As a master wordsmith once said, “That’s my job”. Unlike Conway Twitty, this tribute to my father will not be poetry and verse, and it won’t be a greatest hit. However, I hope it will be befitting of the man whose greatest worldly possessions was a collection of books which were double stacked on bookcases that went from floor to ceiling. He read most of those books more than once, too. On Tuesday, July 14, 2020, my father, Michael Lee Preston Sr., went to be with his wife and God for eternity. If it weren’t for my father, I would either be dead or in jail, and I don’t mean that figuratively. My dad’s life, like many, wasn’t an easy one. My mother took her own life on May 10, 1982. I was only 11 months old at that time. After she died, my father did what he had to do to ensure that his family was safe and taken care of, regardless of how it affected him. Like many fathers, my father led by example and by experience. Here are a few the things that my father taught me over the years.
While government math may make you feel good, it rarely is correct.
I have very few early childhood memories, and the ones I do have are more like TikTok videos than feature films. One of my earliest memories involving my father occured when I was just a toddler and he brought Burger King home for dinner. As he cut my Whopper into four pieces, I tried to be funny and told him I wanted my Whopper cut into eight pieces. With that patented grin on his face that I can still picture vividly to this day, he proceeded to count each one of the pieces of Whopper twice for a total of eight pieces. Every time I hear a politician talk about moving money from one part of the budget to the other, or raising taxes to pay for this program, or spending more money to reduce costs it makes me think back to that Whopper. My father was able to easily distract me with humor and make me think the I got what I wanted, although he didn’t actually give it to me. In the same way, politicians today distract us when they start doing government math.
While there are evil people in this world, there’s a lot more good people out there.
When my mother died, my dad became a single father working a full-time job. Both of those responsibilities are hard enough in and of themselves. When you combine the two, it can become a very daunting task. Of course my father received a lot of assistance from family members. I went and stayed with my aunt as an infant, and my grandmother basically spent the entire summer in Texas helping my father get everything taken care of and arranged. However, there were also friends and neighbors that pitched in to help. Members of the church watched my brother and I, and a neighbor would babysit us when my father had to work late. We were always cared for despite our lack of maternal guidance.
If you start a fire always keep an eye on it.
Is there any more exciting feeling in the world than getting a phone call while you’re at church informing you that the fire department is at your house because your backyard is on fire? I’m not talking about the fire of the Holy Spirit either! We had a burn pile in our backyard growing up in North Mississippi, and we would regularly burn yard debris and other burnable trash. One day my father decided to start a fire before we went to church and figured it would be okay to leave it. There was a little bit of a fellowship time in between Sunday school and church service and that was the time when we received the call that the fire department was at our house because our backyard was on fire!
Sometimes you do not want to know your mother’s secret recipe.
This is more of a selfish memory than anything else. Growing up, my father used to make the best homemade pie crust in the world. Until he saw his mother use her secret recipe for her pies, that is. Grandma’s secret recipe was a store-bought pie crust. After he saw that, he never made another homemade pie crust ever again. That recipe has been lost forever because if he wrote it down, that piece of paper is long gone.
If you’re not bleeding, you’ll be fine.
When you’re a curious young boy, there’s no better way to learn than by observing the world around you. Crawling up on the toilet seat to see out the window in your parent’s bathroom might even sound like a great way to gain an observation point. If you’re as uncoordinated and unathletic as I am, there’s a good chance you’re going to slip off the toilet seat and hit your head on the way down. My stepmother was on the phone at the time and heard the commotion, so she yelled out to my father that he ought to go check on me. My father was on the back porch reading, and after she got off the phone she realized she had not seen my father come through the house. She asked him if he had checked on me, and he told her what happened and said “David will be fine, there wasn’t any blood”.
The best family stories come from road trips.
This section could take up the space of two or three columns with all the family stories I could tell from the road trips we took. To save time, I’ll focus on the stories from my family’s first trip to Washington DC.
First: If you want a garner sympathy from an Alabama state trooper, have a sleeping child and wife in the back of your vehicle.
While traveling from our home in Northwest Mississippi to meet up with family members and caravan for the trip, my father was driving through North Alabama while myself and my stepmother slept in the back of our rented minivan. I do not recall what my father was pulled over for, but I do know that he did not receive a ticket. As soon as he came to a stop on the side of the road both myself and my stepmother popped our heads up!
Second: Vehicle radiator fans do not continue operating when the vehicle is completely shut off.
We stopped at a welcome center for a bathroom break, got out of the van, and noticed that the radiator fan was still operating. We asked if the car was still running, and my father replied “No, that’s just the fan still going and it will cut off in a minute”. When we returned from using the facilities, the vehicle was locked (fans still running) and my father didn’t have the keys. A cursory examination of the vehicle revealed that the keys were still in the ignition and the engine was running! We had to use the old coat hanger method to get the vehicle unlocked and resume our travels.
Three: Pay attention to what you’re doing, or you might scare some strange ladies.
After the welcome center incident, we stopped at lunch for Taco Bell. After we ate, my father said he would just go on to the car and wait for us while my stepmother and I went to the bathrooms. Being the prolific reader that he was, my father figured that walking to the vehicle was a good opportunity to get in some reading. The only problem was that there was another van just like the one we had rented in the parking lot. Same color, same body style, same everything. The only difference was that the other van was full of women. Not paying attention to his surroundings, my father attempted to enter that vehicle while reading. As he did, all of these ladies in that van were feverishly trying to lock the door, and move to the other side of the vehicle. When my mother and I exited the restaurant, we yelled at my him. “Dad, that’s not our vehicle!”
Four: If you are getting tired and want somebody else to drive, the best way to get somebody else’s attention is to start slapping yourself to stay awake.
Later in that trip, it was late in the evening and my father was trying to get us to our destination without stopping anywhere unnecessary. Everyone in the vehicle, including the other family members we had picked up, was asleep. I just happened to wake up and see my dad slapping himself on the face to stay awake. I said “Mom, you might want to wake up… Dad’s slapping himself!” My stepmother was wide awake within five seconds and in mere minutes she was looking for a hotel to spend the night.
The biggest lesson my father taught me is that no matter what you’re going through in life, sometimes you have to put yourself aside. Sometimes you have to make sure that the people who depend on you (and there’s usually always somebody that depends on you) have your care.
After my mother’s death when I was 11 months old, my father had to care for two young sons and make arrangements for the new reality that was our life. He had little time to mourn the passing of his wife and properly process his emotions. During this same time, my dad’s youngest sister died in a terrible car crash. She had been my mother’s roommate in college and introduced my parents. We suffered the deaths of other family members during the same time frame, but because my dad was dealing with my mother’s passing, he was unable to properly take care of himself. He was a newly single father who worked a full-time job. H took care of both responsibilities without complaining and without ever showing myself or my brother the strain that it was putting on him.
As you grow older, you learn to appreciate the things that your parents enjoyed and the passions they tried to share with you. Whether it’s any of the lessons that my father taught me that I listed above, or enjoying the actual quality of NPR (Yes, I’m even learning to appreciate Garrison Keillor and his stories from Lake Wobegon). Quite possibly the thing I cherish most that my father shared with me was his passion for learning history and studying politics. As a history major from the University of Southern Mississippi who enjoyed reading the likes of William Buckley and Winston Churchill, I think that he would probably be proud of what I was doing as he was slipping the surly bonds of Earth. I was covering a political rally in Montgomery (Tommy Tuberville’s Election Night Watch Party) as a print journalist.
Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.