Friday, June 13, 2014

James Puckett Criswell of Leitchfield, KY - My Dad
September 12, 1913 - July, 1972

Dark skinned with the raven, curly hair that spoke of his Native and African American heritage, my dad was a handsome man despite his small stature. An extremely malnourished and difficult youth left him bald and without teeth before I was born. That's why I never remember seeing him outside without a hat - a straw one in summer and a felt one in winter. 

My dad's maternal great-grandmother was a member of the Blackfeet Tribe according to family stories. My research into the Criswell side of the family led me to a free black named "Sally" who evidently was an ancestor of James Criswell who migrated from Pennsylvania to Kentucky in the early 1800's denying his African ancestry and passing as white throughout the generations of my particular geneology. My dad's father, Andrew Jackson Criswell, was born to James Criswell and his English wife who had no knowledge of the African-American genes and were, in fact, quite dedicated to the work of Indian fighter and early settler of the Northwest Territory, Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson married a woman named Annie Puckett who was thirty years his junior and already the mother of a small boy. Annie and Andrew had three children, James, Alice and Georgina who died at age five from a bad walnut. Annie had an affair while married to Andrew and had a mulatto son that she sent to live with the black community around Leitchfield. She now added a "Scarlett Letter" to her and her family's reputation. Her children bore the burden of that shame. 

When Andrew Jackson died in 1933, young James was left to work to support the family in any way he could. There was no work and his older half-brother was in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. The New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps provided relief for my father and his family. As a result, my father worshiped FDR and became a life long Democrat. 

When his time in the CCC ended there was still no decent work other than the backbreaking work in the rock quarries around town, so my father supplemented his income by running moonshine in the dry counties surrounding Leitchfield. Like most backwoodsmen of his time, he hunted and knew how to use a shotgun. He added skill with a handgun at this time.

In 1939, James met the love of his life, a strawberry blonde, full-figured woman by the name of Pauline. They eloped in December of 1939 to avoid the wrath of Pauline's father who also knew how to use a shotgun. In August of 1940, James and Pauline had a son that they named after both grandfathers, Roy Jackson - my older brother Jack. Five more children followed, another son, James Ronald in 1942, a daughter Janice Marie in 1944, Brenda Sue in 1946, Lydia Faye in 1951 and Debra Kay in 1955. These children became the center of their universe and Daddy's primary thought was always about loving and protecting us. When he found his God sometime before I was born, his love for this God filtered down to us in every way humanly possible. I never knew until I became a grown woman how lucky my mom was to have a husband like my dad and how lucky we children were to have him as a father.

Mom and Dad were "soul mates" and inseparable. They worked and loved each other and their children unconditionally. Emotionally and physically challenged by his hard youth, Daddy worked when he could and we never were without the necessities, but, more important, we always felt loved and important despite our lack of material goods. Daddy was always home every evening for dinner and was there during the middle of the night if I had a nightmare or felt ill. I still remember his "mustard and garlic" poultices to sooth any chest or throat congestion. I also remember the night he chased away a burglar with his shotgun that he had ready for protection. After that, he bought a hand gun and kept it under the mattress of the bed always loaded and ready. I was always scared when I had to make up their bed for fear it might go off.

Daddy was an avid reader and loved learning. He had only a sixth grade education, but he passed this love of learning to me through his habit of reading the daily newspaper - the Pulitzer Prize winning "Courier-Journal." I first became interested in the paper through the comic section and I remember fighting with my brothers and sisters over who would get them right after Daddy was finished. I usually won being my dad's favorite. I looked exactly like my mom and Daddy also knew I shared his passion for knowledge and education. School was very important. Using schoolwork got me out of a lot of other chores but I really didn't use it as an excuse. I loved learning. We didn't have books or magazines, but there was never a time I asked to go to the library that I was ever refused.

After God and family came my education. Daddy would often give me his last dollar for pencils and notebook paper. He would take my dull pencils, pull his pocket knife from his pocket and sharpen them perfectly for me. I never could do that.I still remember how proud my dad was when I graduated from high school second in a class of 415 with a full tuition scholarship to a local college. Daddy helped me provide the transportation I needed to get to my classes and made sure my car was always running. I never knew a man could be so happy as the day I graduated with honors from Kentucky Southern College and began my teaching career. I know I fulfilled his dream and I'm glad he lived long enough to see that and see me married and off to a good start in life. I am sad that he never knew my children.

Daddy was never healthy and he compounded that with a lifestyle that included a poor diet and no exercise. He was obese and developed Type II Diabetes in the spring of 1972. Instead of helping my dad deal with the disease through proper diet and losing weight, his physicians gave him an experimental drug that exacerbated his heart condition resulting in a massive stroke and his death in July of 1972. We were too ignorant at the time to pursue any recourse against a pharmaceutical industry that has since become far too powerful in producing nothing but "sick cure" and drug dependence in the name of "health care."

Living with the grief of losing my father before his "natural passing" has created in me a desire to live a full, vibrant life that includes prevention of illness and creation of a strong, healthy immune system through a responsible diet and exercise. I enjoy a healthy, active life and although I know we never really know how long we have on this earth, living each day joyfully to its fullest fills me with great inner peace.

I was well into my sixties when my mom "went home" knowing not only her grandchildren but many great and great-great grandchildren. We all accepted that it was "her time" and that made it a lot easier. I don't live a life of anger and regret and am over the grieving of the loss of my dad and the manner in which he died. I am happy that I had him in my life for twenty-six years, long enough for him to influence the direction that my life took which has been one of the greatest joys of my life and a tribute to him.