You were my daddy. You cursed like a sailor and smoked like a chimney. To this day, I love the smell of cigarette smoke on somebody. It reminds me of you and it reminds me that sometimes you were nice to me.
You never drank anything other than milk and coffee and that cup of coffee had to have two drops of cream. You could tell if it had one or three and you would complain if it wasn’t right.
I wonder though. Did it ever bother you that none of your children called you “daddy?”
You called your daddy “Papa.” You were raised hearing your mama refer to him that way. We were raised hearing you called by your initials. I remember that even at an early age, I thought it was disrespectful. I shortened it to what I thought was a more endearing “B.”
We were never taught to call your mama and daddy, grandma and grandpa. They were always “Mr. and Mrs.” I knew mama didn’t like them and I guess we never wondered why her mama was “granny” and your mama was just “Mrs.” But your sweet mama and Papa never complained.
I remember your jet black hair, your olive-colored skin and your dark chocolate-brown eyes that sometimes revealed the slightest twinkle. I remember your muscular arms and your worn, calloused hands and although I never saw them, I remember you telling me that many a woman had cried herself to sleep at night because she didn’t have legs as pretty as yours.
You could talk to back-woods Southern “hillbillies” and never make them feel inferior. You could talk to Harvard educated braggarts and never let them feel superior.
I really didn’t know you very well but I wish I had. I never knew your thoughts or your hopes but I did know one of your dreams. You wanted to be a doctor.
You were smart and determined. You worked every odd job you could find to save enough money to go to college. When you graduated from high school, there was no money for a new shirt to wear to the ceremony, so your mama made you one out of a patterned bed sheet. When you walked across the stage, you said everybody whooped and hollered.
Your dream of going to college came true but then you were called to serve your country. You spent your time in the Army as a medic but you never talked about it. I imagine you saw some horrible things while you were there and maybe you just wanted to forget.
After your tour of duty, you wanted to finish college and fulfill your dream but they told you that you were too old, so you got married and had children.
You liked my oldest sister. I remember when you brought her a box of thin mints on her birthday. I think you were fond of my little sister, too and I imagine you remembered her birthday.
You never remembered mine. I’m not even sure you knew how old I was most years.
I remember you winked and said “[your older sister] is crafty and what she says is pretty much law.” I understood. When I pierced my own ears, she and mama made fun of me. They called me a heathen and suggested I put a bone through my nose. You agreed but several weeks later mama and both my sisters had their ears pierced and it was….okay.
Although you were not shy about pulling out your belt, you didn’t beat me like mama did. There were times when you stood up for me and it made me happy, even though I knew I would pay a heavy price later.
When mama mashed a bowl of beans in my face, you stood up and sternly said her name. When you stood up, we all knew that you meant business. It caused a fight and she and my sisters sat at the table and glared at me until supper was over. Again, I paid a heavy price later but it made me feel so good when you did that.
I started crying and told you that mama had made me take off all of my clothes and stand out in the yard while people driving down the street looked at me. You weren’t outraged. You just shook your head and said “you must have done something to rile her.” I asked if you thought that was okay. You said “you know your mother gets madder than a wet hen but she loves you.” You were defending her by default but you did it as gently as you could, I guess.
When I asked you what you thought when you saw the black eyes, bruises and welts on me, you said that you believed those marks were justified because mama said I was sassing her. You would try to cajole me into believing that she cared when you again said “your mother loves you.” How desperately I wanted that to be true but I knew it wasn’t and I think deep down you knew it wasn’t, too.
When I was allowed to go home, after signing a “contract” written by mama and my oldest sister, I was thrilled. You read all the conditions while they sat there, waiting for the slightest resistance on my part. They were thirsty for blood but I would have agreed to anything. I capitulated when I was told that I couldn’t live there unless I went to church so that God might make me a decent person. I received daggers from mamas’ eyes when I asked if I was the only one who had to go. You said my sister would go “when she could.”
Later that day, I told you that I didn’t need to go to church to be a decent person and asked if you wouldn’t make me go. You said “them’s the rules and if you don’t like ’em, there’s the door.” I reluctantly went but I have never darkened the door of a church since.
Your mama had given me a small metal jewelry box and it was a prized possession. My oldest sister, having been raised to feel entitled, took it from my room because she wanted it. I wasn’t allowed to go into any room without permission but I broke the rules, went into her room and took it back.
When she realized it was gone, she came to get it. We struggled and being bigger than I was, she wrestled it away from me. When I threatened to tell you, she threw it at me and hit me in the eye.
Mama came to see what was going on and my sister told her that I had stolen something from her room. Even my little sister joined in the fight by hitting me in the stomach with a shoe. She helped mama and my oldest sister drag me out of the house. Mama locked the door. It was snowing and I was barefoot but she didn’t care. She had always made fun of me for going barefoot. She’d say “it must be winter. [I****] doesn’t have on any shoes.”
I crawled up into the rafters of the garage and waited for you to come home. I ignored the cold. I thought “they are really going to get in trouble when he finds out what they did.” You were my hero…my champion…my defender.
A few hours later, you finally came home and I went back to the house. I could see mama and my sisters sitting in the front room, watching television. They ignored my knocks. I finally kicked the door and said if they didn’t open it I would break it down. Big talk for a little girl but I just knew that you would be on my side. I heard mama yell “she says she’s going to break the door down.”
Suddenly, I could hear you. You always stomped when you walked. You opened the door and dragged me into my room. You never even gave me the chance to tell you what happened or what mama and my sisters had done.
That was the worst beating you ever gave me. I remember after you had worn me and yourself out, you sat on the edge of my bed and said “you’re my young’un and I’d fight anybody who said anything against you but I’ll kill you before I let you run over your mother and your sisters. You need to pack your bags.”
Did you know that mama taught my youngest sister to hate me? Did you know that after you told me to leave, my little sister said that if she ever passed me on the street, she would spit in my face? She was eight years old. Fifty years later, I’m sure she still feels the same way.
I didn’t hold any of that against you. You were in an impossible situation. You were faced with having to choose between me or mama and my sisters. The good of the many always outweighs the good of the few or the one. Understanding that at an early age would serve to make the later years of my life a little more bearable.
When I left town after high school, I stayed gone for three years. I came home and wanted to see you so I walked uptown. When I said “did you miss me?” you asked “were you gone?” I pretended that it didn’t bother me.
You absolutely adored my oldest sisters’ son. You would of course, because he was hers. But I wish you had wanted to know my children. I think you would have appreciated their beauty, their talent and their intelligence. I wish you had remembered their names.
I wish you had remembered and appreciated that my second daughter was named after you. I wish having a namesake would have meant something to you. It probably would have, had it been my oldest sisters’ son.
If you blamed me for my little brothers’ death, I never knew. You wouldn’t talk about him but one time I asked you how he died. You looked sad when you said “the doctor said he had every symptom of aspirin poisoning.” I didn’t know then that I had opened the bottle…but you did.
When I told you that I wanted to be the first woman neurosurgeon in our hometown, you laughed at me. You said “you need to stop that crazy talk. You need to get married and have some young’uns.” You never did give me much encouragement.
I don’t know if you wondered if I would survive my childhood. I don’t think it was ever even on your radar. You could have never known that even though I did indeed survive, I would suffer the same abuse, albeit a different form in my adult life. If I was being honest, I’m not sure you would have cared. You would have probably been like mama and only had compassion for Loser.
You never hugged me or told me that you loved me. When your mama and Papa showed you pictures I had painted, I remember seeing this uninterested look in your eyes. Had they been painted by my oldest sister, your eyes would have been filled with pride.
Still, I remember you with fondness. I never had any illusions that you loved me but I wanted you to at least like me. I remember thinking that because you were sometimes nice to me, it meant that maybe you did like me. I know now that I mistook your indifference for caring.
I wish you had wanted to talk to me. I think you would have found that I too could carry on an intelligent conversation but you never had the time or the inclination. It’s okay.
When you died, we drove five hundred miles to your service. My children looked for tears in my eyes and they were puzzled when they found none. Tears had been beaten out of me years earlier. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t sad and sometimes I wonder. Had I been there, could I have saved your life?
I wish I missed you the way a daughter should miss her daddy. I wish you hadn’t been the template that I used when choosing a husband…a brilliant man whose focus was on everybody but me.
Wherever you are, I hope you have peace and happiness. You don’t have a grave to visit but I do have some of your ashes. I say hello to them now and then and I often wonder if that slight twinkle would be in your eyes if you knew that mama was in the trunk of my car.
Happy Fathers’ Day, B.