My dad was born on the 4th of July in 1943. His mother did not survive the birth. His father, Emerald, a union carpenter with an eighth grade education, had to send his newborn son to live with my great grandmother. Eighteen months later, Emerald met and married the woman my dad knows as his mother and together they took on the task of raising my dad, and eventually his three younger siblings as well.
When I think of my own story, it always starts with Emerald.
He was the fifth of nine children, including sisters Ruby and Pearl. The other six siblings have standard, non-gem names. If I had a time machine I just might use it to ask my great grandmother what inspired the gem streak right in the middle of her child-bearing years.To this day, my grandpa is the only Emerald I have ever met.
It’s fitting that he would have such a unique name, really, because there was no one else quite like him. Ever. He and my grandma essentially raised a couple of my cousins, filling in the gaps where their son was falling short, yet somehow they never uttered a single disparaging word about him. It takes a saint to do that. And on the other hand, I once heard him describe my cousin Jeannie as “ripe as hell” when I asked him how she seemed to be doing at college. You never had to wonder what Emerald thought - he’d tell you. It was that same man who made strawberry waffles every Christmas morning for anyone who showed up, which at their house was usually a lot of people. Emerald always had room for strays.
My mom was one of those strays once. One year she didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner, and she wound up at Emerald’s. Emerald looked her up and down and promptly, loudly, announced to my dad that he’d be an idiot if he didn’t ask her out. He’ll welcome you in, he’ll even make you a meal, but he’s not afraid to go full-on dirty old man on you, either. That’s my grandpa. That’s where my story starts.
He loved his family unconditionally and unapologetically. His own father had been a Seventh Day Adventist minister, but had walked out on the family when Emerald was a teenager, the oldest child still at home. I never talked to my grandpa about that, but it was obvious in the way he cared for his own wife and children that he had made up his mind to do the opposite, and never looked back. Family was everything to him. By the time he was in his 90’s and his repertoire of memories was dwindling, he kept cycling back to this one: “The greatest thing I ever did was marry Barbara, and have these 4 kids, and all you grandkids. I’m not a rich man but when I look at all of you I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.” If you spent five minutes with Emerald in his later years, you heard that one. Maybe twice. If you knew him, it wasn’t a surprise.
At Emerald’s memorial service last year my dad shared a story about him that I had heard a hundred times already, but as death has a way of doing, was suddenly fresh again. When my dad was a young boy, maybe six or seven, he attempted to steal a pack of balloons from the five-and-dime store on his walk home from school. He was a good kid, but he didn’t have any money and he figured that no one would notice. The shop keeper did notice, however, and stopped my dad before he made off with the balloons. My dad retrieved the stolen goods from his pocket as demanded, not fully understanding the consequences that might ensue. When the shopkeep asked him his name, he didn’t skip a beat before offering up his full first and last name. He was such a good kid it didn’t even occur to him to lie. It was a small town, so the store owner easily tracked down Emerald’s phone number and let him know what had happened. Needless to say, Emerald wasn’t pleased. When he got home that evening he confronted my dad with the news and promptly loaded him into the family car and drove him to the town jail. Yup, jail.
He gripped my dad’s arm and dragged him down the courthouse stairs until they reached the basement jail. Even today my dad says he remembers digging his heals in and yelling in protest. Emerald was unfazed.
“I want you to show this young boy where you put people who steal,” Emerald announced to the jail keeper.
My dad was terrified. He has never stolen anything since.
The story has always been a funny anecdote about simpler times, about life in a small town, about what a square my dad is. What I had never noticed, but saw for the very first time at the memorial service, was that it was a story about what a devoted dad Emerald was.
Dragging a six year-old to jail is a pain in the ass. I don’t know what Emerald had going on that day, but I know that he was a carpenter who was paid by the hour and a father with four kids needing attention at home. I know that taking my dad to jail hadn’t been a part of his plan when he woke up that morning. I know that he probably had a million other things vying for his time and attention. The easy thing to do would have been to reprimand my dad for taking the balloons, send him to his room, hand down a punishment that required little parental sacrifice. It was probably a 25 cent pack of balloons, and the store probably wasn’t going to miss it. Stakes were low.
But Emerald saw the bigger picture. He saw a threat to his mission to raise a good man. He saw an opportunity to teach his values. He saw an opportunity to draw near. And so he did the hard thing. He loaded his kid in the car and took him to jail when he could have just scolded him and sent him to his room. He took an hour or more out of his day when he could have dismissed the entire incident within a few minutes. He taught. He sacrificed. He loved, as fathers do.
When I think of my own story, it starts with that man. With that father. The one who raised my father, who draws near to me still. My father has loved me as fiercely as a human being can love, and in turn I grew up knowing that I was lovable, that I was valuable, that I was enough. With the those truths etched into my identity, I married a man who recognized and honored them, and who loves me entirely differently, yet just as fiercely.
As I watch my husband father our two boys today, I know that they are part of a living legacy of dads getting it right. On paper, Emerald is an unlikely patriarch for a legacy: Abandoned by his own dad, a high school dropout, a one-time widower with little more than manual labor skills to make his way in the world. But he knew how to love. He loved authentically and completely, as if his life depended on it. In some ways, maybe it did. That’s where my story starts. That’s the power of a father’s love.