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 consider dating, 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.

  • Cocochanel31

    Tear! Absolutely beautiful testament to your grandfather!! YEs we must revere the old family members that we still have left while they are still here to smell the flowers!

  • Alexis Trass Walker

    I love this story. I didn’t know my maternal grandfather well…he died when I was also 12, and lived in Arkansas while I lived in Indiana.Your story is awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  • The Mighty Quinn

    As I read this story, boo hooing, I see is this almost my EXACT story but mine is set in the South and my Grandaddy bought his house playing numbers. The most amazing thing about my Grandaddy, all the years he would help out my single mother, is he really wasn’t my Grandaddy at all, he was my great uncle, married to my Bigmama (my grannys older sister). He had 9 of his own children and I don’t know HOW many actual grandkids, but he treated me better than his own. I guess my mom was the first single parent in the family..

    My granddaddy was a long shoreman and despite the fact that he lost one hand as a young teen (messing around with dynamite), he was always working and hustling a living when he retired. He asked me once “GUULLL when you gone get married?!!!” I said “When I find me a man like my Grandaddy!” to which he replied “OHHHH you ain’t gone find THAT!” So I said “Are you trying to say that when you were born in 1902, they broke the mold?” ……He said “YEEEEP, that’s what I’m sayin”.

    He was called home (after years of saying he was going home) in 2001, just months shy of his 100 birthday, so I can’t hug him for you but hopefully you can be soothed in your grief, that you have written this story that touches us all and those of us who lived the story are right there with you in grief. My sincerest condolences and blessings to you and your family.

  • The Comment

    Moving story. Great read.

  • Misshightower

    LUVVVVVV this story with all my heart! Oh the things I wish I could say to my grandfather. Take time NOW Clutchettes if he’s still with you!

  • datruth

    Most wonderful story! Reminds me of my Grandpa. . .who made a smoker out of a refrigerator. Smoked 4 turkeys and a pork roast and a coon! for a family reunion. He lo ed family and taught us great values! I miss him but he left valuable treasures for us to cherish!

  • Courtni A. Patterson

    Hit home and brought me to tears at the title. I’ve always felt so lucky to have a great grandfather. I never knew my dad and it was my grandfathers love that made sure I did not further become a statistic. That man was my everything, and I lost him coming up on two years this March. Great article!

  • victoria

    Great story. I too, was head over heels in love with my grandfather (he married my grandmother although she had 6 kids and raised them as his own). He loved his family. I miss him so much.

  • Elizabeth

    Aww all these stories are so emotional.I was very close to my maternal grandmother,however my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother died before I was born.My paternal grandfather was the opposite of yours he died when I was 10 and NOONE cried everyone just said “grandad’s dead”.I later learnt my dad didn’t grow up with his father and my grandmother left him when she was pregnant with my father due to his wishes to practice polygamy.My grandmother was the BEST though she died about 2 years ago last month.My favourite quotes by her were “don’t worry be happy”,”anyone who is not proud of their colour is not fit to live on this earth”(She was a dark skin Nigerian women who was against skin bleaching and believed everyone should just be happy with their complexion).

  • Pingback: I Don’t Know My Dad, But I Had One Hell of a Grandfather « The Bullet Pen

  • Change

    I just buried my grandfather yesterday. I’ve had 21 amazing years with him, and I cherished every moment we spent together until the very end. He was just pure fun to be around, and I use him as a standard when finding someone as well. It seems so unreal that he’s no longer with me, but I choose to cherish the memories instead of focusing on the loss. Thank you for writing this article.

  • Pat

    I can’t lie. This article is a bowing arrow that went straight to my heart. While my father was in my life, my granddaddy was my hero. And I was the apple of his eye. It is hard not to compare men to him. If I could go back to spend one day with him, I would ask him what made me so special? Out of 11 children of his own, roughly 30 grands prior to me, I was the princess within his world. I lost him at the tender age of 16, but was blessed with enough years to understand what the definition of a man is. What I remember most is he was a doer, a provider, dependable, and respected within the community. Others would call upon him, because they knew the job would get done. My granddaddy set the stage and because of him I could never settle for a man with lesser qualities or didn’t treat me as well.

    I really loved this article. So very well written and heartwarming—Thank you! I was in tears yesterday when I first read it.

  • Barbara2

    I loved reading about your grandfather. I had such a relationship with my maternal grandfather and my father. My father was awesome and so kind to his children, and took the the time to mentor other Black boys in our community.
    The love from a father is the best thing in the world. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  • Verity Reign

    Absolutely beautiful! So well written, I envisioned everything from the house to your grandfather to the kids playing. This brought back a ton of fond memories I have of my grands! Made me a bit emotional, even; but in a good way. Thanks, Janelle!

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