No Ward Cleaver, but he tried
I’ve written many columns about my dad and when I’ve written about him being one of the first Special Assistants for Minority Affairs in the U.S. Navy and his 30 years of service, I’m filled with pride. After retiring from the Navy he ran a liquor store, opened a gallery for black art and eventually continued serving his country working for the defense department until his death in 2003.
But my respect for him didn’t come easy. And he was no Ward Cleaver. He had to work hard to earn my respect back.
I suppose it was lying awake in bed, telling my younger brother to sleep and not to listen to our parents fighting in the next room, that made me never want to have kids. My mother was wracked with pain over my dad’s suspected infidelity, and for his part, the bastard just laughed it off.
The man had the gall to take me to baseball games with him and his secretary, and I was in the difficult position of not being able to say anything.
It wasn’t long after that that I was being disciplined for some minor infraction. It didn’t take much to earn one of my dad’s beatings with his belt. It was probably between the second and third lick that I lost it and did the unthinkable: I grabbed the belt. I caught it in mid-stroke like a Kung Fu master and snatched it out of my dad’s hand. I deftly palmed the business end and raised it and shouted, “How would you like it if someone hit you with this damn belt?”
The look of surprise on my dad’s face still gives me satisfaction so many years later.
After my parents split and he married his secretary our relationship suffered. None of my brothers wanted anything to do with him. When he’d call, everyone would leave the room because they didn’t want to talk to him. I worked for him for two years at his store, but still had little respect for him, using his life choices as a blueprint of what not to do in my own life.
We may have given up on him but he never gave up on us. He used to show up sometimes unannounced at dinnertime and have dinner with us. On holidays, he’d be there, bringing a pie or pot of collard greens from his garden. He’d come down to Fairfield from his home in Vallejo on Saturday mornings to take my brothers and me out for breakfast. Or he’d send one of us to the supermarket to get a boatload of food to make breakfast at home for everyone. He’d stay and play Spades or bones.
No matter what any of us had going on in our lives, he was always right there to support us. That was a constant. Whether it was sporting events in school, graduations or whatever, he made it a point to be there. When I started my newspaper column in 1992, I had no bigger champion than my dad. My brother Orvis and I started going to his place to play Spades and drink together (when his disapproving wife wasn’t around.).
When he was transferred to San Diego for work, he’d rent a big Lincoln Town Car and drive up to see us.
The point is when he broke up our family, and hurt our mother; we were ready to write him off. But to his credit, he wouldn’t let us do it.
While it doesn’t give him a pass for bad behavior, when I became an adult I heard the real story about what had happened to our dad’s father. We were told he’d died in a car accident before any of us kids were born. It turns out my dad found his father’s body, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I don’t know what that does to a person. Then to have his favorite son — my brother Ken — kill himself too, must’ve been unbearable.
I don’t make any excuses for my father’s poor choices. His discipline crossed the line into abuse. His cheating definitely tore the family apart. But keeping it all in perspective, he could’ve left and focused on his new family and never looked back like so many men do. He always provided for us. He always supported anything me and my brothers were involved in, the first and loudest one to sing our praises. He could’ve just been another African-American father statistic.
So on Father’s Day, my wish is that those deadbeat, sorry, half-assed dads realize that there’s still time to make a difference. They can start paying that child support, showing up for their children’s events and having a meal from time to time with their kids. If you’ve screwed up, you’ve got to work hard to try to make it up to your kids. And some kids will never respect or forgive you, but that doesn’t mean you stop.
From school behavior problems to crime to lack of discipline to drugs and violence, just think of all the societal ills impacted and contributed to by bad fathers or fathers who aren’t in their kids’ lives. Where would we be in terms of government assistance if every man supported his children?
I’ve watched it up close. I’ve had to watch my granddaughter’s biological father break her heart again and again, promising to come see her, promising to take her to Disneyland or promising to give her X,Y,Z. And always at the last minute backing out. Then he’s surprised that when he finally gets his shit together and has her visit, she’s not thrilled to see him. He may never win her heart over but he owes it to her to keep trying.
No, my dad wasn’t perfect. But he worked his ass off to hold onto his boys. Four months after his debilitating stroke and four days before his death, he was on the phone with me making planes to come up and see us again. You want to be a good dad? Put in the damn work.