My dad’s ghost came to visit on Saturday, in the form of his younger brother.
We live in the Louisville, KY area. If you aren’t from around here, your town probably doesn’t celebrate the Kentucky Derby as if it were a two-week national holiday, but we do. As part of the festivities, vast numbers of people who don’t choose to fight the madness at Churchill Downs hold Derby parties, instead. For as long as I can remember, a household from my church has held a Derby party and welcomed any and all of the congregation who want to socialize, eat a lot of good food, watch the races on TV, and place $1 bets.
Also for as long as I can remember, until he died in 1999, my dad was the Official Taker of Bets at the church Derby party. He always arrived at the hosts’ house before the first race on the first Saturday in May (usually around 10:00 a.m.) and stayed until after the end of the last race in the evening. Equipped with business-card-size betting tickets on which he wrote the race and horse numbers, he accepted dollar bills and divided up winnings throughout the day. Being a betting man and a lover of most sorts of gambling, he also placed his own bets and generally did well. He was A Fixture at the party.
Some number of years ago (I wish I could remember how many), the party needed to find a new home base, and we took over the role of hosts. Every first Saturday in May, we open our house to any and all church friends who want to come. My husband is now the Official Taker of Bets. It’s a fun, laid-back day.
Saturday morning, as we were getting the house ready for guests, we got the news that my uncle and aunt would be coming to the party. No big deal, right? Except that they live in Minneapolis and we haven’t seen them for at least 3 years. She’s a flight attendant, and he’s semi-retired; so when she was asked to work a flight to Louisville that had open seats, she suggested that he come along. Only when they were on their way to the airport and he was on the phone to my mom with the news did they realize that it was Derby Day. (The Twin Cities are clearly outside the borders of the Land of Derby Madness.) It was a little surreal for me to anticipate this completely unexpected visit from some of my favorite relatives when my mind was so firmly entrenched in the normal rhythms of Derby.
They arrived in mid afternoon. And my dad came with them.
My dad was 16 years older than this, his youngest brother. They didn’t look terribly alike, although they shared a body type and a fair skin tone. My dad’s voice was a little lower, and after years in southern Indiana he had lost his Wisconsin-born accent. But when you were in the room with them both, you knew immediately that they were brothers — they shared an indefinable essence of Miller Guy.
And so, on Saturday, when my uncle greeted me, I heard my dad. Not his voice, no, but the same pattern of speech, the slight clipping of words. I found myself watching my uncle closely when he spoke, because in the movements of his face — the planes of his cheeks, the shape of his mouth when he smiles, the way he opens his mouth only as far as absolutely necessary to release the words — I saw my father. Their eyes were very alike, and so were their gestures and their general body language. They’re not what I think of as big men, but when a Miller Guy is in the room, he is A Presence. You’ll hear him talking and laughing, and he’ll come over to get to know you.
When it came time for Derby bets, my uncle (who had already cashed a ticket for several earlier races) decided to buy tickets only on the 4 or 5 horses that were 50-to-1 long shots. My mother, following her standard practice to guarantee a win, bought a ticket for each of the 19 horses in the race. I chose 3 horses based on their history of running on a muddy track; and, because my mother had mentioned a couple of times that a jockey named Calvin Borel was winning pretty much every time he sat on a horse — and she is an extremely lucky woman when it comes to winning things and picking horses — I threw in a dollar on Mine That Bird.
The race was the most exciting I can remember, with the jockey threading his horse at afterburner speed along the rail and out to a 6-3/4 length victory. The horse was Mine That Bird — a name I hadn’t thought of or heard mentioned at any point during the race call, because he began in last place and charged to the win in the last quarter mile. When the caller announced the winner, I cheered — and then realized that I wasn’t hearing any cries of “I won!” from the crowd of people in the other room. Out on the deck, on the other hand, I saw my uncle and my mother celebrating. We were the only 3 people with winning tickets.
The total pot was $129, so we each won $43 for a $1 bet. Most years, even when we’re dividing the pot among 10 or 20 winners, our payout beats the payout at the track; but this year the odds were so massive against Mine That Bird that Churchill Downs paid out $103 for every $2. It was nonetheless the largest win at our church party for a great many years — we think no one has won so much since Gato del Sol made a surprise winning run in 1982 and only 2 people split the pot.
This year, we kept the winning in the family. We hugged a lot, and I thanked my mother for her outstanding tip, and we talked endlessly about the amazing, the unbelievable, the astounding race we’d just witnessed. We took pictures of us with our fistfuls of dollar bills. And we agreed that my dad would have been ecstatic to have been there and watched Mike Miller, Anne Miller, and Tiffany Miller Taylor claim the prize.
I don’t believe in ghosts, or an afterlife, or angels. But I do believe that my dad was here on Saturday. My uncle and aunt brought him along and made him alive again. Some days it’s hard for me to remember much beyond the very hard time at the end of my dad’s life; but seeing and talking with his brother brought back bits and pieces of happy memories that had been hiding.
My dad was here with me, two days ago. And thanks to that, I have a much stronger, better sense of him with me now.