“We need to drive to the hospital. Your daddy is in the emergency room.”
T his essay is adapted from Penis Politics: A Memoir of Women, Men and Power.
My daddy came to see a lot of my basketball games in junior high. He was older than most parents at the games. He was 48 when my momma gave birth to me at 33 in 1958. She had my brother 14 months later. She told me Daddy didn’t want children until he had enough money to build our house, but he never told Momma he was ready to have children until one night he didn’t pull out while making love.
Collier Hamilton Hinton or "Red" was 48 when he became a father. Hinton told his wife he didn't want children until he had enough money to build a house.
When they were first married, Momma and Daddy lived in a small yellow office trailer parked on the 20 acres of piney woods he owned in the small town where I was raised—Soso, Mississippi, population 408. They had a bunk bed in the office but no toilet. Momma would drive up to Mr. Shotts’ grocery store to take a number two in his bathroom. The woods behind the trailer were good enough for number one. I don’t know where Daddy did his business. They both washed in a makeshift shower Daddy put together outside the trailer. After Daddy finished jobs at construction sites, he would save excess concrete and other materials and store them in his warehouse, at the bottom of a hill not far from the trailer.
At the top of the hill, he slowly replaced the trailer with our house, using the leftover building supplies and buying other things he needed for the house with the money he had earned from his jobs. He was a saver, not a spender.
Daddy built the house with concrete walls, and Momma had the two babies, my brother and me. As I got older, I hated the concrete. All my pictures or banners or articles on my bedroom walls had to be hung with glue hooks. I couldn’t hammer nails into concrete, and the dank humidity of the Mississippi summers made the walls sweat. After a day of high humidity, the pictures and anything else glued to the walls fell to the floor. The only good thing about a concrete house was the protection it provided from hurricanes and tornadoes. We never worried about wind and rain like our neighbors. We just worried about heat and sweat.
We had no air conditioning. Daddy spent money on what we needed, not wanted. Our neighbor had an air conditioner, and I would go to their house just to stand in front of it. Daddy generated some relief for us during the windless days of summer with huge, homemade electrical fans made from four sheets of wood on the top, bottom and sides, standing about four feet high. We sat them in different parts of the house to move the listless air around the rooms. My brother Robbie, a year younger than me, called it “less hotter air.” When we were young, six or seven, Robbie and I would sit in front of the cool fans and sing or yell into them, as the blades moved, making our voices quiver until Momma told us to hush.
At church, Daddy always wore a very fashionable hat. He had two good suits, and I thought he looked like someone famous when he wore them. In pictures from when he was younger and thinner, he looked like a combination of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. At work, he dressed in dark gray cotton pants and a shirt to match. Woven on the shirt pocket was Hinton Construction. He worked at building sites from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. When his construction site closed, he headed out to the Soso farm where he fed the cows and two horses, worked in the garden or hay field or just hung out talking to his three brothers who lived on or near the farm. We lived about 15 minutes away from the farm, and he usually pulled up our dirt driveway to the house five hours later.
“Red” was my daddy’s nickname because he turned red in the summer under the sun. He had a very red neck. He also had red hair when he was young. By the time I was born, he was almost bald. His actual name was Collier Hamilton Hinton, the middle name after Alexander Hamilton. My uncle B.F. was Benjamin Franklin, and my uncle Tom was Thomas Jefferson. No one ever told me which founding fathers uncles Roy, Herman, Junior and Jessie were named after.
Daddy and his brothers smoked cigars, pipes or cigarettes, or chewed tobacco and spit. I didn’t like the smell or mess of dirty tobacco. I hated to clean up the nasty remains but at 13, I decided to keep our concrete house spotless. When my friends or my brother’s friends walked into the house with mud or dirt on their shoes or feet, I grabbed the mop and cleaned up after them as they walked down the hallway and into the kitchen or the dining room or a bedroom.
“Karen, please stop,” Momma whispered to me the first time I chased our friends with the mop. “You are making your friends feel bad. That’s not nice. Clean up after they leave.”
“No,” my 13-year-old self said. “I don’t want dirt to ruin the floor. Why should anyone care if I follow them around with a mop? They don’t have to do anything. I’m the only one that has to work.”
My cleaning compulsion and Daddy’s tobacco habits led to a serious showdown in the summer of 1970. My brother and I went with our momma to her parent’s home in Louisville, Mississippi, about two hours away, to visit our mamaw. Our papaw had passed away the year before, and Momma wanted to check on Mamaw. We stayed for two weeks, leaving Daddy to himself. When we returned, the house on the hill was full of grunge and tobacco filth.
Daddy often chewed tobacco when he watched the nightly news or the Dean Martin Show in a rocking chair near the back door. He loved watching Dean Martin and Joey Heatherton, the sexy singer and dancer who often appeared on the show, so much so that Daddy would wait until the very last second before he had to get up out of his rocking chair and spit out his tobacco juice onto the back porch. It really wasn’t a porch, just dirt with a porch swing and a spot for the push lawn mower. I often told him to stop spitting, but he never did. For two weeks, the spit and what I called the tobacco turds had collected on the floor from the rocking chair to the porch. He also didn’t clean his shoes from his construction work or the farm, and dirt had dried on every floor. No one was there to mop up after he went to bed or make the beds after he woke up.
When I saw his tobacco juice, his shoe dirt and unkept bed, I ran to him and complained loudly. “Why did you mess up the house? Now I have to clean it.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s your job. That’s why I have you around. To clean up the house.”
“That’s not what a daddy is supposed to say,” I said.
“Yes, it is. Now get the broom and the mop and get to work, young lady.”
“I get to work all the time, old man,” I said, lowering my voice on “old man” because I immediately knew I was going to be in big trouble.
“Kat, you want to bring me my leather strap?” Daddy asked.
He didn’t make that threat idly. I knew from watching him whip Robbie once. I never got a whipping. Momma, though, switched us good all the time with a small branch from a bush or tree. She switched us so good one time, she rubbed Vaseline all over our legs to try and remove the red stripes before Daddy returned home. She knew he’d be mad for beating us so hard.
I ran for my broom and mop to do my job, but I was spitting angry. Robbie laughed at me, and Momma gave me a quick kiss and ignored me. Robbie and I loved our daddy, even though we didn’t really know much about him. I don’t think Momma did, either. He was the boss. He made all the decisions. He wasn’t around a lot, either. Momma cooked, cleaned and shopped, earning her salary from Daddy’s checking account each week, as did the 10 or so workers on his construction site. Daddy sat down at the dining room table and signed the checks in his ledger on Fridays. He signed the construction workers’ checks and Momma’s in the ledger at the same time. He always handed her the check, and she would look at Daddy, and say, “That’s it?” Or, “Can I get $10 more?”
“No, that’s it,” he said, answering both questions with a cigar hanging from his mouth. He reduced the paycheck once, after he bought some deer meat, subtracting the cost because he thought the deer meat was groceries and should be part of Momma’s paycheck. The deer meat tasted good, but Daddy’s cigars stank up the house. Momma stayed madder about the checks than the cigars. In the summer, the homemade fans blew the cigar smoke away.
Momma and Daddy rarely argued in front of Robbie and me, except for one fight. I only heard part of the argument. Daddy handed Momma a check for $500 and told her to leave the house. “Here, take this and leave,” he said. She told him, “$500. I’m not leaving you for $500. If you want to get rid of me, it will take a hell of a lot more money than that.”
Maybe it was the weekly paycheck, the tobacco turds or the working trips that Daddy took by himself that drove Momma and Daddy apart. They didn’t talk to each other much. They slept in separate bedrooms; Momma usually sleeping with either Robbie or me or both of us. Daddy slept alone on a twin bed with a large slab of wood under one mattress. Momma never left him, though. She loved him.
Daddy’s only other romance that I knew about was with Lady, my horse. She would rub her head and face up against Daddy’s shoulder and secretly try to bite the Red Man tobacco pack out of his shirt pocket. If she couldn’t get at it, she would nudge Daddy’s arm over and over again to prod him to take it out of his pocket. My daddy teased Lady with conversation and then finally produced the goods. Lady loved the tobacco. She also loved figs, and my job was to pick the figs from the three fig trees we had on the farm and give them to her. Sometimes I bought an ice cream cone, filled it with figs, and topped it with tobacco. Lady loved it; no ice cream required.
Robbie and I went to the farm with Daddy in the afternoon as many times as we could until my girlfriends and basketball took over my life, and football and baseball took over Robbie’s. I had two horses, Lady, and her foal, Misty. It was raining when she was born; that’s why we called her Misty. Sometimes I lured Lady over by the barn fence, climbed it, and jumped onto her back to ride without a saddle and bridle. Daddy would fuss at me. He would tell me to get back to the barn and put the saddle on Lady.
“Kat, you get back here and do what I tell ya to do,” he ordered. Daddy always called me “Kat,” not Karen. I hated that nickname.
“Yes, sir, I’m comin’,” I yelled as Lady and I headed in the opposite direction. I knew Lady would never let me fall off.
Daddy taught us how to drive a tractor, too. A tractor was the best vehicle to drive before learning how to drive a car, or so my daddy and his brothers told us. They said if you didn’t drive the tractor into a ditch, or if you did drive the tractor into a ditch but jumped off before it turned over you would be considered trained for a car or truck. Daddy had a white 1951 Ford pickup truck. My brother and I started driving the truck on dirt roads around the farm all by ourselves by the age of twelve. Sometimes we snuck around and drove to Mr. Shott’s store or a pond to swim nearby.
The day Daddy died, Robbie and I were playing one-on-one basketball down the hill from the house, near Daddy’s warehouse. By this time Robbie was 13, and I was 14. Robbie had grown taller and ran faster than me. He also was good at stealing the ball and scoring. He beat me that afternoon for the first time. It was January 17, 1973, and not too cold to play ball outside in Mississippi.
I didn’t notice Daddy watching us play from the warehouse.
“You are a cheat. I hate you. You don’t know how to play basketball. You just know how to cheat,” I hollered at Robbie.
Robbie laughed and laughed and laughed, lying down on the ground rolling in the dirt and then standing up to skip around the basketball goal. “I beat Karen. I beat Karen.” I looked up and saw Daddy as he leaned against his warehouse door, smoking a pipe and smiling about the fact I lost my first one-on-one to Robbie.
“Why are you staring at me,” I screamed at Daddy. “Your son is a cheat. I am not playing against him anymore.”
My daddy puffed on his pipe, grinning. “You can play against him again. You just need to get better.”
“I can’t believe you just said that to me. Robbie is a cheat,” I said with tears flowing down my cheeks.
I ran fast up the hill to the house, screaming loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear that I would not go to the farm with the two of them. “I’m staying with Momma! She loves me!”
Momma said, “Calm down, Judy Karen. You are being silly.” Judy was my first name and when things got serious, Momma used both names, Judy Karen, with a long “a” in KAY-run.
I watched Daddy and Robbie drive away in Daddy’s new truck, a 1972 gold El Camino. I fell on my bed and cried because I really wanted to go to the farm. A few minutes later, I went to the bathroom and took a hot bath. I filled the tub to the top and floated underneath the water, looking up at the ceiling, thinking my loss to Robbie marked the beginning of the end of my basketball career. I no longer would have anything to do, except study all the time. Oddly, I began thinking about my father being so old, at 61, that he may die soon. I also thought about what I would wear to his funeral.
While I was in the tub, I heard Momma talking on the phone, upset. I jumped out of the tub and grabbed a towel. Momma was leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen with her hands on her face. She turned, looked at me, and spoke forcefully.
“We need to drive to the hospital. Your daddy is in the emergency room.”
I couldn’t find anything to wear to the hospital, reminding me that only minutes before I had been in the tub thinking about what I would wear to his funeral. I thought, why would I be thinking about that. I was so mean.
On the way to the emergency room in Momma’s car, I said, “We can’t let Daddy go to the farm again and work. He works too hard. Ok, Momma, we can tell him. Ok?”
“Yes, of course, we can,” she said. “Everything is gonna be fine.”
At the hospital, a nurse brought us into a room where Robbie was sitting on a stretcher. He was crying hard, with his eyes squeezed tight, his lips purple and trembling and his face red. He couldn’t speak. Then Momma and I saw Daddy on another stretcher a few feet away from Robbie.
He looked dead. Our doctor from Soso, Dr. Matthews, told us he was.
“Robbie drove him to my office,” said Dr. Matthews to Momma. “Red looked like he was regaining his strength, and he seemed ok. I gave Red a shot. That helped, and I told Robbie to drive him to the hospital in Laurel, and I would follow him directly.”
Standing over Daddy as the doctor spoke, Momma glared at him for a few seconds and demanded an answer, “Why in the hell would you ask his 13-year-old son to drive him to an emergency room 20 miles from Soso alone in the truck? Why? Why? Do you hear me? Why?”
She turned to Robbie and hugged him close, both sobbing. As I cried, the doctor held me, and I accidentally let a piece of chewing gum fall from my mouth into his shirt sleeve. I didn’t feel embarrassed. I didn’t care about his stupid shirt. I no longer had my daddy. Killed by a stupid doctor.
I don’t know how we got back home from the hospital. All I remember is Mamaw wiping my face with a warm rag while I was on the couch in the TV room, crying. She had been staying with us for several weeks. This was the first and only time I remember Mamaw showing me love. Mamaw always fussed at me for not treating my momma right. Even so, I was glad she was there, at our house, taking care of me, Robbie and Momma.
The neighborhood turned out to our house later that night and the next day. Everybody said Daddy was a great man but I never heard anyone say that before he died. They talked about his building our church, Trinity Baptist Church, the Sears building in downtown Laurel, and the firehouse and several large churches, not our own. Everyone from Trinity came over with casseroles and Tupperwares full of dumplings, butter beans, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, banana pudding, pies and more. My best friends Maggie, Libby and Janice came, too. They sat with me in my bedroom, and they cried for me and with me.
Other people floated in and out of my bedroom, too, but my girlfriends stayed most of the night into the morning. They took turns coming and going. Momma was in the living room, greeting people, but then she disappeared into Daddy’s bedroom. Maybe she thought he would be there. As she sat in the house that Daddy built, maybe she thought about the song she often sang while Daddy watched the Dean Martin Show.
“Something in my heart keeps saying, My someplace is here.”
Robbie took a bath, put on a white housecoat, sat on our piano bench and didn’t say much to anybody. I had never seen him in his white housecoat so Momma must have given it to him to wear as everyone from Soso came to pay respects. I never asked her why she put him in a white housecoat. His face was as white as the robe.
Left, Karen playing basketball and right, her brother Robbie, posing in front of the Mississippi Confederate flag.
Later that night, he told us what happened.
“Driving to the farm, Daddy was laughing with me about Karen gettin’ so mad about our game at the house. He told me I needed to be nicer, that I was gettin’ taller and stronger than Karen. That’s what happens with boys and girls, Daddy told me. Before we got to the barn, he rubbed his chest and made a face. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he was fine.
“I didn’t know what to say back to him. He seemed to be feelin’ better. He drove into the barn, blew his horn, and the cows started running from the back of the pasture. They knew it was feedin’ time. We started throwing bales of hay into the truck. A few minutes later, he fell to the ground and started groaning my name, ‘Robbie. Robbie, get over here.’ I ran over. He was leaning on a rail and told me, ‘Go get me some water from the Big House (what we called the family house on the farm.) When I got back, he said, ‘Take me to the drugstore.’ He drank the water and then ripped his shirt and his belt buckle off so he could breathe and laid down on the ground. I was upset, but I knew I had to pick him up and get him in the truck. I did and then I hightailed it to the drugstore.”
The drugstore is where Dr. Matthews worked two times a week, seeing patients. I couldn’t picture Robbie lifting Daddy, 5’ 7” and 180 pounds, up off the ground, into the truck, and driving over the bumpy dirt roads to Soso, knowing Daddy had had a heart attack.
“When I got to Soso, the doctor told me to drive Daddy to the emergency room at Laurel hospital. He said he would call ahead and then he would drive to the hospital, too. I didn’t think twice about it. I just did it.”
It was then that Robbie had to stop talking to stop the tears. We waited. Momma placed her arms around Robbie and put her chin on the top of his head.
“Daddy didn’t say much after that. When we first got on the highway, he hung his head. I screamed, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong. You ok?’ He didn’t say anything. I thought then he might have died. That’s when I decided to stop at the Texaco gas station. The guys at the station said, ‘Son, we are calling for an ambulance.’”
With Momma’s chin on his head, he looked at me, his lips trembling, his face puffy. He couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say.
Several months after the funeral, Momma sold Lady and Misty and the cows. I was playing basketball and hanging out with my girlfriends. Horseback riding was no longer something to look forward to. I missed giving Lady the Red Man tobacco and figs on an ice cream cone and climbing on her bareback, but Lady and the farm reminded me too much of Daddy. I mostly stopped going to the farm.
Not long after the funeral, Momma installed central air conditioning and black-topped the driveway to the house. Though both had been on her to-do list for a long time, Daddy had refused to spend the money. The cows and the horses paid for these delicacies, as well as the Social Security checks we received in the mail every month now that Daddy was gone. Robbie and I got one until we graduated from college, and Momma for the rest of her life.
I missed a few junior high basketball games, but in a couple of weeks, I was back at it on the court. I didn’t want anyone to think I was too sad or depressed about losing my daddy. I wanted them to know I was his daughter, and I was following in his footsteps, dominating whatever field — the hay field or his warehouse site or the basketball court — I was standing on. I hit the court, steaming with energy. If I rebounded the ball from an opponent’s missed shot, I dribbled hard and fast down the court, looking to score. If blocked, I passed to someone ready to shoot. I just needed to run and gun. Run and gun. No time to set a play, only to score before anyone called a play.
Every night in bed I listened to Green-Eyed Lady on my record player while visualizing a run-and-gun move with my blue eyes closed. I liked the driving beat of the music. Caught in the groove at the end, I jumped out of bed and started the 45 over, again and again.
Robbie had a tougher time. He not only blamed himself for the death but he didn’t want to run and gun with me in basketball anymore. I kicked the shit out of my grief. He let Daddy’s death weigh heavy on him for a very long time. A couple of years after Daddy passed, I saw the pain in Robbie's face in a school photograph, taken with the Mississippi Confederate Flag behind him. All students, even Black students, got a photo with the Mississippi version of the Confederate flag behind them.
For a while, I couldn’t stop thinking about Daddy. Walking up the hill from the school bus, I hoped he would be in his home office, next to the TV room, drawing a new construction plan on his architect’s desk. As each day passed, though, basketball, boys, movies and music took up my time and, by the summer of 1973, I didn’t dwell on my dead daddy so much. I dwelled on me, and my teammates and closest girlfriends.
And on pushing myself harder and faster to catch a train out of Soso—to prove that I was my daddy’s daughter, even though he had been dead wrong when he said my job was to clean the house. I wasn’t going to bargain with my future husband over a paycheck, either.