by Tracie Fellers
Raleigh was my father’s hometown and his territory. And though I’m rarely there these days, it beckons me with memories and markers of his life’s journey.
On Fayetteville Street downtown, there’s the law practice that still includes his name: Blue, Stephens and Fellers. Just a block or so south, the old Wake County Courthouse was his turf – a place where he argued cases in courtrooms and traded tall tales with other lawyers who knew Carlton Fellers for his love of stories and sharp attire.
I never had the opportunity to see my dad in action during his time as a trial lawyer, holding forth before judges and juries when he was in his prime. That’s something I regretted even before he passed away five years ago this month, three weeks after his birthday, and eight days before mine. I also would have loved, just once, to watch him preside in one of many courthouses across the state during his year as a special Superior Court judge from 1987 to 1988, when I was in my senior year of college at Northwestern, then starting my career in Charlotte.
But I count myself blessed that what I missed is far outweighed by the wealth of shared experiences I remember, recollections of times my dad and I spent together in his orbit. High on the list: enjoying our mutual love of food in many flavors, whether it was down-home Southern fare at Big Ed’s; an upscale Italian lunch at chic Caffe Luna in its early years, when I also lived in Raleigh; or, more recently, a bite with flair at the Raleigh Times, a downtown hangout for him that he knew I would like.
Inevitably, we’d see people my dad knew – fellow attorneys, old friends, even passersby who greeted him with a nod or by calling him “Mr. Fellers.” They’d recognize him from the courthouse, or his walks there from the law firm, or from his terrain elsewhere in town: Chavis Heights and Hargett Street, where Dad and his older brother and younger sister were reared by my grandparents; and North Raleigh, where he settled in a suburban neighborhood off Old Wake Forest Road and stayed for some 30 years.
So wherever we might be when we encountered a colleague, acquaintance, buddy, or someone who knew him only as a familiar face – in Raleigh, Durham or points beyond – I was proud that he was proud to introduce me as his daughter, that he would steer me with a protective arm as we walked, if warranted; that he would cut a conversation short with someone else so that we could return to our own. The latter was no small feat, given the social and political animal that my dad was. It assured me that as much as he liked to talk, I was one of his favorite people to talk to.
The social and political were just two of my father’s many dimensions, some of which I was only beginning to see when he died of cancer at age 72. Five years later, it’s still hard to grasp at times – when just a year and some months before his death he’d appeared so healthy, active, vibrant.
Back then, in fall 2008, I already was grateful for the close relationship my dad and I developed as I had grown into adulthood, faced a few challenges, weighed and wondered about some of my personal and professional choices. But for whatever combination of reasons – more talks, more trust, a greater awareness of the vicissitudes of life – we were becoming even closer.
As summer turned to Indian summer, then started to shift to early fall, there were times like an almost magical Saturday afternoon we spent at Duke Gardens. We talked not as dad and daughter but as friend to friend, with an openness, vulnerability, and emotional honesty that years before I wouldn’t have imagined we could achieve.
The years since his death have softened the sting of losing him, at least a little. Still, of all the things I miss about my dad, from his bear hugs to the unmistakably Southern rhythms in his voice, it’s his friendship that I miss the most. My life is still lonelier, sometimes a lot lonelier, without him.
The bond that Dad and I shared started to form a little late. He and my mom divorced when I was a toddler, and while I have a few photos of the two of us when I was still finding my footing in baby shoes, my earliest memories of him are of a man I didn’t see much in my little-girl years. He was the holidays- and special-occasions-guy who would show up at my mom and stepfather’s house in Durham in a fancy sports car with a big gift, or whisk me off to Dorton Arena to see the Ringling Brothers circus.
Busy building his career, he was more of a distant, glamorous figure in the life of his shy young daughter than the dad – and the trusted, treasured friend – he would later become. I think he would agree that I was 11 or 12 when our connection really started to take root. That was when my own interest in politics and current events was emerging, along with my voice and sense of self. It all happily converged with the opportunity to spend more time together.
My weekend visits to North Raleigh were quality time for us. Late Saturday mornings moved into afternoons, when we’d sit at the table after having Bisquick waffles and cover issues of the day – as somber as the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ followers in Guyana and as funny, in retrospect, as my total fascination with the TV show Dallas.
I would catch the look in my dad’s eyes as we talked – fully engaged and even impressed with my ability to hold his interest, to hold my own intellectually. And in those moments, I had no doubt he heard every word. knew I had a place in my father’s world.