Today I saw a photo on Facebook of my 88-year-old father at a tattoo parlor. His roommate was staging a prank in which she pretended to tattoo him, and they were grinning at each other with mischievous glee. My heart leapt with gratitude, and I reflected on the long route he’s taken to arrive at this point.
My mother died about a year ago. She’d already deteriorated due to an undiagnosed form of dementia before a broken hip put her in a nursing home. She objected, berated and suffered through the ordeal, and Pop visited her steadfastly in the chilly depression of her room.
As Mom declined, Pop did, too. His robust complexion and serene demeanor lost their vitality, replaced by sunken cheeks and a deadpan resignation. He began looking frail and moving slowly. When his weight bottomed out, 40 pounds lighter than normal, my brothers and I feared he would die first, as sometimes happens with elderly spouses during long illnesses.
But Mom went first. I’d never seen Pop cry that hard. They had been married for 66 years. I knew he was crying both for the woman she had been and the woman she’d become. A month later, when I returned to Indiana from my home in Austin to help him clean out Mom’s closet, we had a conversation that surprised me.
“I loved your mother, and I’m sorry she’s dead,” he said. “But I’m still alive, and I want to live.” I said I thought that was a good idea.
He said, “I think I want to come to Texas for the winter.” I said I thought that was another good idea.
Pop was a lifelong Hoosier and farmer. He’d farmed his family homestead and finished his career managing a chain of corn and cattle farms. Leaving everything he knew, even for a few months, wouldn’t be easy.
The first step was the easiest. I asked around if anyone knew of a place in the country suitable for an elderly man. The first person to respond was my friend Spike, a writer who, through her unyielding compassion and dedication to local causes, is somewhat of an Austin folk hero. She had recently acquired a ranch outside of town, in Garfield, and offered my father a room in its cozy vacation-rental home. Spike was a former city dweller who had zero experience living in the country. Pop could give her some tips, she reasoned.
Two months and a thousand-mile road trip later, the fledgling snowbird and I rolled in at the Tiny T Ranch. While we unpacked, I filmed Pop sitting in his new walk-in closet, playing There’s No Place Like Home on his harmonica. Moments after I texted the video to Spike and she shared it with her thousands of Facebook followers, a local internet star was born.
Ignoring a 35-year age difference, Pop and Spike became fast friends, and their connection attracted others. The ranch’s chickens fell under Pop’s animal-whisperer spell and followed him everywhere. A neighbor who was moving away brought over two horses to stay, and they began following him around, too.
“If I was still at home, I’d just be sitting in my chair, waiting,” Pop told me once. “But down here, I’ve got things to do. I gotta mow, I gotta finish that fence, move the feed buckets to the barn…” He gazed around at 30 acres of to-do list. “If I didn’t have work to do, I’d just wind down and stop like an old clock.”
The Tiny T sees a parade of visitors. Locals come to visit, attend writing or meditation workshops, or hold weddings at the property’s little chapel. Out-of-towners come to vacation or attend festivals in Austin. Many come just to wander the quiet, open spaces and feed apples to the horses.
Nearly every guest through the gate gets to know Pop. Many recognize him from Spike’s Facebook page and can’t wait to meet “the famous Bob.” At one point, he said, “I’ve met more people during six months in Texas than during my whole life in Indiana. There’s a lot of good people down here, you know it?” I said I knew it.
Of course, Pop’s greatest ally is his new roommate. After a month, Spike invited him to live out his days at the ranch, and he accepted the offer. Now the best friends leave each other notes by the coffee maker each morning and play checkers every night. They pull pranks, like the fake tattoo photo and another where they appeared to have gotten matching facial piercings. Their pleasure in each other’s company is a joy to behold.
I attribute this success to a few factors: my friend’s generosity and kindness; my father’s willingness to take huge risks at an age when many people wouldn’t even vary their route from refrigerator to recliner; and the alchemy that happens when two souls stumble into a deeply complementary arrangement.
I suppose I could be jealous of “my father’s new daughter,” but I’m too busy marveling at how lucky we all are. After decades of separation, I get to relish my dad’s presence in my life. Spike gets to experience the joys of a loving father figure. And Pop gets to live a new life that he’s created for himself, full of love, action and purpose—and chickens and horses.
Ellen Stader is a Texas Electric Cooperatives senior communications specialist.