Leon Jones

Leon Jones, Tracy McCray’s father.

Some years, June 13 comes and goes and I don’t remember the significance of the day.

June 13, 1999, was the Sunday before Father’s Day, but it was also the day my dad died unexpectedly. We told ourselves that it was a blessing that he went quickly and didn’t have to suffer because we are Midwesterners and that’s the kind of thing we tell each other as we try to make sense when there is none. My 57-year-old father suffered a stroke that killed him in a few seconds, and not even the hardiest of farmer’s daughters is ever ready for news like that.

My mother was away for a few hours at a family wedding shower that Sunday. She returned home and saw the slice of rhubarb pie she’d left for him was still on the counter. And that’s when she knew something was wrong. When we heard this part of the death story, we all smiled because of course, Dad would never have let a piece of pie go uneaten. If the defining detail of your death involves pie, you’ve lived a pretty good life.

This year, I’ve thought about that specific June 13 quite a bit over the past few weeks. It’s been 20 years, so by my common-sense logic, I should be used to life without him and sometimes everything seems fine. My brain has tried to help me. I’ve dreamed about watching Dad sitting with my kids, who were born a few years after he passed. He is teaching them to wink and sharing a roll of Smarties from his shirt pocket like he used to do with my niece and nephews. I’m so grateful for those memories, even if they are manufactured.

As I struggle with the day-to-day challenge of raising teenagers, I wish I could tell him “I’m sorry.” I was never a bad kid, but we surely locked horns during those years. He deserved more grace than I had to give back then. But such is life.

If I’d had the chance to have that conversation with him, I’m sure he would’ve stopped me mid-sentence and waved me off. In our family, we didn’t have need to share such sentimental chaff. He’d want to talk about the car the new drivers in our house should be driving as they learn to handle the wheel. “Something big and slow so they don’t get hurt when they crash,” he’d say.

After I had moved out and whenever I would call the house, he would drive me CRAZY asking about my car and how it was working. Later in life I would figure out it was about the only topic of conversation he knew to discuss with a 22-year-old daughter who had left the farm and moved to the city.

As I prepared for the 20-year anniversary of June 13, 1999, there was only one option on how to mark the occasion. Not a single pie has been made or served in those 20 years that I haven’t thought of my father. He’d be proud to know that another generation of pie-lovers (and bakers) has followed along the branches of our family tree.

I made a rhubarb custard pie and left a slice on the counter with hopes that we’d get to have a nice, long talk in my dreams.

Tracy McCray is a Rochester writer and radio personality. This column is adapted from a Facebook post Tracy wrote on June 13.

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