Today is Wednesday, July 17th, 2019, which would’ve been my father’s 67th birthday. I’m not one of those people who regularly shouts out their parents on their birthdays in public, posting a cute, old photo of my mom or dad when I was a just a cub. I’m active on social media. And I love my family, especially my mom. But I never celebrated my dad. Here’s why.
Most of us have to become adults before we realize that our parents are just men and women doing their best to create and cultivate more men and women (aka their children).
They aren’t superheroes. As children, however, we obviously viewed them that way, at least at first; they provided every meal, stitch of clothing, toy, hug, kiss, bath, bed, and ounce of warmth we’ve ever received. Without them, we literally wouldn’t be.
As I grew up, I realized that one of my parents was pulling considerably more weight in the category of parental responsibility: my mom. She worked a full-time job, and at one point, two full-time jobs, while caring for all seven of her children. My dad worked a full-time job also, but didn’t help us with homework, hug us, encourage us, cook, clean, etc. Maybe my memory is biased, but I can’t remember a single time when my father told me he loved me, or said it to one of my siblings. So what do I remember?
I remember that my father had a very mild voice, so whenever he raised it, our internal alarms would sound. I remember that he was very strict disciplinarian, and would exact unorthodox punishments for seemingly minor infractions. I was once slapped in the face for bending a spoon that I found in the grass outside. I was slapped another time when I called him “Pop”. [I later learned that “Pop” is a term that his father hated.]
I remember that my siblings and I weren’t allowed to answer “mmhmm” or “yeah”, but “yes”. We had to look him in the eye when speaking. We didn’t have to call him “sir” or anything, but when he told us to do something, there was absolutely no back talk, no second guessing, no questions.
I remember playing outside on hot summer nights, and heading home when I finally noticed the illuminated street lights. I’d get to the front door of our house and see my dad sitting on the sofa with his smoking buddies, talking and laughing. I remember him telling us to go back outside until he was ready for us to come in. Would that be in 30 minutes? Would that be in 2 hours? Who knows. I was 9 years old and couldn’t go home.
My dad was an avid movie watcher. I’m sure that’s where I get my love for film. He would take us to see R-rated movies well before we were 13, forget 17. It was scary, but I loved it.
Some of my fondest memories are of us smuggling huge bags of Twizzlers into the theater, my dad’s favorite. The bags were so big, and Twizzlers are easy to share. My dad loved movies so much that, at home, he would record them using his VCR on BETA tapes, at first, and later VHS videotapes from cable movie channels like HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel (TMC). He’d record every movie, from Beverly Hills Cop and Another 48 Hours to The Thing and Alien and Evil Dead, to Mannequin and Risky Business. There were so many videotapes that we had a wall in our home lined with them, filled with hundreds of movies.
One night, my dad set his VCR to record a movie in the middle of the night. By morning, the VCR had not recorded the movie, and in fact, wasn’t even turned on. His first reaction was to discover which one of his kids turned off the VCR in the middle of the night. Wherever we were in the house, we heard him raise his voice and knew something was up.
Soon, we were all lined up in the hallway for interrogation. I hadn’t touched the VCR. My three sisters said they didn’t touch the VCR. My three brothers claimed innocence too. A few minutes passed. No answers. So my father instructed us to turn around and face the wall. We were told to put our hands up on the wall and spread our legs, a la police frisk. My dad got a 2×4 wooden board, and beat us all with it, one by one, until someone confessed to touching his beloved VCR. We screamed and cried. All of us, aged 4 to 11, stood there, against the wall, arms outstretched, terrified that he would reach the end of our line and start over again. My youngest brother eventually confessed, sacrificing himself to spare the rest of us. He was 5 years old. (Thanks Umer.)
In 1990, when I was 12 years old, my father left. He left our house, and he left our family. He moved to District Heights, Maryland. Once he was gone, it was as if a dark cloud was removed from our home. His absence allowed my siblings and I to flourish. To move and grow without threat of violence. To speak without supplication. To laugh without fear. To feel unconditional love. But darkness was always near.
My father was a chauffeur, and would periodically drop by to take us to school or, as I like to put it, reassert his authority. He’d come in and raise his voice and tell us what to do and not do, all over again. At first, his visits were a little frightening, but I learned to endure them and then forget them as quickly as they came. I’d think to myself, “You have no power here, sir,” and my sisters and I would joke about his temporary demands once he was gone.
By now, I had begun attending Central High School in Capitol Heights, Maryland, and my dad lived nearby. Without seven kids to raise, he seemed a lot more relaxed, more easygoing. I’m sure my mom would tell a different story, but to me, he was a different guy. A bachelor, living alone in his apartment. A guy who would pick me up from school sometimes. A man. Some dude I know. He still didn’t tell me he loved me. He still didn’t hug me or ask how I was doing in school. But he also seemed a lot less annoyed by our presence. There were even times that we spent the night at his apartment, by choice, because there was more space to sleep, and he had all the movies and snacks.
I could tell you more about him, but these, the things I wrote above, are what I think about whenever July 17th rolls around. When people talk about their Love for Daddy, I think of a childhood home full of smoke, incense, weed, and afro sheen. I think about bean pies and The Final Call. (Two points if you know what that is). I think about dark and scary nights. I think about, and sometimes still hope for, my mother’s emergence. I think about the cloud that lifted and the blessing that became once he left. I am an incessantly positive person on most hours of most days, but on this day, I think of the reasons not to celebrate the guy who helped my mom bring us into the world. Most of the stories about my dad are dark, but the rest of them are pretty funny, I promise.
Thanks for reading, and letting me get this out of my head.