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I Don’t Know My Dad, But I Had One Hell of a Grandfather

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Janelle Harris


In the quiet, lush backwoods of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there’s a little white rambler with red shutters perched atop a fairly steep hill. It looks like something cut and pasted from the front of a gift shop postcard, encircled by sky-high trees and surrounded by a sprawling yard that’s much prettier to look at than it is easy to mow. It’s the house my grandfather built, literally with his own hands.

Back when he was a young man with a gold tooth, a wavy conk, and a mischievous smile, he kept my Nana in the family way for five consecutive years to eventually produce four daughters and a son — the second to last in that string became my mama — and he knew his growing clan was going to need space. So after long, laborious days working at a steel mill, he would come home and construct the Harris homestead with the help of his brother and a few friends. No 5-hour Energy, no Red Bull, no jolts of caffeine from some fancy-pants Starbucks drink. His motivation came from the fact that he had a wife, four little ones, and another on the way to take care of, and he wanted them to have a home of their own to spread out in.

It took him about eight months to finish, my grandmother told me, and when he did, it had four small bedrooms, a two-car garage and a basement. He wasn’t thinking about grandbabies at the time he was building it, I’m sure. But a second and then a third generation of rambunctious Harrises eventually burned through there too to create a testament about its sturdiness, playing Ice Capades in our socks on the hardwood floors and daring each other to jump over the steps from the living room into the concrete garage.

The little house on the country road wasn’t anything big or fancy. And, because it looks the same way now that it did back in the late 1940s, it still isn’t. But it means everything to our family, especially to me. It’s a physical monument to the kind of man my Granddaddy was: a man who provided, a man who was honorable, a man who worked hard and didn’t mind or complain about it, a man who preferred to show you how much he loved you rather than get his emotions all tangled up in words.

I belong to that unfortunate fraternity of dismissed children whose fathers couldn’t be bothered to be daddies. I never laid eyes on that paternal mystery and, to my knowledge, he’s never expressed a desire to lay eyes on me. Once, not too long ago, his name popped up as a suggested friend on Facebook and I was so caught off guard, my beloved laptop went toppling to the floor. He is an enigma. But I never felt like I was missing out on anything because my grandfather, just by being himself, showed me what I should and could expect from a man. He is the standard by which I measure the dudes I considerdating, though that is an increasingly difficult comparison to make.

The memories closest to my heart about Granddaddy paint a picture of his awesomeness, even for a perfect stranger. He dutifully monitored my first wobbly efforts to pedal my two-wheeler, even after I careened over the poor man’s foot, little-girl-shrieked all in his ears and made him jog with one hand under the banana seat for my own comfort and security. He built me my very own swing, dangling from a favorite tree in that massive yard, and crafted a dollhouse for me that was an almost exact replica of the very one he’d constructed from the ground up decades before.

We danced to Charlie Parker in the dining room and watched boxing side-by-side on Saturday nights. I spent every weekend with my grandparents. Every single weekend. But I never minded. That’s how amazing they were, so amazing that a kid would give up sleepovers and school dances in the heart of the city to hang out with two old folks in the crux of the countryside.

I’ve been honoring a lot of people lately — my Nana, my best friend, and most recently, Zora Neale Hurston, who I revere like family — and today is the day the good Lord saw fit to call my grandfather home. I was only 12, so I could question whether I’m just romanticizing how fantastic he was since my pre-teen years are getting farther and farther (and unfortunately farther) behind me. But whenever I’m in that little town back in Pennsylvania and folks realize I’m a Harris, they tell me stories about how my grandfather helped them fix a car when they were stuck on the side of a road or how he made sure someone got home safely after they’d had too much bottom-shelf liquor at a family barbecue. He was a decorated World War II vet, but he was a local hero. And my hero.

I’ve noticed an increasing disconnect between younger folks and our elders, and it disappoints and saddens me. We can’t carve out time for a lot of things in schedules that have to be electronically managed because they’re so packed with comings-and-goings. I’m guilty of that myself. But I encourage you to spend time with your grandparents, your great-aunties and uncles and other seasoned people in your life.

I wish I could still sit at my grandparents’ feet and listen to how things were back when they were kids or retell stories their parents shared with them about times even farther back. But I can’t. So you do it for me. Love on your grandparents, y’all, if you’ve got them. And if yours have gone on like mine have, keep on singing their praises so they’re not forgotten. They’re as much a part of who we are as a people as the Nat Turners and Harriet Tubmans we’re going to spend all next month celebrating.


Clutch Magazine.


1 Comment

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