A father's best gift is this: Being there

My Granddaddy lived in a small trailer behind the house. He was always there, farming the three back acres. I followed him on his rounds as he inspected the crops, and sometimes he took me or a brother or sister with him on his little green tractor as he did the plowing.

He showed us how to plant beans or corn, how to tell the difference between weeds and plants. He taught us how to thump watermelons to see if they were ripe. We learned how to tell whether the peas and beans were big enough, inside their pods, to pick; how to tell from the color of the silk whether the corn was ripe. He called the corn ears “roashneers,” or “roasting ears.”

Big, strong, rough

He never planted tobacco or cotton. When my brother asked him why, he said that those crops ruin the land, and land is too valuable to ruin.

My brother recalls that Granddaddy never told him how to live, but showed him how to live. He was tolerant in an intolerant society. He paid his debts and never wished for more than he had.

He was, in a way, like that old pine tree in the back yard – big, strong, rough. He filled the sky. We liked to visit with him and hear him talk, although we don't remember what about anymore. We just wanted to be around him.

That could be dangerous, though. I was right there to “help” when he built the shed for his tractor. He wasn't the world's best carpenter, so the whole thing came crashing down. I ended up with a broken shoulder, and an itchy cast that went from neck to wrist. But I wasn't cured of following him.

He even took me fishing once. I had to dig my own worms, but he put them on the hook. There was no pole – just a line, dropped off an old bridge, somewhere in the depths of Pamlico County. I caught two fish and he took three.

My sister recalls that Granddaddy always had time for her, as well. A typical adventure was an expedition into the woods to pick out a tree, that he helped replant in the back yard. She got a million chigger bites.

Every so often, Granddaddy would decide to restock the chicken pen, and we'd all go down to the hatchery. The hatchery was a wonderful place. It wasn't just a hatchery, but a feed and farm supply store. There was grain dust in the air and on the floor. There were barrels of feed you could stick your arms in, up to the elbows, and wiggle your fingers. I remember that it smelled of fresh-ground corn, with a whiff of chicken manure here and there.

We always got a mixed batch of chickens. A batch of pullets went for $.30 a head; roosters went for $.10 a head; and a mixed batch went for $.15 a head. They came in a flat, square box of thin cardboard, with quarter-sized holes.

We would bring them home and set them in the kitchen next to the gas stove for a few days, so we could be sure they were all right. Then Granddaddy would put them in the biddy pen until they were big enough for the regular chicken yard.

Perhaps because I took it so much for granted, I never noticed when the old pine tree lost all its needles. One day, some guys came and cut it down. It had always been there. And then it wasn't. Its absence left a hole in the sky.

One day, my mother went out to Granddaddy's trailer and found that he had died of a heart attack while tying on his work boots. I had taken him as much for granted as that old pine tree. Like it, he had always been there. And then, he wasn't. His absence left a hole in our lives.

Ideal of a man

My grandfather formed my ideal of what a man, what a father, ought to be, and I have been very fortunate in having found such men.

I will never forget my husband's terror when his son arrived two months early; he tried to follow the helicopter that whisked him away to the neonatal emergency center in his car. He needed to be there for his son, and he has always been there.

My son is now a dad himself. The best picture I have shows him cradling his tiny infant daughter, born with a heart defect, with an oxygen tube in her nose, as though she were the earth's greatest treasure.

And so, this Father's Day, I'd like to thank all the dads out there, for the most precious gift they can give: Being there.