That Face in the Mirror

Thoughts on My Father

James Lafe Neighbors

1924 – 2007

On the surface of things I would say that my dad and I weren’t very much alike. Like night and day rather than two peas in a pod….on the surface of things.

He was mostly quiet—didn’t usually have much to say.  I make my living with words…mostly spoken. My dad was shy… I am not… at least on the surface.

My dad knew the meaning of hard work—the hard, back-breaking, sweaty (often smelly) kind. The kind I try very hard to avoid.

My dad was a stay at home kinda guy. Me?  Let’s just say that “Ramblin’ Man” could be my theme song.

While we are both men of faith… his was a quiet faith while mine was, at least on the surface because of my profession, a public faith.

We are very different—no question—even in appearance. He was short and I am tall.  In facial features and mannerisms I tend to favor my mother more than my father.

Yet… and yet… if we look behind the curtain (in my theater vernacular) or dig a little deeper (in his working man vernacular)…we are very much alike.

There have been those moments through the years when I look in the mirror and see my dad looking back.  Sometimes the face I see causes a negative reaction.  I don’t want to see him when I look at myself. It is a flashback to that phase in life I think all kids, especially boys, go through in finding themselves. That streak of independence that says “I am not like my father.” That striving to be your own man.

My dad…while mostly quiet, mild mannered, and easy going, also had a temper that was on a hair-trigger. The trigger was sometimes things that really didn’t matter much in the whole scope of life…. refusing to eat a certain vegetable or sleeping in too late could pull the trigger.  I think it was a control issue. It didn’t happen often but when it did—watch out! I too have that tendency.  I didn’t like that trait in my father…don’t like it in myself.  Those face in the mirror moments are unpleasant… but thankfully they were few for him and are few for me.

But as I am reflecting on my dad, now that he has left this life…I am realizing just how much we are alike and that I may have more in common with him than I ever realized before.

I think it was Dad who first taught me how to “get attention,” a trait that I would eventually turn into a career. Dad loved a good practical joke.  One of my earliest memories of this fine art was through the simple yet time tested device known as a handshake buzzer. My dad’s use of the device was a little unorthodox.  Rather than a handshake he would wind up the little buzzer and carefully sneak up behind my mother. He would then put his hand part way up her skirt and release the buzzer, startling my mother.  She would shriek and call out a firm reprimanding “Lafe Neighbors!”  My dad would give a hoot of laughter and several seconds of delighted giggles.  My reaction to this playfulness was to emulate it (although I resisted the hand up the skirt approach). I loved the surprise, the laughter, the attention! Could it be that this tiny seed of mischief and entertainment was the seed that launched my career on the stage?  I think so.  Thank you Dad for showing me the power of laughter and surprise…all because of a handshake buzzer.

And there is more….

As an adult…while I am outgoing in a “professional sense,” I find that for the most part I am really very much like my dad…quiet and even shy.  That may surprise many but is actually very common in the temperament of many artistic types. The “actor” Chuck is a persona…in many ways a prerequisite to my on-stage life.  But when not “on view for others” I am a man of few words, like my father. There are those moments when my father and I would be in the same room and have nothing to say to each other and yet we would be comfortable with the silence.  We were alike in that way.

And more…

While we don’t have a lot going in the way of physical resemblance in our features I fear the genes have made their mark internally.  We share a common disease—diverticululosis (thanks a lot Dad!).  If the phrase “pull my finger” actually resulted in longer fingers rather than socially unacceptable sounds and smells… well then my dad and I would probably make it into The Guiness Book of World Records for some of the longest fingers in the world.  And call it childish if you want, but that little trait…just like the handshake buzzer, never ceased to cause my dad to shake with laughter even in his final days.  One of my sons has inherited this “curse,” which he attributes directly to his Grandpa Neighbors.

And more…

I admired my Dad’s work ethic. While I do hate the physical labor, I don’t hate work…partially because I found a profession I truly enjoy. But I do think I learned the value of hard work from my dad.  I also admire him greatly knowing that he was able to provide well for his family having only a grade school education.  Donald Trump may have coined the phrase “the art of the deal” but my dad understood it well.  Being a child of the depression, he was a very thrifty person.  He taught me to save and to shop for bargains.  His love for farming and animals paid off for him.  “Why buy vegetables when you can grow them?” was part of his philosophy.  He loved horses.  I didn’t—horses represented physical labor to me—I hated cleaning stalls, hauling hay, and barn chores.  But to my dad horses were a joy, a luxury he could afford.  And he loved to trade and dicker.  He loved to go to horse auctions.  While not educated in the “art of the deal”… he had the instincts.  I remember one time I went with him to purchase some piglets (we raised horses, cattle, pigs and rabbits on our little farm).  The farmer selling the pigs had his price, but dad wasn’t willing to pay that amount.  He offered the farmer much less than his asking price and got the deal.  I remember asking my dad why he wasn’t willing to pay what the farmer was asking… and learned the difference between an asking price and a selling price.  My dad loved deal making and knew how to play both sides of it.  Some of that has rubbed of on me and I have made more than a few “good deals” through the years.  Thanks Dad!

Not done yet… there is more…

My dad was a “rock” for my mom and for his kids…and beyond.  He was there for his extended family, both his blood and his in-laws over the years—caring for parents on both sides of his family in his home for many years. While I don’t have a lot of specific memories of his response to his daughter, and my sister, Loretta’s death, struck down by a car at the age of 5—I do know he pulled his family through that crisis.  He lived a sacrificial life for the sake of his family to which I can only aspire.

While I have made a point of him being a man of few words, he did choose some of them very well.  Every son pines for the approval of his parents…whether they want to admit it or not.  My mother never hesitated to let us know her sentiments.  I never questioned her approval and got much encouragement from her over the years.  But Dad…well that is a different story.  I think he had a hard time understanding me and my world.  I think there was a part of him that always thought that one day I would give up this acting thing and get “a real job.”  Even though I was in ministry he would have felt better if I would do the more traditional model as a “pastor” and I heard him express that in one way or another over the years.  And yet… I will never forget a special moment we shared shortly after I started the touring performer life.  I had just performed with my acting company at Eastgate Baptist Church (our family church). He cornered me on the basements steps, a rather odd place to have such a significant moment, and said: “Son, your mom and I were a bit leery when you dropped out of college to go off to California and become an actor, traveling around the country in a van…I thought it was a mistake.  But after seeing what you did tonight… well, I am proud of you!”

I don’t think he ever said he was proud of me before or since.  But I have never forgotten those words.  Being a man of few words it must have been difficult for him to say it then.  We didn’t often say gushy things to each other… being men and all.  Even later I would often tell him I loved him.  He would say those words back… but only after I said them first.  I have strived to be more expressive to my own kids in my love and appreciation of them because of that moment.  Thanks Dad.

While I still hold to the fact that I am not my father… and we are so very different in so many ways… I am at peace with that part him that is in me…when I look in the mirror, get a laugh from an audience, admire the length of my fingers…when I find my self saying a blessing before a meal and realize I am using the exact phrases my father taught me to pray… I am proud to say I am my father’s son.  I could do worse… a whole lot worse.

I have this vision of my father arriving in heaven.  He arrives at the Pearly Gates and is greeted by Saint Peter.  He holds out his hand to Peter and says: “Pull my finger.”  Peter obliges and pulls on Dad’s finger. What follows is one large “explosion” at which all of heaven knows that “Mr. Neighbors is in the house.” The explosion is so powerful that it rockets my dad several hundred feet into the air.  When he finally lands it is on the back of a beautiful white steed.  He promptly takes off on a gallop and pulls to a stop beside a little girl named Loretta.  He reaches down and pulls her up on the horse placing her gently in front of him and they go off on the ride of their life….

Enjoy your ride Dad.  I will miss you…

Chuck Neighbors

7/26/07

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *