Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The Words to Say It: Writing in conversation with my mentee

My mentee, Sophia, and I are working on our submissions for this year’s Girls Write Now anthology. Every year, GWN mentees and mentors get published together. It’s a lovely thing. The mentees, of course, are the stars of the show, so their pieces are more substantial. That’s the tricky part for someone as long-winded as I am! How to say what I want to say in only a handful of words?

Sophia and I have been brainstorming and free writing, trying to decide what we want to write about. She’s had a couple of writing deadlines in the last month, so some of our free writing has led to work that she’s developed for her other submissions. In January, she wrote a snippet of something that seemed like the tiniest frozen sliver hiding a colossal iceberg beneath its surface. I suggested she think about working on that for the anthology since we had so much time before the anthology piece would be due.

But now the piece is due (in a week), and our work is still pretty amorphous. She has added several additional snippets to the first, and each is powerful and compelling, but the work hasn’t yet come together. We’ve been in this place before, with Sophia writing all the way around a thing and then — just in time for the deadline — writing exactly the bit she needed but couldn’t find. We’re going to work for a while on Saturday, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll have one of those breakthroughs. I shouldn’t expect it, of course, but it’s clear that this is one of the ways Sophia and I mirror each other as writers. How many times have I woken up on the day of a reading with nothing to read? And on how many of those days have I “magically” managed to write something in time for the reading? Hmm … I’m seeing another mentor goal for myself: help move Sophia away from this nerve-wracking habit!

While it’s not necessary, each year that I’ve been volunteering with GWN, my mentee and I have chosen to write on the same subject. I like the companion-piece aspect of that, like that our pieces seem to expand in relation to one another. Sophia is writing about her relationship with her father … and heaven knows I have more than what to say about my relationship with my own father, so I thought writing my anthology piece would be easy.

Ha! Guess again.

Of course.

I’ve written so much about my father. And in some ways, that’s the problem. Not that I think I’ve said everything there is to say, but maybe I’ve said all of the easy things to say, the things I can say with the fewest words. And, too, I have to write something that connects, at least tenuously, to this year’s program theme: Rise, Speak, Change. I really like that theme, but I’m not sure any of the things I’ve been thinking to say about my relationship with my father can be bullied into fitting the theme.

Oy. Time to get to work.



It’s March 1st: The start of the 2017 Slice of Life Story Challenge! This is the 10-year anniversary of Slice of Life, which is hard to believe. I started this blog a month before discovering Two Writing Teachers. When that first SOL challenge started, I had no idea what I was doing as a blogger. I always credit that 2008 SOL crew — I think there were 12 of us then? — with making me into a blogger, and I credit them still. Today, there are hundreds of folks participating in the challenge. Every day, writers will post their links over on TWT. I definitely recommend clicking through to the site and checking out some of the work there!

 

Common Ground

Our essay topic: “What are the advantages and disadvantages of a “child-free” lifestyle?”

It’s kind of a ridiculous topic on its face, and written in such a way as to invite confusion in how people answer it.  Most of the class brainstormed on the advantages of not having children and the disadvantages of having them.  It took a long time to get everyone clear on the idea that we were supposed to be thinking about the disadvantages of not having children. 

The conversations happening around the room were interesting.  I anticipated the arguments against having children — although I was surprised by some of the voices those arguments came in.  I didn’t anticipate the conversation that bubbled up at the boy table.

A group of young guys and one older guy started my class in January.  The young ones all met before enrolling in my class, but they have formed a fairly strong bond with the older student over the last month.  The young ones are all seventeen — ok, James turned 18 about six seconds ago — and the older one is in his mid-30s.  All are Latino.  All have  (surprisingly vulnerable) defenses in place.  At least two have experience with the criminal justice system.  One — one of the 17-year-olds — is father to a baby boy who just hit his one-month mark on Thursday.  His girlfriend is also in my class, but wasn’t in class that day.

I was working with another group when I overheard their conversation.

“I can’t write about a child-free lifestyle when Jenny and I have a new baby at home.” (Isidoro, whose baby is named for him.)

“Well you only know about fatherhood for a month.  You can still remember what it was like without a baby, right?” (James, who has pictures of Isidoro’s baby on his phone and shows me updated shots almost as often as Isidoro does.)

“Yeah, I remember what it was like.  If I could go back a year, I think I’d do a few things differently.”  He shakes his head.  “I mean, what do I know about being a father?  I never had one to learn from.  Mine left before I even got here.”

“Mine, too.”  This was said in unison by both James and Ray, the older student.

“I grew up without a father,” says Wilson, “but not because he left.  He was just always trying to work at something.  He always had to be in another place to do that.  We were all at home without him.”

“So who am I supposed to learn about being a father from?” Isidoro asks.  “I grew up without a father, but do I want that for my son?  No.  But how am I supposed to do any better than my father?”

“You already are, man,” says James.  “You said your father left while your mother was pregnant.  You didn’t do that.  You’re still here.”

I’m not so naive that I believe every one of my students comes from a storybook family.  Of course not.  My surprise at this conversation is about the fact that a tableful of young men would be sitting around talking about the lack of male role models in their lives, about the absence of their fathers.  And that surprise is, of course, mostly about comparisons between my own experience of being a teenager and the ones I see playing out in front of me at school.  We didn’t talk like this when I was a kid.   We surely should have.   I’m glad these guys can, glad they feel comfortable enough with each other and our classroom to talk about real things.  And, odd as it sounds, I’m glad they share this piece of family story, this less-than-“perfect” bit of common ground, glad Isidoro didn’t say he’d grown up without a father only to be faced with uncomprehending faces, or scorn, or disapproval … or anything that would have gotten in the way of him talking his way through to James’ lovely observation at the end.

Really looking forward to reading the essays that get turned in this week.

Data Checking: My Father

Sometimes I think I’m losing the tiny bits of memory that keep my father vivid in my mind, worry that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t have anything left but my few photographs, photos of him so young that he’s a man I don’t remember knowing.

It’s probably unlikely that I will forget him — at least not entirely — but I worry all the same.  And when I’m hit with that fear, I make lists of the things I want to be sure I remember.  Mostly I make these lists in my head, but I thought I’d share a piece of this one. 

  1. My father was a puzzler. He would spread the pieces over my mother’s sewing machine table and methodically put huge images together, slowly and steadily fitting piece to piece until it was all one. We joined in occasionally, my brother and I, sometimes my mother, but I suspect we were more hindrance than help
  2. My father was a reader. Like everyone in my family, he devoured books. He read so many kinds of things and read a LOT.  This always pleased and impressed me.  I loved that we were all so crazy for books, loved that we read such a varied selection of texts, loved that my father could talk like a professor even though he never finished high school, loved that books could give him that.
  3. My father was a kind of BMOC guy: an athlete gone a bit soft.  He announced the varsity football and basketball games at my school, presided over track meets, was a glad-hander at all events, a deacon in our church.
  4. One year he choreographed some half-time routines for our marching band.  I was in that band with my big plumed hat and my never-quite-parallel-to-the-ground flute.  He drafted our routines on thick pads of yellow legal paper, each band member a tiny triangle in his elaborate figures.  He was generous, imagining us having anything near the coordination and skill of Grambling State or Florida A&M.  As if!  We made it through that first-and-last performance without any casualties … although I did have a scary moment of completing my nice little pivot and finding a bass drum bearing down on me!  Ready to battle other bands, we weren’t.  After that game, it was back to our tried and true arrangements of Make Me Smile and Beginnings (seriously, if we’d had to pay royalties every time we played one of their songs, we would have singlehandedly kept Chicago on the top of the charts!).
  5. He was freakishly good at Monopoly.  He was always the banker and always the top hat and pretty nearly always got Boardwalk, Park Place, Mediterranean and Baltic, the railroads and utilities, Marvin Gardens, Ventnor and Atlantic, Pacific, North Carolina and Pennsylvania …  He was always the first to put up houses, the first to put up hotels. 
  6. He and my mother belonged to a bowling league for a while.  They were pretty serious and pretty good, too.  They won … I don’t know, something.  There were trophies.  They had their own balls.  Serious.
  7. And they played tennis, too, my mother in cute little almost-flippy dresses she made herself, my father in white or plaid shorts.  They were good at that, too.  I remember an awards banquet of some kind.
  8. He, like many dads of his generation, was adept at Sunday morning scrambled eggs.  (“Daddy’s eggs,” as a friend of mine called her father’s version of same.)  He could make other things, too, like the pretty milk pitcher he kept in the fridge … full of whiskey sours!
  9. He was a good driver, but a fast one.  It was from him that I learned to keep my foot down on that pedal, even in driver’s ed class!  (Just to be clear, I inherited my lead foot equally from both parents, but my father was my first teacher.)
  10. He and I would sit up late-late on Friday and Saturday nights sometimes, watching the old movies that fascinated me (It Happened One Night, Palm Beach Story, Notorious …), not saying a word, just glued to the screen.  I always wondered if he actually liked the movies, or if he just kept watching because sitting there in the quiet dark was an easy way to be with me without having to understand who I was, without having to figure a way to interact with me.

Hmm … We always cycle back around to it, don’t we?

A surprise visit from my father.

Let me just say up front that my father died almost twenty years ago.  Still.  I dreamed about him Tuesday.  And tonight I went to my second Bryant Park writing workshop and there was my father again, spilling out in the bit of memoir I wrote.  Here’s my piece:

Walking in Bryant Park, I pass a bed of begonias.  Soft shades of glossy pink, deep green leaves.  Nothing about them like my father, and yet there they are, triggering thoughts of him.

It’s an easy stream of consciousness path to chart:  “Does Ruby Begonia ring a bell?”  It’s a punchline on the Flip Wilson album my dad loved.  “Does Ruby Begonia ring a bell?”  She didn’t.  Not for child-me, anyway.  Flip would say his line and my father would laugh his basso-profundo laugh.  I always laughed, too, but I never got what was supposed to be funny.

That Ruby Begonia joke illustrates perfectly my perception of my father: I went along, but never really got him, never understood what about him was supposed to make sense.

And this is in my mind right now because two nights ago, for the first time in more than ten years, I dreamed him.  This is only the fifth time he’s shown up in the twenty years since he died.

The first three dreams came in quick succession, not long after the funeral, like pushing me to accept his death, accept that I was never going to get the answers I’d hoped to find in him, from him.  The fourth one was like a strange little gift years later — his shirt hanging on the back of my door.  As though he’d come home to me, as if he was still with me, still mine.  And that felt good, but was frustrating, too.  He’d come home, but without any answers for me, without offering me any way to understand.

Tuesday’s dream?  I don’t know.   We were in a kitchen — our kitchen, but not one I’ve ever known in any home of ours or mine.  He was stretching his back because it hurt.  He told me — not gently — to move because I was cramping his range of motion.  So typical of us both, that.  Him not knowing how to talk to me, me all up in his way trying to be close, trying to see him.

Tuesday’s dream is more us than any of the others, more us than those last strange visits with him after he knew the cancer would kill him.  So us.  Which is maybe the point: maybe it’s taken me these long twenty years to get to a place where I can live with the truth that we just are who we are, that I’m not going to see him, that I won’t get any answers, that Ruby Begonia is never going to ring a bell.

Tonight’s workshop was in the park, instead of our in-case-of-rain location from last week.  And the park is a great and strange place to have a writing workshop.  It’s weird to have the workshop leader miked and basically giving the workshop to anyone within range of the amps.  And it’s weird to have people who aren’t part of the workshop standing along the sidelines watching us write and listening to us share our writing.  Weird, but not in a truly off-putting way.

As I said in my post about last week’s workshop, if nothing else, going to these workshops is making me write in spite of myself, and that’s a good thing.  Gotham Writers Workshop has some free summer things going on, too.  Maybe I’ll check them out.  Maybe going to free writing workshops will be the secret to getting me back into my writing this summer.