From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Father’s Secret

Home is the seminary of all other institutions.

Edwin Hubbell Chapin

I am frequently the brunt of family jokes because I have no sense of direction. Once, when we were discussing death and the hereafter, my son jokingly remarked, “Well, I certainly hope there are heavenly guides, Mother, otherwise, you will never find the way.”

I smiled and assured him that I wasn’t worried. “I’ll just watch for the hill with the privet hedge,” I said. When his eyebrows came together in a questioning frown, I hastened to tell him a story about my father.

Pop was raised in a fatherless home at a time when government assistance was unheard of. The family of five struggled mightily to survive. That Spartan upbringing caused my father to be extremely tightfisted.

When we children—two older brothers and myself— became aware that other children got spending money from their parents, we made the mistake of asking Pop for some. His face turned stone cold. “If you’re old enough to ask, you’re old enough to earn,” he rumbled. And so, when the need arose, we scurried about the neighborhood seeking odd jobs or peddling produce from the garden.

His attitude didn’t soften as we grew into adulthood and drifted away to jobs or college. There was a period of time when none of us had a car, so we had to ride the bus whenever we came home. Though the bus stopped about two miles from home, Pop never met us, even in inclement weather. If someone grumbled (and my brothers grumbled a lot), he’d say in his loudest father-voice, “That’s what your legs are for!”

So when I went away to college, I knew I was in for a long walk whenever I came home. The walk didn’t bother me as much as the fear of walking alone along the highway and country roads. I also felt less than valued that my father didn’t seem concerned about my safety. That feeling was canceled one spring evening.

It had been a particularly difficult week at college. Tests and long hours in labs had left me exhausted. I longed for home and a soft bed. As other students were met at their stops, I gazed wistfully out the window. Finally, the bus shuddered to a stop at my destination point, and I stepped off, lugging my suitcase to begin the long trek home.

A row of privet hedge edged the driveway that climbed the hill to our house. Once I had turned off the highway to start the last lap of my journey, I was always relieved to see the hedge because it meant that I was almost home.

On that particular evening, the hedge had just come into view when a gentle rain began to fall. I stopped to put a book in my suitcase and when I stood up, I saw something gray skimming along the top of the hedge, moving toward the house. Upon closer observation, I realized it was the top of my father’s head. Then I knew—each time I’d come home, he had stood behind the hedge, watching, until he knew I had arrived safely. I swallowed hard against the threatening tears. He did care, after all.

On subsequent visits, that spot of gray became my beacon. I could hardly wait until I was close enough to watch for its covert movement above the greenery. Upon reaching home, I would find my father sitting innocently in his chair. “So! It’s you!” he’d say, his face lengthening into mock surprise.

“So you see,” I told my son, “I’m not worried about finding my way to heaven when I die.” There may be light at the end of a tunnel, as many who have cheated death have reported, but beyond that, I think I’ll see a row of privet hedge climbing a hill, and my father will be waiting at the top. “So! It’s you!” he’ll say.

And I’ll reply as I did then, “Yes, Pop, it’s me. I’m home.”

Betty Stanley

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