By MARY HOOD HART
Growing up, I was blessed to live near my grandparents. My mother’s mother, a widow, lived in the house behind ours. My father’s parents lived on our street, in the next block. Not only was I blessed to have my grandparents near, I was also blessed to spend a lot of time with them in their homes.
Some of my most vivid memories revolve around those times with my grandparents. When I was contemplating ideas for a Father’s Day column, thoughts of my grandfather first came to mind. One particular ritual we shared when I was about 6 or 7 stands out clearly. When I was ready to go home, after staying for supper at my grandparents’ house, if it was past dark, my grandfather would walk me to the corner of the block. When we reached the corner, he would stand waiting, as I dashed the rest of the way home through the darkness. The distance I traveled alone was only half a block, but I would run as fast as I could, and when I got to my front door, I’d catch my breath then yell: “Good night, Grandaddy!” That was his signal I had arrived safely, and he could turn to go.
This little ritual my grandfather and I shared has existed in my memory for over 30 years. And it occurred to me only now that I remember it so clearly because it was symbolic of my relationship with my grandfather. When he would take my hand in his large one — he was a tall, strong man — and we headed down the street, illuminated by a single street light and the porch lights of neighbors’ houses, I felt completely secure in his presence. Yet, when we reached the corner, where Grandaddy and I parted, I ran the rest of the way as fast as I could — imagining something wild and shadowy was chasing me or the bogeyman was poised to leap from the bushes. I always arrived home safely. And I always knew Grandaddy was standing on the corner listening. I needed only to call for his help, and he’d be there in moments to rescue me. But, of course, I never needed him. And each evening, I would end our ritual by triumphantly hollering “Good night!”
My grandfather could easily have walked me all the way home. The distance I traveled alone was short. But it occurs to me now that Grandaddy must have known it was good for me to make that last part of the journey alone. In the security of his watchful presence, I was allowed a taste of independence, a chance to dash safely through the scary dark.
Such is the unique relationship that exists between fathers and their children, and grandfathers and grandchildren, too, as my childhood memory illustrates. While mothers and grandmothers are usually the nurturers, the ones who make sure children are bundled up, tucked in, well-nourished, fathers and grandfathers encourage risk taking, summon courage, test abilities. Contrary to some feminist opinions, men do not necessarily dominate, exert control. In fact, loving fathers actually empower their children, especially their daughters, by encouraging independence, a love for adventure.
Had my grandmother walked me home, she would have made sure I was escorted safely to my door. There would be no running through the dark. But my grandfather’s way, while less cautious, was wiser in the end. Though ensuring my safety, he allowed me the sweet taste of independence.
At times, when caring for our children, my husband hasn’t followed precautions that meet my standards. Although not negligent, he is definitely more relaxed than I am about the children’s well-being. Yet in his more liberal care, the children have never been endangered; indeed, they have discovered new capabilities, enjoyed small adventures, felt the shivers that come from doing something a little risky. Just as I was running through the dark while my grandfather kept vigil on the corner — and as we all are with our heavenly Father — in their father’s care, my children taste the joy of independence, yet they trust a strong and loving presence to be ever near.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.