My father could talk to anyone, but even more amazing, he could get anyone to talk. I first became aware of his gift when we moved to the country and claimed an acre of harvested cornfield to build a home, like a dozen others we would come to call neighbors. Our new house took shape beneath a crew of builders whose names only my father took the time to learn.
We wasted no time planting trees, while our next-door neighbors erected a chain-link fence. I saw the steely shield as a ploy to keep us five children and our vast assortment of balls at bay, but my magnanimous father saw it as a prop on which to lean while he drew our silent neighbors into conversation.
The neighbors had a way of keeping their eyes on the ground, pretending not to see us. But my father always bellowed a deep, friendly, "Hello!" across the yard in a volume that couldn't be ignored. Their response was always a single, quick wave.
One evening, the man next door asked to borrow a tool, little knowing that his request would turn into an evening of conversation. My father handed it over the fence, then spread his hands wide on the rail and asked our neighbor his opinion on something of minor importance.
My dad's grinning brown eyes and embracing stance declared keen interest and a reluctance to retreat without an answer. Once the neighbor responded, my dad, like a layer of intricate brickwork, turned the answer into another question, and every new topic into a spotlight for the neighbor. He discovered the man's views on sharpening mower blades, rolling the lawn, and flushing out ground moles.
My father's intense desire to learn the intricacies of his neighbor's thought was dignifying, and the once- silent man was transformed into a fellow with much on his mind and a willingness to share. My dad made drawing silent acquaintances and stoic strangers into conversation seem easy a natural consequence of his interest in knowing those he encountered, day to day, in ordinary places.
I watched him pull civility out of the most abrasive temperaments: surly store clerks, pompous clergy, ill-tempered repairmen. Even people in a hurry were drawn by his charisma into at least a token greeting. I saw farmers who were racing to finish plowing a field before a storm, draw to a halt atop idling tractors to converse with my dad. Police officers pulling him over for less-than-meager violations of the speed limit had a way of easing their judgment and letting him depart with a friendly warning.
Though he was a natural conversationalist, it was apparent that he was also an extraordinary listener. At times, I wondered if having such an open ear wasn't a bit of a burden.
Being a born worrier, I often sacrificed sleep to fret over the many social tangles that constitute the days of a shy, middle-school girl. Some nights I would still be watching the clock when it reached the lonely first digits of the next day. I always knew that a talk with Dad would help.
Even at the most unreasonable hour, he never got angry or complained. Through his drowsiness, he could still manage to distill the essence of the problem and somehow respond with enough wisdom to bring the matter down to a level where I could sleep on it.
While I admired my dad's way of luring people into conversation, at times it proved inconvenient.
Whenever he came along, we never went anywhere quickly. Short outings for errands evolved into major social events. A quick stop for an oil change might last more than an hour, with Dad leaning on a fender, listening with amazement to a mechanic describing the intricate details of his first transmission overhaul. And friendly, seemingly perfunctory greetings after church habitually ballooned into exchanges that ended long after the rest of the parking lot had cleared.
Whether it was a gift, an art, or just good people skills, I'm sorry to say I didn't inherit my father's finesse in conversing with strangers.
Still, there are moments when I want to believe that a whisper of his ways seeped into me as when I'm trapped in a long line at the hardware store near an elderly man with an urge to talk. I listen, smile, nod, and by the time I reach the register, I've learned that the newest addition to his rose garden is called Barbara Bush, that his wife is named Evelyn, and that his son is a city boy with too many girlfriends and too few books.
Those are the moments when I sense my dad is near, his grinning brown eyes sparkling with a hint of pride.