by Frances E. McGee-Cromartie
Staring out of the window into the darkness that spring night in 1978, I shivered. The "real" world was out there waiting for me. I had just graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a political science degree, and had moved back home to Dayton, Ohio, for the summer before heading off to law school. I couldn't seem to stop worrying over what lay ahead. Had I made the right career choice? Would I like my courses? Would I do well?
With all the changes in my life, I was glad to be back in my hometown with Mama and her friends and Daddy and his business associates. As mayor of Dayton, Daddy was always at a meeting or taking a call from a concerned citizen. I knew his job wasn't easy and not just because he was the town's first African-American mayor. The economy wasn't doing well and businesses were deserting Dayton. Some people blamed Daddy. He never talked about his worries or his enemies, but sometimes after a long day of meetings, he'd enter the house singing, "I must tell Jesus, I cannot bear my burdens alone" as he hung up his coat and hat.
That night, he stayed in the den while Mama hosted her bridge club. The women who gathered each month loved to get together and chat over a few friendly hands. "You have big things ahead of you, Frances," one of the ladies told me. "Off to law school and then the sky's the limit!" I wished I could share her confidence in me. I looked forward to completing my education and having a satisfying career but right now the idea was a bit overwhelming.
The telephone rang. "I'll get it," I said, going into the kitchen. The caller was a businessman who asked for Daddy. I ran to the den to tell Daddy and he picked up the extension. Then I hung up the kitchen phone and as I passed the window over the kitchen sink, I glanced outside. In the darkness I thought I made out a car parked across our driveway.
Vaguely I was aware of some shuffling footsteps on the sidewalk. Was somebody out there? You're just paranoid after living in D.C., I told myself. This is Dayton--stop worrying.
The game ended with laughter and shouts of victory. "Didn't I say I had a good hand?" the winner teased. As the women shifted places for another game, I went to the kitchen to get the ice cream balls that Mama had made earlier for our guests. Glancing out the window, I could still see the shadowy outline of the car blocking the driveway. A chill ran down my spine.
The players quickly became immersed in a new game. I heard a car door slam outside and an engine spring to life. Footsteps ran down the porch stairs onto the sidewalk. Another car door slammed, tires squealed.
I jumped up and ran to the window. Then came a sharp staccato sound. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! Instinctively, I crouched behind the sofa before realizing what the sound was: firecrackers. There was a loud whooshing that took my breath away. Bright-orange flames shot into the night sky like blazing swords. "Fire!" I screamed.
I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the phone. Daddy and the businessman were still talking. "Daddy, there's a fire!" I shouted. I ran back into the living room. Cards were scattered on the floor and the women sat huddled together.
I started toward Mama. Just then my father entered the room. He made sure none of us was hurt, then strode purposefully toward the front door. I wanted to pull him back but I was afraid to move. He flung the door open with a bang. Our living room lit up bright as midday. I saw the source of the blaze--a large, flaming wooden cross stuck in the ground.
I knew some people disagreed with Daddy's administration but never did I dream that anyone would do something so unspeakable. Suddenly the world seemed not just intimidating but terrifying. Yet Daddy stood still and tall. Everything about him clearly conveyed the message, "I am not afraid." In fact, he looked strong enough to face down a whole army of hate.
Twenty-three years have come and gone since that night and to this day I find myself drawing strength from that image of my father standing resolutely in the doorway of our home, staring down hatred and cowardice.
In one blazing moment my father conveyed to me his courage in standing up not only to a frightening symbol of intimidation but to an exhausting succession of daily duties as he strived to serve his community. "I cannot carry my burdens alone," my father had sung, and as that fiery cross blazed, the strenghth of his partnership with God had been made profoundly clear.