My favorite Christmas gift came two weeks early this year, and from a complete stranger no less.
After speaking to a civic group luncheon in Greensboro, my hometown, where we publish O.Henry Magazine, a well-dressed older woman touched my arm as I was leaving the church’s fellowship hall.
“I just want to tell you something,” she said. “Your magazine is the nicest thing to happen to this city in a very long time. Reading it is like receiving a monthly gift. And it’s so beautiful I actually collect issues.”
Naturally I thanked her sincerely.
Then she smiled and gave my arm a light squeeze. “I’m sure Opti the Mystic and your mother would be so proud of you.”
This stopped me in my tracks.
Opti the Mystic was the nickname I bestowed — not entirely kindly — on my father, Brax Dodson, when I was an all-wise teenager who tended to throw golf clubs and cringed at the notion of having an old man who was such an irrepressibly upbeat and friendly character my mom referred to him as the “Original Silver Lining Guy.”
An advertising man with a poet’s heart, an old newspaperman hard-wired for joy and something of a walking edition of Bartlett’s Quotations, Opti was liable to invoke Churchill on courage or Emerson on the value of friendship when you least expected it. He possessed a talent for treating every problem large or small as if it were merely an “opportunity for growth,” as he liked to put it — a perspective that frankly took me years if not decades to fully appreciate.
Looking back from the vantage point of 40-odd years with him, I can easily state that he was the most generous, funny, upbeat, original, brilliant, honest and all-out life-savvy character I ever knew, a self-made man deeply in love with the unpredictability of this life and the power of pure human optimism, a homegrown philosopher who moderated the same men’s Sunday School discussion class for a quarter of a century, rarely missed a Saturday morning dewsweeping round of golf with his buddies Bill and Alex and preferred to simply call himself “the staff problem-solver” to his half dozen admiring employees and many friends around this state.
Turns out the woman from the luncheon owned a small gift shop in the same business district where my dad kept his office for the last two decades of his life. Coincidentally, or maybe not, her shop and my dad’s old office are less than a block from where our O.Henry offices are located on Banking Street.
My father passed away in my boyhood bedroom 20 years ago this winter with my brother and I by his side. With the help of Greensboro’s kindly hospice workers, I was able to leave my own young family behind in Maine and spend the last six weeks of his life from the end of January to the first few days of March helping my mother and attending to my dad’s needs as he gracefully slipped the bonds of this earth. We left nothing left unsaid, Opti and me, and the night before he passed away I even carried him down the hall and helped him into bed with my mom.
“Are you warm enough, sugar?” I heard her cheerfully ask him as they snuggled close on a cold winter night like the ones we’ve had lately. I went back up the hall hearing them whisper like young lovers who’d simply happened to have been married for more than half of a century.
That time at home in Greensboro was another kind of Christmas gift to me, maybe the smartest investment of time I‘ve ever made. My old man and I talked about everything during our final quiet hours together, including the book I was struggling to write about our last golf trip together to England and Scotland, where he’d learned to play golf as a soldier prior to the Normandy Invasion, and the magazine I hoped to possibly someday start. Even then I realized how fortunate I’d been to be the senior writer at a pair of legendary magazines headed by visionary editors: Lee Walburn at the venerable Sunday Magazine of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Judson Hale at iconic Yankee Magazine in New England.
Maybe not so surprisingly, these were men who shared my old man’s uncanny brand of optimism and simple belief in the transformative power of fine writing and great storytelling, though I doubt either one will ever know how much I owe them for the gifts they gave me.
Frankly, Opti knew because I told him — and thanked him — during the final hours we sat together.
At one point he asked to see my hand and pretended to read my palm. This was a long-running gag in our family, a cheap party trick he’d employed many times over the years to amuse family friends at holiday gatherings, particularly attractive females — making up outrageous fortunes that produced gales of laughter and giddy delight.
“How very interesting. Tell me, have you ever been to Madagascar before? I see a beautiful villa on the water, a garden full of chattering parrots and green monkeys and a handsome fellow who looks like Errol Flynn in ‘The Adventures of Captain Fabian’ asking for your hand!” I heard him once tell a neighbor’s somewhat homely niece visiting for the holidays. She beamed and blushed furiously, poor thing.
More than one partygoer chose to believe Opti’s silly parlor-room prophecies.
Ironically, he’d never offered to read my palm until our last night in Scotland — and this second time as he lay dying.
“I need a second look,” he said. “This is very interesting. I must have missed it in Scotland. You’ll have that magazine someday. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if you even eventually came home to do it right here in Greensboro.”
I smiled, hearing an echo of my mother’s often-stated hope, yet unable to see how such a thing would ever happen. I had a full life and young family back in Maine, after all. Books to write and wood to chop. But Opti was always one step ahead of me in the vision department. Maybe he really did see something I couldn’t. I hope that homely gal found herself a good fellow in Madagascar.
Not long before Final Rounds was published in late 1996, actor Jack Lemmon wrote me a lovely note requesting that if a movie of the book were ever to happen, he wished to be considered for the role of Opti the Mystic.
For what’s it worth, I couldn’t have picked anyone better to play my funny, upbeat old man than Jack Lemmon. They had a nearly identical quirky optimism and energy.
Unfortunately, Lemmon himself passed away not long after Opti departed the scene on a sleety morning a few days into March.
Since that time, the story of our final journey and lifelong friendship has twice reached the casting stage by major Hollywood studios only to be derailed at the last minute by a sudden change of “creative teams” at the top that in both instances desired a more conventional Hollywood script — to have the father and son estranged over many years before they agree to take a last-minute trip and reconcile. In truth, they found the relationship I enjoyed with my father, as one exec put it, “somewhat unrealistic. Too sweet. It needs more grit.”
Naturally, I withdrew my support of the project because that wasn’t the book more than half a million people bought and is still in print and seven languages 20 years later.
Ironically, though, not a month goes by when I’m not ask about “the movie.” I always smile and say that maybe someday the right producer and studio will come along and make the film the way it needs to be made.
Between you and me, I spend absolutely no time worrying about this.
The point is, Opti lives.
Exactly one week from today he would have turned 100.
The real power of Final Rounds is that — true to Opti’s prophecy — it wound up bringing me home to North Carolina.
And this year, PineStraw Magazine — the mothership that birthed O.Henry and Salt Magazines — will celebrate its tenth anniversary, begun by Andie Rose on little more than her own vision and a shoestring.
In an unexpected plot turn worthy of O.Henry himself, the chance to cover the U.S. Open for the Pilot and serve afterward as the Writer in Residence at Hollins University brought me home to Carolina in 2005.
When another optimist named David Woronoff suggested I begin writing this Sunday essay for the Pilot — now entering its 10th year, accounting for more than 350 essays — it was only a matter of time before David, Andie and I agreed to pool our resources and vision to make PineStraw into something even larger and more rewarding.
From this unique partnership sprung O.Henry and Salt, a pair of sister magazines that love and understand their cities yet have their own quirky, fun-loving personalities and energy. Or, as I prefer to think of it, an Opti-mystic DNA for passionate storytelling and a love of life’s unpredictable adventures.
Neither of my parents lived long enough to see me come home to North Carolina. But days before she passed away in 2001, as we were having a glass of wine at the seaside joint in Maine where my mom and dad loved to go, she gave me a final gift.
“You know, when you laugh, you sound exactly like your father,” she said, sipping her chardonnay.
I hugged and thanked her for saying this.
“I know you miss dad,” I told her. “And your pals back in Greensboro, too.”
She gave me a serene smile. “That’s okay, sugar. I’ll see him very soon — and maybe Greensboro, too.”
Likewise, I hugged and thanked the lady at the luncheon before Christmas too, for saying what she said about O.Henry Magazine, Opti and his bride.
Next week, days after my father’s birthday, my mom would have turned 95. I plan to drop by my parents’ graves near the Guilford battleground in Greensboro and leave a spray of fresh-cut Nandina boughs full of winter-red berries.
They were my mom’s favorite.