“I just had my art thesis. My dad and brother made 15 frames out of the most beautiful wood. Since he couldn’t come [to Oklahoma], he sent them. It was pretty cool to have my art displayed in something they’d created.”
At City Farmers Nursery, Sam Tall gives me a tour of the woodworking shop in the garage of Bill’s home.
“Dad and I spend a lot of time out here,” he says.
Bill says, “I came out here one day and Sam was making a beautiful box. I asked him, ‘How the heck did you learn how to make that?’ He said he’d learned by watching me.”
Rebecca admits that Bill isn’t one for expensive gifts. “My dad is not a big gift-giver. He makes stuff, beautiful things. When I moved into my house, he made me a butcher-block cutting board. It’s really cool.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Hearing Bill’s children talk about him makes me miss my dad. He was a carpenter. On weekends, he spent hours in his garage, building things.
I used to collect jam and pickle jars for him. I’d clean the jars out and bring them to his workshop. He used them to organize his nails and drill bits. On hot summer days, I poured tall glasses of water and carried them out to my dad so I could watch him work.
When I was seven, he built an addition onto our home. While he was installing the room’s sunroof, he let me climb up the ladder and run around up there. That day, the two of us ate lunch on the roof.
In our basement, he added a miniature door inside one of the closets. It led into a crawl space. We painted the walls in pale yellow and blue, and I stuffed all my toys in that room. My brother, sister, and I used it as a secret playroom.
My husband and I bought our first house after my dad passed away. I found myself missing him while we worked on it. I wished he had been there to help us. He would have loved the big tree in our backyard and the winding roads you drive down to get to our house.
I flew home to Chicago for his memorial service. My mom encouraged me to take anything of his I wanted. All the things he’d made with his own hands were too big to fit in my suitcase. I finally selected a T-shirt that smelled like him, and one of his favorite sweatshirts. I also took an oil painting that my brother’s friend had done of our dad. When I got home, I hung it on the wall. Weeks later, I noticed that he’d incorrectly painted my dad’s eyes brown instead of blue, so I took it down.
When I visited my sister in South Carolina last year, she had an end table that Dad had built sitting in her front room. I was consumed with jealousy. She’d had a van in which to drive it back home, and I didn’t. That’s the way it works.
∗ ∗ ∗
Bill’s three children agree that the building of their home was an exciting time in their lives.
Sam Tall says, “We had a barn-raising.”
Sara Tall says, “Customers from the nursery helped build it. When it was completed, we had a big open-house. Everyone that helped came out to see it. We put all the walls up in one day. The coolest part was that I was 11 years old and got to put up the walls in my own bedroom.”
Rebecca Tall says, “Dad thought of us while designing it. We have a secret passage near the fireplace that goes into the hallway. We talked about drilling little holes in the walls so we could spy on people.”
A short time after their house was built, Bill and his wife got divorced.
“It was awful,” Rebecca recounts. “Here’s a man who believed he would be married his entire life. But it just wasn’t the way of the world. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps and realized he had a business to run and three kids to raise. My dad isn’t bitter. He hasn’t let anything ever make him bitter.”
The Tall children agree that no one they have ever met has had childhood experiences like theirs. They grew up in a surreal atmosphere. They attended public school in diverse City Heights. They were the only kids that lived with farm animals.
“We grew up in almost a commune-like setting,” Rebecca says. “It was odd for City Heights. We learned how to get along with people from all different walks of life. We were different. All the other kids were dropped off at school in their parents’ Honda Civics. We showed up in a beat-up pickup truck. We didn’t have cable or video games. My dad, in his bright yellow suspenders, definitely stuck out.”
“He was iconic in the neighborhood,” Sara says. “Everyone knew who he was. When we went places, people would recognize him. They would come up and say, ‘Hey, Farmer Bill.’”
In elementary school, all three children attended field trips at their own house.
“Dad bought me Clyde when I was two,” Rebecca says. “I wanted to have a pony ride on my birthday. Buying Clyde was cheaper than renting a horse.” She laughs. “That’s how we ended up owning him.”
Bill would walk Rebecca down Home Avenue, holding the reins of the horse so that Clyde could make an appearance at any birthday parties she was invited to.
“Everyone wanted to play at our house,” Sara says.
Most kids in the neighborhood didn’t have yards, let alone one and a half acres to roam.
∗ ∗ ∗
For a while, when Bill was still married and his kids were young, his entire family lived at the nursery. He moved his parents into the apartment building on the property, so he could care for them in their old age. His sister and her husband still live in one of the one-bedroom studios located on the nursery’s land.