill at oratory, to look forward at intimate family gatherings to his next gift of words, is one thing. To see him put his name to a series of verses, and to hang those verses where people can see, feels like an act of emotional fortitude I can’t fathom equaling. I wonder, as I behold my father’s photograph alongside these aged hooligans on the course, immortalized in an ancient art form on a glass shelf next to the hand soap, what they think of their resident bard. I wonder where he first paused, poised on the edge of which green, and saw the words assembling themselves before his eyes, if he actually sees them swimming in his vision the way I do.
I wonder if he draws strength, each day, from this declaration of reverence and fast friendship nailed to a bathroom wall, illuminated by the morning’s first no-look flip of the light switch, always there, hovering just around the corner if you know where to look. One of these days, maybe I’ll even figure out how to ask him.
Holly Anderson is a journalist with stops at Sports Illustrated, ESPN and MTV. She is currently at work on her second book despite not yet having finished her first. She lives in Atlanta with a big dog and a gun.