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Legacy from the driver of the black sedan on a bumpy dirt road

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including “The Confident Writer,” a grammar-based college textbook.

“There is an [expiration] date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
— J.K. Rowling

Stirring up dust, an old black sedan rattled past our two-story stucco house on the dirt road and went to the end where a narrow path cut through weeds to Sattes Cemetery. The driver turned around and came back to park in front of the wide concrete steps leading to our front porch, which ran the length of the house. He opened the car door, got out and walked upon the porch. A tall, thin man with light brown hair, ice-blue eyes and a dimpled chin, he would have been quite handsome except for an extreme overbite.

Four of us were sitting in the shade of the porch. My Grandfather Frame did not speak to the man but stared at the well on his left. My grandmother ignored the man while holding her Bible close to her face. The man looked at my mother and said, “Esther, I want to take you and Dolly for a drive.”

My mother did not answer, but arose, went into the house and came out with her purse. I was a small child at the time, so I sat on my mother’s lap in the front seat as the man steered the car down the bumpy dirt road and across a small bridge that spanned a creek. He turned left on a skinny blacktop road and headed toward West Washington Street in North Charleston. A teenaged boy stood near the car at the intersection where the driver had stopped to check traffic.

The teen began pounding on the passenger door window. My mother rolled the glass down. She heard him yell, “Your car’s on fire! Get out! Get out! Quick!” Then we smelled smoke and watched as it escaped from under the hood, floating skyward.

I don’t know what happened to the car or the driver because my mother and I immediately jumped out and began running back up the road toward home. As we slowed to a walk, my mother said, “I knew better. I should have stayed home. It was my fault.”

The next time I saw the man, he was again on our front porch. I was about two or three years older, but still only a child, no more than 7 or 8 years old. The man paid scant attention to me as he and my mother engaged in a long, and sometimes heated, conversation. Just before he left, though, he scolded me for something I had said. In the long distance of many years, my remark that displeased him has vanished into the folds of time. I remember he removed his belt and threatened to whip me. I might have deserved the threat. I remember he chased me around the house which had been built into the hill. I ran up the stairs on the outside of the house, across the back porch and down the steps on the other side. Around and around we went until the man grew tired and gave up. I remained on the back porch until I saw him walking down the hill. He had no car this time. I returned to the front porch and all was quiet again.

Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I seldom saw or heard from that man. He was my father, Paul Wood, whom my mother had divorced when I was approximately 5 years old. But here’s the main point of my story: His absence in my life did not scar me emotionally, nor did his neglect give me an excuse to blame him for decisions I made as an adult.

Every Father’s Day, columnists write about the lessons their good fathers taught them. My father left a legacy for me, too: His absence taught me to be self-reliant like the cat in Marianne Moore’s poem “Silence.” It has been decades since an old black sedan rattled past our house on Brickyard Hill, but that shortened car trip was the beginning of my learning not to blame my childhood or anyone else for my own decisions and actions.

J. K. Rowling is right. If parents can somehow bring up their children to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions once they’re old enough to drive a car, then we’ve fought and won against the tide of “the devil-made-me-do-it” mentality, which is so prevalent in our nation today.

A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including “The Confident Writer,” a grammar-based college textbook.