A Belated Father’s Day Memory
The Road Home
It was one of those sultry Middle-Tennessee-in-July days when you never really get dry after your shower. Your clothes stick to you like Saran Wrap to a bowl of leftovers.
Five of us sat silently in the air-cooled car — staring out the closed windows at the ditches choked with weeds and wildflowers, the green fields of the passing farms, the lush tree-covered hills to the east and west. I turned and looked at my father.
He sat in the backseat flanked by his two grandsons. His once tall, erect body was now bent and frail, testimony to the disease that was eating away his insides, his strength, his will, his very life.
When Did My Father Grow Old?
Thin arms hung from the striped, short sleeve sport shirt, the bony elbows white knobs against the blue velour-upholstered seat. Gray was a permanent trespasser through his thinning black hair. The skin was mottled and tissue-paper thin across his forehead and drawn about his cheekbones. His green eyes lacked the zest for life I remembered in their depths when he was younger.
But this morning there was a faint look of anticipation on his sallow face. He was going home.
The two-lane blacktop highway shimmered with freshly-poured asphalt and the center stripe glistened clean and white, except where an occasional errant tire had touched it — still wet — and smudged the paint like a child inadvertently breaches the carefully drawn lines in a coloring book. The road, no longer the narrow winding road he drove as a young man, led to my dad’s hometown.
For Just a Moment, Time Stood Still
I searched the fog of thirty years trying to remember a similar visit — so long ago. I was eight, the same age as the older of my two boys now seated with my father in the backseat.
It was sticky hot that day too, before air conditioning in cars. I sat in the front seat squeezed between my plump aunt and portly uncle. My mother and father and another aunt, all slender as reeds, rode in back of the vintage 1939 Cadillac. My uncle was the funeral director in the neighboring town and his jet black sedan was not only a sign of his respected status in the community, but of his dark but necessary profession.
In the humid air, the spicy aroma of the weeds and the cloying sweetness of the wildflowers rose out of the ditches and enveloped the car when it stopped. Crossing rusted iron bridges over low, slow-moving muddy creeks, the tires whined and sent a clacking noise echoing back from the slatted guard rails.
Goin’ to Visit Kin
On that summer Sunday, we were going to visit kin — great aunts and uncles and distant cousins I had never seen before. Cousins, of course, would be children like me. And the childhood anticipation of the unknown, meeting a new playmate with whom to romp through the fields, pet the horses or chase chickens through the yard, alternately induced flutters of excitement and the hollow fear of the unknown. Would my cousins like me?
I needn’t have worried. My cousins were old. In their thirties and forties. The great aunts and uncles were even older — older than my aunts and uncle and certainly older than my parents. People like that couldn’t be cousins. Cousins were giggly girls my age or handsome, sturdy young men who were in high school and as wise and as fun to be with as they were good looking.
Would You Like a ‘Co-Cola’?
I listened — bored — while the grownups talked endlessly about people I had never met. Someone offered me a “Co-cola” and I perked up hoping my mother wouldn’t frown and shake her head, reminding me that I had already had one today. Forbidden fruit, Coca Cola. Anything that tasted that good and tickled the tongue so pleasantly had to be innately wicked
… And now I was the mother. The people we had visited that day long ago were many years dead. And we five, riding in icy air conditioned comfort this day, were not going visiting. We were searching for our roots.
First stop — the graveyard. The pungent smell of boxwood hit me as we stepped from the cool car into the muggy air. In Tennessee, boxwood and cemeteries go together. I first noticed it when we buried my maternal grandmother. Since then, the heavy fragrance has spelled death for me. But now, in the company of my father, my sons and my husband, my childhood sense of foreboding disappeared. We were communing with our heritage.
We Found My Grandparents’ Stones
Names and dates etched in weathered stone became living people when my father told us what he remembered about those who lay buried beneath our feet. We found my grandparents’ stones. I recalled my first trip to this out-of-the-way town on Tennessee’s Highland Rim. It was the sultry August day we buried my grandad. I was 11 then. My grandmother was already gone. I never knew her.
Standing between his father’s and his grandfather’s graves, my father told us that, as a little boy, he lived across the street from his grandfather. A coveted cup of coffee, served by Grampa’s second wife, always awaited him there.
I could see him, slender, handsome, dark-haired, seeking haven from studies, from two sisters, maybe even from punishment for some real or imagined misdeed, and from the everyday existence of a young boy in the rural South. He and his grandfather talked about history and current events. My father loved history — to read it, to talk it. In the older man, my father found a kindred spirit. And vice versa.
My Dad, the Family’s Pride and Joy
A polite, well-behaved, rather serious young man, my dad was the family’s only boy — their pride and joy.
Once, he accompanied the family’s Negro cook to church. He was four and she was in charge of him that Sunday night. When the family didn’t return from the doin’s at the white Baptist Church when expected, she dressed my father in his Sunday best and the two of them walked to the evening service at the black Baptist Church down the road. He had a wonderful time. He was such a little gentleman, the congregation made a big to do over him.
My dad’s maternal grandfather owned a farm. My father loved to tell of his summers spent “farming.” His favorite tale was how he made two rather large, unusually shaped stacks of hay while the help were making several conventional stacks. A high wind came up that night and blew over all but his two. My mother, who was not into the joys of country life, snorted with amusement at that tale.
The Boys Treated to Soda Fountain ‘Co-Colas’
We left the graveyard and explored downtown, built like most small southern towns around a square with the county courthouse in the center. A cousin owned the drugstore on the square. We stopped in to visit and, while the boys devoured comic books and a “Co-cola,” we talked family. My personable salesman dad was in rare form.
Then we drove down West Main Street looking for the house where my dad grew up. He was in the front seat now, leaning forward against the seat belt, his eyes searching as we drove slowly down the street.
“There,” he said, pointing at the two-story white clapboard house on the right. We slowed and took in the great oak tree in the yard, the second story porch that ran the length of the front of the house. His gaze shifted to the smaller house across the street. “And that’s my grandfather’s house.”
We turned around and parked in front of the low iron fence that encircled the house that had been his grandfather’s. My dad looked longingly across the street at “his” house. A woman sat on the porch swing, reading a magazine. “Wait right here.” He got out of the car, crossed the street, walked up the walk for the first time in 51 years and spoke to the woman on the porch. We watched.
“She’ll Let Us See the Inside!”
Then he started back toward the car, his step — so slowed by age and illness — quicker, spryer than it had been in years. His face wore a broad smile, his green eyes danced with pleasure. “Come on,” he called to us, waving his thin hand, motioning for us to get out of the car. “This lady’s mother owns the house. She’ll let us see the inside.”
The boys scrambled out and ran to him, each one taking a hand. The three of them crossed the street, the boys, in their exuberance, pulling their grandfather along.
The welcome cool of central air greeted us as we crossed the threshold. We let our eyes adjust to the semi darkness after the brightness of outdoors. The past opened up as we looked around. The furnishings were vintage 1930s, not unlike what he remembered. My dad was at home.
Upstairs we saw his bedroom, his bookcases, the windows through which he could see across the street to Grampa’s. We saw his sisters’ rooms. Descending the staircase, he told us of his older sister’s wedding — held right there in the house. She walked down that very staircase on her father’s arm to wed the funeral director.
In the Shade of the Giant Elm
Later we stood outside in the shade of the giant elm tree with the smell of the now friendly boxwood all around. My dad and our hostess reminisced about people in the town—living and dead. He was reluctant to let that magic moment get away. Even with two young adoring boys pestering and pulling at him, he remained, as always, serene and unhurried, the gentleman scholar-historian reaffirming his roots.
With one last look, one last wave, we piled into the car and headed back to tell my mother, my uncle, but most particularly my two aunts what all we had done, had seen, had learned, had experienced.
He lived four more years, but I think, after that day, he was ready. And my sons, today, have a better understanding and appreciation of the man who used to tell them stories of when he was a boy their age — of stacking hay, of having coffee with grownups, and of long talks with his grandfather, a very long time ago