The Grandfather Clause

The thing I remember most about that day is the smell of burnt popcorn. Not that I have any trouble remembering that day. But now, every time I smell burnt popcorn, I think of him.

“Dang it!” he said, opening the door to the microwave. “This ain’t mine, that’s why I don’t hardly know how to work it. Built a radio from old scraps when I was fourteen, and now I can’t even make a goddang bowl of popcorn. Excuse my language. Not used to having a girl-or woman-around.”

It took me nineteen years and forty-five minutes to find him. I spent the nineteen years thinking about it and the forty-five minutes on my lap top. I knew that his name was Nathaniel Randolph Douglas, that he’d fought in World War II, and that he’s married my grandmother in 1946 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Apparently, that, an Internet connection, and a credit card was all I needed.

“That’s okay,” I said, “we don’t have to have popcorn.”

“Well, here, at least have a cold drink,” he said, handing me a can of soda. “Great day, it’s hot out!” he said, fanning himself with a church program from 1983.

I hadn’t told anybody that I wa going to see him, except for my boyfriend. And my best friend. And a few other close friends. Okay, Mom, Grandma, Uncle Leon, and Uncle Miles were the only ones I didn’t tell. I couldn’t bring myself to ask them anymore questions about the husband who left and the father they never really knew.

“Wasn’t too much traffic, huh?” he asked. “What’d it take, six, seven hours?”

“Yeah, about seven,” I answered. “I stopped for lunch.”

“Mmm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, ‘member I drove down here from New York once. Had to be fifty years ago. Me and my brother was in a big ol’ Ford. That thing didn’t even have no seatbelts, no air, no nothing.”

“What were you doing in New York?” I asked, taking out my notepad.

“Ah, a li’l of this, a li’l of that. Me and Big Mo, that’s my brother, we took whatever work we could find, washing dishes, stacking boxes, workin’ in the factories. You know, back then, wasn’t like it is now.”

“And when was this?”

“Oh, had to be, I don’t knowâÂ?¦ ’40? ’41?

Before he met Grandma. It’s funny, but until then, I’d never really thought about his life before becoming a husband.

“Before you went to war?” I asked.

“Yup. Didn’t join up until ’43. After my brother died.”

“Big Mo?”

“Naw, I had me four brothers and one sister. R.J., the one that died in the war, he was the oldest. Then there was Dennis, Davis, Big Mo, me, and Bitsy. Her real name’s Alice, but we used to call her Little Bit, and now everyone just calls her Bitsy. She the only one still alive, but me. She and her husband don’t live too far from here. This here’s her son Joe’s house. Joe’s my favorite nephew. ‘Course I don’ tell none of the others that.”

I scribbled information down furiously, trying to construct some sort of family tree.

“So, your parents had five kids?”

“Yup. Five kids in a little four room house.”

“What were their names, you parents?”

“Uh, my daddy’s name was Rufus. Rufus James. He died back inâÂ?¦’71. Mama’s name was Dora. She lived a long time. Was damn near a hundred when she died. That wasn’t too long ago. 1998.”

He didn’t remember. I’d met Dora, once, nineteen years ago. She gave us lemonade. But I didn’t want to think about that day.

“How did they meet?” I asked.

“He thought for a moment, then disappeared down the hall. A few minutes later he came back with a hatbox. He opened it.

“Wow,” I said.

“They was Mama’s,” he said. “She had more, but Bitsy’s got the rest.”

Inside the hatbox were dozens of pictures. Some fairly recent, men and women with afros and smiles. Others were so old they were barely more than faded brown ghosts. He picked a picture and handed it to me.

“Taken on their wedding day,” he said, pointing to the couple in the picture. Dora was a pretty brown woman with warm eyes. Rufus was tall, handsome, and so light, he looked almost white.

“His mama, Miss Caroline, was three quarters white,” he said, reading my mind. “And his daddy, they say he was half slave, half Cherokee. But he died when my daddy was jus’ a baby.

“So, Miss Caroline’s father was white?” I asked. He laughed bitterly.

“Anna Rose was Miss Caroline’s mama. She was a slave on the Turner plantation. Master Turner was Miss Caroline’s father.”

I nodded. There wasn’t really anything more that he needed to say. It seemed ridiculous that as slaves, my ancestors had to ignoring the truth that everyone could see. Equally as ridiculous, I suppose, as we were now, ignoring the truth of the last 50 years.

“That was taken before I was born, up in Harlem,” he said, handing me another photo. The words on the back read: “Caroline, Harlem, 1921.” She stared straight ahead into the camera lens, with dark eyes and an iron jaw.

“Miss Caroline, she didn’t take no mess,” he said, chuckling to himself. “Had eight kids, but only four made it to be grown. My daddy was her baby boy. She was hard on us, but she loved us kids. Even when times was hard, she made sure that our parents could keep clothes on our backs and food on the table. All told she had seventeen grandchildren, and every year until she died, she sent each one of us a dollar on our birthday.” He smiled fondly at the memory.

“And she was born a slave in North Carolina?” I asked.

“Mmm-hmm. Anna Rose had three children by that man Turner. Then, when the war was over, she married another man and they had more kids of their own.”

“What about Anna Rose? Where was she from?”

“Don’t really know,” he said, with a sigh. “She was sold away from her mama when she was jus’ a kid. She was like Miss Caroline, one of the master’s children that nobody talked about. But her Mistress didn’t like having her their, right under her nose. So, she sold all of them children away. They never saw their families again. She came to work at the Turner plantation and the rest is history.”

I went through the pictures in silence for a while, absorbing the images, the faces and places from another time.

“And your mother? Dora?” I asked.

“Don’t know too much about that side of the family,” he said, opening the fridge. A welcome blast of cold air hit my face. “Want another soda?”

“No, thanks.”

“Well,” he began, closing the door, “her parents were Gramma and Grampa Cooke. Her people were from around here, his were from up north somewhere. Sorry I can’t tell you more about them. I don’t even have no pictures to show you. They in one of the boxes over at Bitsy’s.”

I nodded. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask about the past that wouldn’t open someone’s old wound.

“So, doesâÂ?¦does anybody know you’re here?” he asked. By anybody, I knew he meant Gramdma, Mom, or one of my uncles. I shook my head no. He just nodded.

“You staying down here, right? You ain’t gonna try and drive all the way back up to New York now, are you?”

“No, I’m going to stay at a hotel and drive back tomorrow.”

“Good. That’s good.”

We sat in awkward silence for a few moments. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe I was so nervous. He was just a tired old man, I reminded myself. There’s nothing to be afraid of. He can’t hurt you if you don’t let him.

“I want to meet Bitsy,” I said, firmly. I left no room for discussion, no room for argument. He looked surprised, then nodded slowly.

“I s’posed you might,” he said. “She probably out with her church group tonight, but you could come back tomorrow.”

“Okay, I will,” I said, getting up to leave. “I’ll come by around 11 o’clock. Is that okay with you?”

“Sure, sure, I’ll be here,” he said. But we both knew that he wouldn’t.

“Can I keep one of these?” I asked, picking up a picture. I turned it over. On the back it said: “The Randolph Family, 1936.” There he was, at the end of the row, probably around 11 years old. His face still held the innocence of a boy. Traces of it still lingered in the face in front of me.

“Sure, you keep it,” he said.

I went outside, got into my car, and back down the dusty driveway. When I got to the road, I tried in vain to resist the urge to turn and look back. He was still there, waving to me from the doorway. I waved back and drove away.

The next morning I showed up precisely at 11 o’clock. I rang the doorbell and knocked. Then, I sat down on the porch, watching the road. I sat there for two hours. Nineteen years ago I’d done the same thing, except that time, there were seven of us: Grandma, Mom, Uncle Leon, Uncle Miles, my brother Brandon, my cousin Gail, and me.

It was August. Humid, hot, and sticky. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we all piled into Mom’s station wagon and drove to this small country town outside of Richmond. Brandon and I sat in the third row, facing backward, staring out the rear window as the tires kicked up dust.

When we got here, he was working out in the yard. He looked up as we pulled into the driveway and slowly piled out of the car. I held my hands up to shield my eyes from the afternoon sun. He was tall, like Uncle Leon, and balding, like Uncle Miles.

All of us just stood there, like a family of statues. He shuffled across the lawn slowly, looking us over. After a moment, he turned to Grandma and asked, “What’d you bring them here for?”

It was the last thing I’d expected to hear from him, but no one else seemed too surprised. He hadn’t seen his kids in twenty years, and he’d never met his grandchildren, yet our presence barely seemed to faze him.

“Oh, Lord have mercy! Dora, bring those babies up into the house!” I looked up to see my great-grandmother standing on the porch. We followed her into the house, which was refreshingly cool.

“Sit down, talk to me,” she said, as we gathered around the kitchen.

“I’ma run out an’ get some sodas for the kids,” he said, edging his way towards the door. I watched over my shoulder as he got into an old blue Nova and drove away. He didn’t come back.

I sat on the porch, staring at the same driveway, wondering what I was doing there. I knew he’d come back eventually, and I could wait. I knew that Aunt Bitsy lived just down the road and that she might have some answers. But I’d heard many versions of the story over the years, sometimes he was an alcoholic, sometimes it had to do with drugs. Some people said that he beat them, or that he had a woman on the side, or that he just couldn’t take the responsibility. I knew I’d probably never know the truth about why he left, but if I was going to hear his side of the story, I only wanted to hear it from him.

I decided that it was his loss, but I couldn’t decide if he just didn’t care about us or if contacting us, finding out who his children had become, was just too painful. At some point during the seven hour drive home, I settled on the former.

But two months later, I received a card on my thirtieth birthday. It had no name, no return address, and the only thing inside was a single dollar bill.

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