From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Ripples in the Pond

It’s not what you take but what you leave behind that defines greatness.

Edward Gardner

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt insignificant. Sometimes it was because I felt stuck in unfulfilling jobs or empty relationships. Sometimes I felt as though I wasn’t connecting with other people and that I didn’t make much difference on the planet. Sometimes it seemed I had no real effect on the rest of the world, as though my coming and going didn’t matter to anyone. When I start to buy into that feeling, I remember a story that was told to me by a stranger over a decade ago at a wake for my grandfather George.

As I stood in the center of the room, mourning his passing, I noticed someone who seemed out of place. He looked like an old weathered farmer, rumpled and wearing a suit coat that hadn’t been in style for many years. His shoes were old and worn, but I could see that he had taken the time to polish them. His unkempt hair was as white as snow, and he had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.

He noticed my stares and approached me and told me his name was Paul. He had met my grandfather more than sixty years ago, but never knew his name nor ever exchanged a word with him. Grinning at the curious expression on my face, and in a voice that sounded as worn and as old as he looked, Paul told me the most compelling story.

“I was just a little boy. Me and Momma and my little sister were on our way home from visiting my momma’s people. It was a hot August morning. The Chevy broke down in the middle of nowhere. Momma tried to tinker with it, but she didn’t know about cars. I was just a little boy and I knew even less. Me and my baby sister were hot and thirsty. Seems like we’d been there for days off on the side of the road.

“Finally around noontime, we heard a car. We felt great relief, believing that help was coming. ’Course that was until the car got closer and we could see it was a colored man in it, your granddaddy. See, in those days we didn’t have much exchange with colored people. They stayed on their side and we stayed on ours, no mixing. He pulled his car right up to us and asked if he could help. I knew Momma didn’t want any part of that, but God, it was so hot that day and she had her babies to think about. She had no choice but to accept help from him.

“As he approached our car I was so scared I memorized every line on his face. I figured the time would come when I’d have to identify him since I just knew he meant to do us harm. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do, but I was ready to fight to protect my momma and baby sister. I tried to keep my eyes on him while he was under our hood. It had to be 120 degrees under there. Well, he worked for what seemed like hours but he couldn’t bring the old Chevy back to life.

“Finally he says, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t fix your car, ma’am, but why don’t you let me ride you and your children home?’

“We were terrified at the thought of getting into that colored man’s car. Momma agonized over it, but it was so hot and her babies so thirsty, she decided she had no better choice. She piled us all into the backseat of his car, trying to stay as far away from him as possible. It must have been a good forty miles out of his way, but he didn’t even ask for money. He drove us all the way home, then just dropped us off as sure as you please. He never even tried nothing.

“Later that night when Daddy heard about it, he nearly beat Momma to death for getting into a car with a colored man. We were forbidden to ever talk about it again. Your granddaddy was an angel that day. Imagine, an angel that looked just like a colored man.”

Paul smiled and continued, “You know, when you get to be my age, you start to read the obituaries ’cause that’s where all your friends are. Just two days ago, I saw your granddaddy’s face staring back at me after all those years. It came back to me all at once. I never even knew his name, but I’d never forgotten his face. The way he just smiled at us even when we never even thanked him for all he did that day. I had to come here to pay my respects because it turned out to be more than just a ride home on a hot August day. Something about that day changed the way I saw the world despite what my daddy said.

“Today, I got two grown boys I’m proud of. They’re good boys. Both became civil rights lawyers. They work in Chicago, and they have a partner who’s a black man. My daddy would turn over in his grave if he saw that. I’m old and sick. It won’t be too long before I’m laying there just like your granddaddy. You know, when my time to cross comes, I’m gonna find your granddaddy and thank him for that ride, put my arms around him and tell him all about my boys.”

Paul had a far-off look in his eyes as he turned and walked away.

By now, my tears streamed freely as I stood there frozen, filled with pride and love for the man in the coffin. Even now he was teaching me.

After all of these years I still become lost sometimes. When that happens I close my eyes and see my grandfather’s face with that huge smile. I hear his voice reminding me how much I matter, how much we all matter.

Tyrone Dawkins

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