The old man shifted in his wooden chair. The early morning sunlight streaming through the large windows highlighted his mass of gray hair. His eyes, clouded by cataracts, could no longer focus, but his hearing was acute.
“Who’s that?” he asked, sharply.
“It’s me, Papa,” the young boy said, as he ran across the cleanly swept floor to stand by his grandfather’s knee.
“And how did your studies go today?” the old man asked, a smile playing against his weathered face.
“Ugh,” said the young boy. “It was hard. I do not like the Hebrew lessons.”
The old man laughed. “When I was your age, I did not like the Hebrew lessons, either,” he recalled. “In fact, I didn’t like anything having to do with my father’s religion: the rules, the traditions. I found them tiresome.”
The young boy climbed into his grandfather’s lap and laid his head against the old man’s chest.
“Tell me the story again, Papa,” the young boy said.
“Oh, you know the story all too well,” the old gentleman replied.
“But tell me anyway,” the young boy pleaded. The old man sighed.
“I was 15,” the old man began. “I thought I knew it all, and to be honest, many others thought so, too. I was smart, you see. Everyone said so, and I was eager to begin life on my own, to explore the world.
So one day, after a heated argument with my older brother, I decided to leave for good. I asked, no, I demanded, the portion of my father’s estate that would eventually belong to me — my inheritance — and I left town. I was determined to go far, far away, to put as much distance between myself and my family as I could. I wanted to be free.”
“Did it work?” the young boy asked. He’d asked this question many times. It was the ritual he and his grandfather shared each time the old man retold the story. “Were you free?”
The old man chortled. “For a while, yes. I had plenty of money and plenty of friends. Everything I wanted I could have. It was ‘no rules’ living at its best … and its worst.”
“What do you mean?” the young boy asked.
“I was making very bad decisions,” the old man explained. “I was spending my father’s money lavishly. I woke many mornings not knowing where I was or who I was with. I began to feel empty inside, but I knew I couldn’t go back.”
“Then what happened?” the boy asked.
“I ran out of money,” the old man said. “And then all my ‘friends’ deserted me, too. Suddenly, I was alone, and the emptiness I felt rose like bile from the pit of my soul. But I knew I couldn’t go back. I had made a fool of myself, and I knew my father would not accept me.”
“What did you do?” the boy asked.
“I got a job, and it wasn’t a good job. I was a pig farmer, of all things. I had only worked for my father, so I had no idea what to expect. It was terrible work. They paid me little, not enough even to feed myself. I was so hungry, sometimes the food I was feeding the pigs looked appetizing enough to eat.”
“Yuck,” the young boy said, grimacing. This part of the story always turned his stomach. “What happened then?”
“I decided to go back, finally,” the old man said. “I wasn’t sure my father would accept me, and I knew I didn’t deserve to be allowed back into the family after the way I’d acted. But, I thought maybe he would give me a job on his farm. I knew he treated his workers better than my boss was treating me. Maybe, I thought, my father would have mercy.”
“Did he?” the young boy asked, snuggling closer against his grandfather’s chest.
The old man smiled. “More than I could have imagined,” he replied. “He must have heard I was coming, because I spotted him on the road a kilometer from our home, this home, where you and I are sitting now. When I saw him, as tired and hungry as I was, I ran to him, and he ran to me. When we were close enough to touch, I fell to my knees with my face to the ground and began the speech I had prepared.”
The old man paused as tears filled his clouded eyes at the memory.
“Go on,” the young boy said. The old man wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“He didn’t let me finish,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “He told me all was forgiven, and I was welcome in his home. That night, he threw a party for me, one I knew I didn’t deserve.”
“Was everyone happy to see you?” the boy asked.
“Not everyone,” the man admitted. “My older brother, Seth, was not happy at all. He refused to come to the party. He told me I didn’t deserve it, that he had worked hard for our father all his life and had never been treated to a party. I couldn’t disagree with him.”
Again, the man grew silent. He stayed silent so long, lost in the sadness of the memory, that the boy’s words jolted him back to the present.
“But Uncle Seth is OK, now, right?”
The old man raised his eyebrows and shifted again. “Yes,” he said gruffly. “Yes, he came to me later, after unpleasant experiences with his own children. He wanted to apologize. I told him it wasn’t necessary.” The old man paused again, then nodded. “We made our peace. There should always be peace between brothers.”
“What’s the lesson, Papa?” the young boy asked.
The old man turned his grandson to face him. He gathered the young boy’s face in his hands. Though the old man’s sight was blurred, he did his best to look into the young boy’s eyes.
“The lesson, my son, is this: With a loving father, you can always come home.”
By Ann Lovell