It was a white night last night.
For some reason, I thought of ice cold milk and couldn’t get the picture of it out of my mind. It was really a day for water, and lots of it, with a heat index of 103 and humidity so high I could barely breathe. It was too hot to go to the Blackberry Jam music festival and sit outside by the Harpeth all day. It was too hot to stand outside and talk to a neighbor; it was too hot to walk the dog very far. And I thought of ice cold milk. I had to have some.
When I was a little girl and spent a week each summer on my grandparents’ farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, I drank their milk straight from a cow. My grandfather was the first one up every morning to go milk the cows, and he always brought a pail back to the house. It was not homogenized, it was not pasteurized, it was not like city milk from a carton. My grandmother put ice in a glass and poured the milk over it. We never did that at home.
I remember the look of it. The milk seemed a little thin and yellow against the white ice, blocky parts of which floated above the surface, coated with cream.
So last night I stuck my glass under the ice dispenser, filled it, then poured milk over it. I shook it and let the ice hit the glass and make noise. I grabbed a few M&Ms and went outside on the front porch to sit under a cobalt sky headed to darkness. Clouds darker than cobalt were furiously building and boiling upward from the day’s heat, and lightning was flashing behind their tops and among them.
I chewed my chocolate and drank my ice cold rattly milk and watched the storm move closer, the sky flashing white all around me and sending bolts downward. It was coming at me from all directions, white everywhere. It was all show for an hour—no rain, no wind—just white lightning, a natural fireworks display. When it was on me, the heavens and the air all around me flashed white. And I sat there and rattled the cubes in my glass and drank my ice cold milk and remembered storm traditions of my little girl days.
At my grandparents’ house, when a storm would roll in, my grandfather would go get the car and drive it right up on the grass by the front porch. He’d make the five grandchildren sit in the car with him. The rubber tires would ground us and protect us from getting struck by the lightning. I don’t remember my grandmother ever being in the car with us. I think she took her chances and got a little peace and quiet inside the house. When I was playing at my friend Mary Sue’s and a storm came up, her mother brought us each a foam rubber pillow to sit on as we played paper dolls or drew and colored pictures because it would ground us and keep us safe. We didn’t do any of this at home. The storms came, the lightning came, the thunder came, and we kept right on doing what we were doing.
And so I sat on the front porch and drank my ice cold milk and watched the lightning.
This is my eleventh year without a father on Father’s Day. I remember all the life in Wallace Ray Hardy, my father, all the sacrifices, the dedication to family, work, and church, the happy and fun times, the laughter, and it’s so hard to get used to the idea that someone so alive and strong can be gone. It was the same for his father, my grandfather, Thomas Tyre Hardy. He was here, he was a big figure in my life, and then he was gone. It’s like the pillars of life crumble and fall when the old men go.
Now, there is no Hardy patriarch, no one to hold up the family and see to it that we’re all okay. My family has no wise old-man leadership, and we need it sometimes. Now, I talk in tears to thin air when I try to talk to my dad and ask for guidance, or I may see dragonflies or butterflies that come back to tell me things. You may think I’m crazy, but it has happened, and I have now learned that if a dragonfly or butterfly comes and lingers a little too long, in the following day or two, all hell is going to break loose and I better prepare myself to stand firm. Sometimes, that’s all you get. A warning from a bug. And Father’s Day is just another day, and I will mow my yard, and I will look at the red roses against the fence because I used to wear one every Father’s Day to Sunday School when I had a father, and I will cry and go on, and then it will be Monday, and everything will be normal again.
The men in my father and grandfather’s generations did not show emotion very often. They didn’t hug much, they didn’t express love openly, they just worked and did what they were supposed to do to take care of their family. We knew they loved us because they were always there, at the dinner table, in bed by eight or nine, and they were stable, they could be counted on, they did right by God. But I remember one time when my grandfather shot all this to bits and intensely and openly expressed emotion. It was on a summer Sunday when I was about fourteen.
Every summer I spent a week with grandparents on the farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, that had been in Hardy hands for three generations at the time, since 1850. My sister would go, too, and our three cousins from Meridian were always there. We were all over those hills and streams and gullies and ponds and woods—no boundaries, no restrictions. We’d watch our grandmother make biscuits and work the garden, and we’d watch our grandfather poison the cotton and bring the cows in, and at night we’d play Rook on the porch. In the bedroom where I slept there was a verse hanging on the wall: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”
When Sunday rolled around, my grandpa asked who wanted to go to church with him. Like the others in his line, he was a deacon at West Kemper Baptist. His Hardy great-great grandmother and great grandfather were founding members of this church in 1850, and his Abercrombie ancestors were also charter members. They, and all the family, were buried in the cemetery beside the church.
Nobody wanted to go to church, but me. My church at home was a big part of my life, and so I’d packed my Sunday dress and high heels. I went to church with my grandfather. He introduced me to everyone: “This is my grand-young’un, Wallace Ray’s daughter, from over in the Delta.” We sat on a pew together, shared a hymnal, listened to the sermon, then drove home over the dirt road in his old Studebaker.
He wore a white shirt, tan slacks, and a straw hat to church. He was a tall man and filled up the front seat to the top of the car. With an earnest look on his farm-tanned face, the words came strongly and sincerely: “I have never in my life been so proud than to have one of my grand-young’uns want to go to church with me and to show her around and have her sit there with me. It means a lot to me, and I have never been so proud.” He kept repeating himself to the point that I was somewhat uncomfortable because men didn’t show emotion and he was.
But years upon years later, I remember that moment and those words, and it means a lot to me, too. And I am thankful for a good and faithful grandfather and father and glad to have a day set aside amidst all the other days of the year to remember these special men who stand under me.