When my father left for the war, I was almost seven years old. I couldn’t understand why he went—it had something to do with slaves. I thought about him a lot, mostly at night when the fire crackled on the hearth. Mother would sit in her chair, mending or knitting. We didn’t talk much in the evenings, but I knew she was thinking about him too.
Sometimes I tried to remember what he looked like. I knew he had black hair and strong, thick eyebrows, but maybe that’s because of his picture on the mantel. One thing I remembered for sure was picking plums together.
The meadow had high grass and as soon as we reached the trees, he’d swing me up onto his shoulders. When I think about it really hard, I can still feel his strong hands clasped around my ankles, balancing me. He never dropped me, and I felt safe and really tall up there.
“Pick the juicy ones, Tyler,” he’d laugh. “Make sure they’re firm.”
I’d stretch higher with one hand on his head, jiggling. I’d grab a plum, pull, and then throw it down into mother’s outstretched apron. She’d catch it and laugh. Those were happy times.
Now, after four years, a father I could barely remember was coming home.
It was a bright, sunny morning and I knelt on the soft brown dirt, thinning carrots. Mother was at the washtub behind the house. I pulled a carrot from the ground and drew it through my hand, rubbing off the loose soil. Then I plopped it into a willow basket beside me. Beads of sweat rolled down my face, so I paused to push back my hair.
I glanced once toward the road … then looked again. Can it be my imagination? I wondered. Nowadays hardly anyone comes along our road. I cautiously picked up the basket and, without taking my eyes off the road, headed for the house.
“Mother,” I said quietly. “Someone is coming.” I placed the basket on the bench by the table and nodded toward the road.
She swept her hand across her forehead and placed the other on my shoulder. As the figure drew nearer, she shielded her eyes and squinted into the sun. “Tyler,” she said, “get the rifle.”
I ran into the other room and lifted the rifle down from its place over the fireplace. Mother removed her apron and smoothed her hair. Carefully, I loaded the gun while she went to the window.
“It could be friend or foe,” she said quietly. “These are hard times. Show the rifle, Tyler, but don’t shoot unless need be.”
We walked to the door and my hands began to sweat against the wooden stock of the rifle. I wiped them on my trousers as we stepped out onto the porch. Whoever it was walked with the aid of crutches, and one pant leg was pinned up.
“He’s crippled,” Mother whispered. “Still, be on your guard.”
My heart pounded wildly. The cripple hobbled closer and at last paused at our gate. He stood panting with his head down, and his tattered blue uniform heaved with every gasp for air. Slowly Mother and I walked toward the gate. As we did so, the man raised his head. Tears were streaming down his dust-covered cheeks, and a weary smile lighted his face.
Mother suddenly gasped, then, with a deep sob, she rushed into the man’s outstretched arms. He rocked back and forth on the crutches as they swayed in a close embrace. My mouth dropped open and my grip relaxed as I lowered the heavy rifle to arm’s length.
Mother turned toward me and held out an arm. “Come, Tyler, your father’s home.”
Later that night Father sat in the chair by the fireplace, and Mother sat on a stool near his side. I curled up against the side of the mantelpiece, where I watched him from the shadows. Father’s hair was sprinkled with streaks of silver, and his face was like the rest of him—thin and shrunken. I couldn’t imagine how he had ever been able to swing me up onto his shoulders. And though I am ashamed to admit it, I almost wished he hadn’t come back. I excused myself early and left them to each other.
The following day I went about my usual chores. How can someone have changed so much! I wondered incredulously. Mother and I have gotten along well without him. Now he’s back with crutches and shoulders that droop like an old man’s. I kicked at a clump of dirt and looked up to see him swinging toward me across the grass. He was smiling, palely, weakly.
“Morning, Tyler,” he called.
“Morning, sir,” I mumbled.
He took a deep breath. “You’ve done well,” he said and nodded approval as he surveyed the plot with a sweeping glance. “Now that I’m home, we can grow more.”
I glanced up at him with blazing eyes. A one-legged planter! I thought.
He smiled as he eased himself down onto a fallen log. “Come on, son, sit here. Let’s talk. You and your mother have had a rough time while I was gone. For that, I’m sorry, son,” he began quietly. “Perhaps you don’t understand why I had to leave, but sometimes you have to stand up for what you know is right. Sometimes you have to fight. A lot of men lost their lives; I only lost a leg.” He patted the stump of his leg. “I was lucky. And I’m home now, Tyler. Can’t we be as we were?”
“I don’t even know you anymore!” I replied harshly. “Why did you leave us?”
“To fight for freedom, Tyler.”
“We were free!” I insisted.
“Only when all are free can any be. There were slaves, Tyler—whole families who were owned by other people. No one has the right to own another person. God made us all free, and if we don’t stand up for our brother’s freedom, how can we ever expect him to stand up for ours?”
“You’re not much good at standing now!” I lashed out. Then I saw the hurt in his eyes. I was sorry I had spoken so quickly and without feeling. “Father,” I began.
But he touched my arm and smiled. “It’s all right, Tyler. I know you resent how I look and what I’ve become. It was hard coming home like this, but I am your father and I love you very much. Please try to see beyond what I lack and look instead at what I want to be.”
My chin quivered and I turned abruptly to bury my face in his shoulder. “I do love you, Father,” I sobbed. “And I’m glad you’ve come home.”
“I’m glad too, Tyler. I was away a long time. But my love never changed,” he said.
We sat quietly talking, then Mother called, and he reached for his crutches.
“Here, Father,” I offered, “let me help you.”