A special day of understanding

Published 4:26 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2009

“One day, when you have kids, you will understand.”

It was one of those cryptic statements that my dad would make that would occasionally drive me crazy. What was it that I didn’t understand now, I would think in that typical teenage know-it-all fashion? I was the first of three and was perhaps half as smart as I thought I was.

Today I made one of my few trips back to my old hometown of Cottonwood, Ala. It is always a bit depressing as the town continues to decline like 10s of thousands of small towns across the South. The home I grew up in is well maintained, but seems smaller with each passing year. My grandparent’s home, which once seemed so massive and grand, now sits vacant. Like all old homes, it shows its age faster and faster with only my memories to remind me of what great times were had there.

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ML always goes with me to the cemetery on Father’s Day where we put flowers on their graves. My father and my grandfather, the two greatest male influences of my life, lay under the huge oak that shades the family plot. The memories flood through my mind quickly. Some are the same each time I visit; some are new, freshly mined from deep in my memory because of some current event.

My grandfather was my hero, a larger-than-life figure in the small town. I thought he could do no wrong as a boy, and delighted in his many stories of growing up and raising a family in the Depression. He called me “Boy,” but then I guess he called all his grandsons by the name. He was a hard man, but my greatest memory of him is the tender way he cared for my grandmother during the last years of her life.

“My Dearest Catherine,” his love letters to my grandmother we later discovered would begin. They were married 66 years and though I never heard him say those words from his youth, I saw him live them out through their many years together.

My father worked for my grandfather for many years. My dad worked just as hard, but had more compassion, a more gentle heart. He expected a lot from me and my siblings, but was willing to give a poor soul down on their luck a third or fourth chance.

“If I don’t give them a second chance, then who will,” he would say as we rolled our eyes.

He called me “Bubba,” the only person alive who could get away with calling me that.

My dad loved my mom, and they showed it in front of their children for their 48 years together. When cancer cut his life short, he showed me courage, faith and strength in ways that continue to amaze me eight years later.

It was then, during some of our last times together, that he brought up the phrase he had used when I was younger, “One day, when you have kids, you will understand.”

The difference was that he was no longer talking about raising a child with tough love, discipline and a hard-work ethic. Instead, he was talking about how much he loved his grandchildren and how that was the only regret he had about his life ending.

He would miss seeing them grow up and marry and have children. He knew my mother would be fine, and that his children would be OK, but he was going to miss seeing his grandchildren.

“One day you’ll understand.”

We finished our dinner Saturday night at The Pond House. It seemed like everyone in Seminole and Decatur counties had the same idea about going out to eat for Father’s Day. My daughters, son-in-law, Mary Lou and of course, my grandson, Henry, were there.

It was just a totally delightful evening, made even more so by the fact that Henry is enjoying his grandfather more and more. He sat by me, played and laughed and talked in ways I am sure no other children have ever done. He let me carry him around and show him off to all the older people who must have been like me at some point in their lives.

Elizabeth sat at the table, seven months pregnant with my first granddaughter who will be named Laura. Her husband was off on what will probably be his last guy’s golf weekend for a very long time. What a perfect setting for a Father’s Day celebration.

I went to pay the bill (a treat for fathers on Father’s Day) while the family went outside. As I walked outside there were still people waiting. Completely across the lawn, ML told Henry, “There’s Granddaddy.”

For the first time in his life, he took off running for me. Running away from his parents, his grandmother, his toys and all that comforts a baby. He ran as hard as he could right for me, with his arms outstretched and a huge grin on his face. Henry ran into my arms where he stayed until they left to go home.

I realized that I finally understand what my father was telling me about grandchildren. I remember my own children running to him. I just didn’t know how much it meant.

“I understand, Dad.” I said as I placed the flowers and I knew that he heard me. One day, I’ll tell Henry and Laura about the most compassionate man I ever knew and about my hero and I am sure I’ll tell them that one day, when they have kids, they will understand.