Stories Of The South: My Father And Me
At last, I had seen my father's boyhood home.
It was a sudden realization that warm July even as I sat on the patio of my parents’ home. We had been laughing through the family photo albums again and I had noticed the old photo of a baby learning to walk between his father’s legs. The tall, slender father was looking down at the chubby son, who was grasping his father’s pants as he put one unsteady foot in front of the other. Turning my attention from the album, I glanced at my 6-month old daughter, trying to steady herself in her scooter.
Having a child of one’s own makes one look with concern to the future, but at that moment I was reflecting upon the past, the past in that photograph. “Dad, “ I said. “Do you realize I have never seen the house where you were born?” He looked up from his paper, and I wondered if he found this fact as startling as I.
Many children, I suppose, never have the opportunity to see where their parents were born or where they grew up, but the fact that I never had was odd—by vocation my father is a pediatrician, but his hobby is genealogy. His professional knowledge of our family history goes several centuries beyond those decades of practicing medicine. His study in our home is filled with images of familiar faces hanging well displayed on crowded walls. My childhood memories are of trips to antebellum mansions and obscure country graveyards, searching for names, dates, and folklore. So how had I grown up surrounded by musty diaries, faded daguerreotypes, and stories of great-greats but never even seen where my father was born?
“Would you take us?” I asked eagerly. He seemed interested, even pleased, and agreed.
The trip through Birmingham to Wylam was not long—out Third Avenue West to Central Park. My father acted as tour guide along the way, stopping in Oakland Cemetery to show us the family plot. We approached the steel mills, their abandoned towers still dominating the skyline. They were once the heartbeat of Birmingham and the life of the people whose modest mill homes we now passed. We turned at the coal yard and entered the gentle rise and fall of the streets of Wylam. My father glanced left and right, trying to find his sense of direction.
We drove up one hill and down another and finally, as we began another descent, Dad said simply, “Now—there it is.” There was no excitement in his voice, only satisfaction. The house was small, plain. It seemed in good condition; the yard was neat and the white paint fresh.
I glanced at the driveway. It was there the old picture of my father taking his first steps had been made.
We pulled over in front of the driveway. Gesturing from the window of the car, my father was describing the rooms inside the house when we noticed the neighbor. He was sitting on his porch next door, watching us.
My father shouted, “Are you Parks? “The man sat up on the edge of his chair in affirmation. “Well,” called my father, “I’m Caldwell! I was born here!” At that, the neighbor cursed excitedly and leapt from his porch toward our car. My father met him halfway across the yard, and they shook hands like long-lost brothers. For the next 30 minutes we walked around the house, peering through locked doors and windows, listening to what had happened to my father’s house since his mother sold it and moved to Huntsville more than 30 years ago.
We walked around the house several times before finally saying goodbye to Mr. Parks and pulling away from the curb. As we turned onto Seventh Avenue we passed boarded up businesses and the drugstore where my father had worked as a teen. I remember my father telling me how he used to go straight to that drugstore after school, work till very late, and wake up at 5 a.m. to complete his homework for school the next day.
Of all the feelings I remember having during this visit, the one I recognized first was guilt. It was guilt for all the luxuries my father’s intelligence and hard work had provided for me as I grew up, advantages turned into mere “things” because I had taken them so for granted—my own room, my own car, a college education, a beautiful wedding. It was guilt because I had actually seen for the first time the tiny room my father had shared with two brothers in the home he had helped provide for at such a young age.
It was guilt mixed with a sadness for times of the past, when it seemed that people like my father worked harder for what they earned and took time and money much less for granted. And then came concern, concern for my daughter. Would I be able to provide for her as well as I had been provided for? Would she learn the values that had been taught in that home and pass them on to her children?
Suddenly, I was sad that I was no longer my father’s little girl. I wished we both weren’t growing older together. And finally, as we again passed the darkness of the deserted coal yard to return home, the guilt-turned-sadness-turned-concern melted into a deep sense of love, a love that cannot be expressed because it is gratitude, respect, and admiration all mixed together with reflection on the memories that made that love mature.
At last, I had seen my father’s boyhood home. The house was locked, but I learned that day that memories need no keys.