Saturday, August 27, 2016
My dad died on August 27, 1981. My younger brother Julian reported the stunning news sometime around 10:00 that morning. Gave it to me straight, no chaser: ‘Dad died.’ No hint of emotion. His tone clear, calm, matter of fact. I don’t hold his demeanor against him. It’s congenital, I think. Received straight down the DNA chute from our mother.
It wouldn’t be fair to say my brother didn’t love our dad. But I would venture to say my brother’s relationship with dad could be aptly described as distant. Julian was the oldest of my parent’s second set of children. There is a nine-year gap between the youngest of the first three children — my recently departed brother, Albert — and the last three. My dad’s parenting style had evolved over the years and as the youngest three began to make their way through life, he had become more detached, I think, mainly being preoccupied with the constant challenge of too little finances coupled with the strain of a increasingly unsatisfactory marriage and the added stress of being pastor of a small church. My brother Julian’s attitude towards dad was probably shared, in varying degrees, by the last two children of the second set, Karen and Faith. (I’ve had conversations with Faith regarding her perception of our dad and I have taken the liberty of superimposing those perceptions onto my brother Julian. Also, bits and pieces of comments Julian has made about our father at different times buttresses my hypothesis.)
Me? I took it as hard as one can take the death of a parent, I think. The grief was crushing and relentless. It sucked all of the air out of me, as if a vacuum cleaner was attached to my navel. Given my reaction, one would have thought my relationship with my father was extraordinary. It wasn’t. Frankly, it was probably rather pedestrian as father/son relationships go within the African American culture in which I was raised. In such an environment, dad was recognized as the breadwinner, lawgiver and disciplinarian. And my mother’s resident heavy. Any hints from us children daring to challenge her authority were countered with the threat ‘wait till I tell your father.’
Not that my dad was totally removed from displaying love and care for us. He was as good and attentive a father as could be expected given the circumstances and social mores of black culture back then (and perhaps, to this day). In many ways, my family structure was wonderful when held against the backdrop of my dad’s upbringing. Attention was paid to our schooling, books were made available, varied music was on tap (and I am forever grateful for my exposure to classical and jazz music). I clearly remember my dad hovering over me during first grade, making sure I formed my letters correctly and understood the rudiments of arithmetic. As a direct result, school was never hard for me, at least not until my latter years when my laziness in applying myself allowed me to fall behind sometimes. (Math, specifically trigonometry!)
There were other very positive aspects of my home life. Regular dinner times, which included all family members when possible. Having to go to bed at a reasonable hour so as to ensure good rest. All eating relegated to the kitchen only. No clothes allowed to be strewn on the floor of our bedrooms. Outward signs of anarchy were not tolerated, not even the slightest suggestion of challenge to parental rules or requests. And except for my very early years, church every Sunday. As I mentioned before, structure.
Not that these things were nonexistent during the upbringing of the second set of children. They were. But the edges weren’t as sharp. My dad was losing his zests for running a tight ship, so to speak, what with the struggle to maintain a viable relationship with my mother sapping much of his psychological and emotional resources. (This is all speculation, of course. He wasn’t confiding in me about such things.) You know, grown folks stuff. A man’s growing dissatisfaction with his mate further exposes him to the allure of other women, those ‘other’ women being church goers notwithstanding. I can only speculate on how my dad managed this portion of his life (and how my mother perceived it) but now, being a man of a certain age who has experienced the vagaries of marriage and the finality of divorce, I can fully understand why he did or didn’t do whatever he did or didn’t do. (You follow?)
That’s all I got right now. Long live the memory of Sr.