Pa has seen much in his years. His back shows the cruelty. While face wrinkles show toils and worries, the many hardships. And in his deep soulful eyes are all the experiences. They tell stories that are never shared. Though, he doesn’t have to. We’ve all seen much of the same.
In all the years, I’ve never seen pa cry. Stern looks and glares many times. And sadness when he thinks of mama, who lives on a different plantation, separated by many miles and a handful of poignant memories. Our plantation master sold her after I was born. “That was the most painful day of my life,” pa has always said.
His emotions come out in song and dance and hugs. He’s warm and loving. But tears just aren’t pa. Never.
Until January 1st, 1863.
Pa’s tears come flowing like rich rivers. He seems confused at their start. But then comes a wide smile while the tears keep running. Laughter, too; they are finally out. I imagine those tears had built up over decades. Just sitting there behind the dam pa created once mama was sold.
I reckon he set a goal for freedom that day of mama’s move. Then he prepared over the years, secretly learning to read and write from a fellow enslaved woman who was literate. She drew letters for pa in the dirt, then words and sentences. Rumor was she had a photographic memory. The ground became paper to share books she had read over the years. Pa wanted to read every book.
That’s how pa taught me, too, when I was old enough to understand how to keep this as our secret. “This enslaved life will come to end one day,” he’d say. “You have to know how to read and write.”
Now is that day. January 1st, 1863. “That on January 1st, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Magical words said by President Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom.
I don’t know if pa envisioned enslaved life ending this way. But either way, Pa and I and all those enslaved on our plantation are free. The Union Army has recently taken the land we live on, putting us under their rule of law.
“We’re going to fight,” pa says to me that night, his back upright, his voice a cadence deeper.
“Pa, you’re almost sixty years old.” He glares back at me. I know that look. It means no more; his mind is made.
We leave the next day for a Union Army camp. With time we’re sent to a black regiment. There we learn that change still has limitations. Though free, we’re still black. And that means we’re not treated the same as white soldiers. Our pay is different, the roles we can serve are different, the battle regiments are segregated, and harsher punishment awaits if we’re captured.
But all this is moot to pa. He puts on the Union Army uniform with a beaming smile. His tears come again. “After war is over, we’re going to find your mama and live as a family,” he says. Nearly twenty years apart, and pa still hasn’t given up on his dream to be with mama.
The battles rage for two more years. We fight for the Union Army in the Civil War for freedom and with the Union Army for equality. Equality comes in some forms, like pay. In 1864, President Lincoln mandates equal pay for all soldiers. And makes that change retroactive. With time, we’re able to participate in more battles, to help the Union Army.
War comes to an end on April 9th, 1865. The Union Army is victorious, and the United States stands.
Pa and I walk out of camp and begin the journey to the plantation mama lives on.
“Are we going to move north now?” I ask pa.
“No, the south is our home. We’re going to stay, help build a new life here.”
“Pa’s Tears” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.