Sack Full of Dreams
The bag made a thud as it crashed to the floor from its perch on the edge of the table, startling Edward, nearly causing him to drop the pan of chicken he had spent so much time seasoning. He placed the pan on the counter and turned to see his son, Tyrell, scooping spilling books into his arms, as he slung the newly-broken bag unto his shoulder.
“What’s going on Rell, packed a little light this trip huh?”
The young man looked up at his father and smiled, embarrassed at his bag breaking, at the load he was carrying, and nodded his head.
“Do you need all of those books, you’re only going to be here for three days?”
“Yes, I’ve got to carry my sack full of dreams everywhere I go these days if I’m going to pass the bar.”
Edward stopped and stared at his son, almost as if he was unsure of what he just heard. He knew Tyrell was in law school, he’d been receiving tuition bills for the last seven years, but something sounded different this time around.
“What did you say?”
“I’ve gotta study if I want to pass the bar pops.”
“No, before that, what did you call your bag and books.”
“Oh, my sack full of dreams. These are the books, notes and cases that are going to make me a great lawyer.”
Edward nodded as if he was confirming something, but Tyrell looked on, confused by the line of questions.
“What is it pops?”
“Oh, nothing, it’s just something your grandfather used to say. He would say that he came North from Alabama with $80 and a sack full of dreams.”
The two men looked at one another. Edward was studying his father’s face in his son’s; Tyrell was recalling a face he only knew from photos in his father’s features. There were answers each had for the other, but they didn’t know the questions.
“What was he like Pops?”
Edward smiled. Then came a look Rell saw on his father’s face. Pain. He’s never seen his father cry, never heard him complain, and never seen him look hurt. But the expression his father’s face held was unrecognizable. And uncomfortable.
To Rell, his father was a “man’s man”, strong, silent, hard-working. He’d learned so much about that type in life, but his father seemed to be those things and so much more. He wasn’t an emotional man, but he loved deeply. But his children didn’t always see it in the ways they needed. Rell always attributed it to the way his father was raised. It wasn’t something he knew much about but felt close to.
“My father was many things. He was strong, he worked hard and would hit you pretty hard if you didn’t do your chores or talked back to him. Or, thinking your shit don’t stink as he would always say. When I announced that I was enlisting in the army, he said, ‘You think your shit don’t stink, but Uncle Sam gonna learn ya’.
“I would always ask my mama why he didn’t love me? She would look at me plainly and say he’s here ain’t he? So many of my buddy's daddies didn’t live in the house, some didn’t know their father at all, so having mine there with me had to mean he loved me. He loved me enough to stay, loved me enough to discipline me, and loved me enough to try to tell me once or twice.”
Rell shifted in his seat, he waited most of his twenty-five years for his father to be vulnerable with him.
“Your granddaddy left Alabama in 1956 with the Klan on his heels. He was right about your age. He had a job in an iron factory. He worked on the line for two years. The best there ever was if you let him it. One day, he was told he was the new iron pourer on account of John Gibson getting hurt on the job. Being iron pourer meant he would make an extra $10 a week. It was considered a white man’s job around the plant.
“Well, payday came that week and his check was short ten dollars. He went to the head man and asked about his pay raise. The head man looked at him and laughed, told him that niggers don’t get pay raises. Your granddaddy told me that he was a stowaway on a train North before that man hit the ground.”
Edward pulled out a chair at the table but didn’t sit. Instead, he moved further away from his son. Tyrell took this to signal the end of the conversation, the end of his father’s vulnerability.
“He threw a few things in a pillowcase and took all the money he had, about $80, and took off. He made it all the way to Petersburg, VA before anyone saw him. They threw him off the train and he picked up some work here and there. Nothing too serious, nothing that allowed him to plant his feet. He always said he felt Jim Crow didn’t allow him to be the man he was born to be. So, he took off again, spent some time in West Virginia, and eventually, he landed in Baltimore. That’s where he met my mother. That was ‘65, ‘66, she was a sophomore at Morgan State, and he was working in the cafeteria.”
“Wait, that would make him like 35?”
“At least. He never really knew what year he was born. He didn’t really have much schooling either. Everything he learned was on account of having seen it done first.”
“So, he couldn’t read?”
“I guess he knew his name, a few other words here and there, but definitely ‘Whites Only’.”
Tyrell started to ask a question but the reality of being illiterate in the Jim Crow South settled in his chest.
“He said it was love at first sight for him, but it took Mama two years to see him looking. He gave her extra mashed potatoes, yams, potato salad, whatever he was serving. He said she needed some meat on her bones to be his woman, but she’ll tell you he was trying to get her attention.”
“For two years?”
“Well, he was married?”
“Yes sir. He left a wife in Alabama, met another in Virginia, and left her in Maryland when he came chasing after my mama. Left a trail of kids from Birmingham to Philadelphia.”
“It doesn’t seem like he was a good man, Pops?”
“Ain’t for me to say, son. He was my father and he did the best he could with what he knew. And that wasn’t too much.”
Edward grabbed his pan of chicken and headed out the back door to his grill. Tyrell remembered his question but decided it may be best unanswered. The pile of books in front of him could never teach him what he just learned about life.