(… it was the best of times… it was the worst of times.)
In the course of more than twenty-five years of friendship (and writing seven books together), we have discussed pretty much every subject under the sun at least a dozen times, and in a variety of moods from jubilant to melancholy. Whether the subject is the men we’ve dated (or married or divorced) or how to cure hiccups, we’ve found that one of the recurring themes is the strong presence of one of our fathers, and the total absence of the other’s.
All of this talk has made it clear —in a way that’s personal, not theoretical— that whether pops was at the dinner table or in the wind, what he did or didn’t do is critical.
As daughters, generally speaking we are quite aware of our mother’s legacies. We are like her. Or unlike her. Happy to follow in her footsteps. Determined to avoid them at all costs– even if it means stepping on a crack or two. Or we are “our own person” and in complete denial about any correlation at all. But equally fateful for daughters is our relationship, or lack of one, with our fathers.
In Search of Donna’s Father
I decided to look for my father after printing “unknown” yet again across the portion of a medical history dedicated to maladies that run on his side of the family. He left and took his family with him when I was an infant.
One of the three pictures I’ve seen of him was taken the day of his last visit. He smiles with an ease that belies any turmoil. My mother said he wanted the two of them to be free to travel, so I should be deposited with my grandparents. She wouldn’t do it and thus, the split.
For years I denied any curiosity about my father. Mom loved me, and worked hard to keep us from the economic quicksand that swallows many solo mothers and their children. To show interest in a man who had dissolved all emotional and fiscal ties seemed treasonous. Then another medical form would nag at me, and I’d wonder, didn’t it ever bother him that he had a daughter he hadn’t said “boo” to since she was too young to remember?
Where do you look for someone who has been gone for decades? Phone books yielded nothing. I knew he had been in the Air Force, unusual in itself for a black man in the 50’s.
In the second photo he sits at a Paris sidewalk cafe, very dapper in his seriously pressed uniform. His grin is confident, even cocky, guaranteed to set the heart of his lady love in Harlem aflutter. His posture says he could take all comers. So what was so scary about a baby girl?
The Air Force sent me copies of his induction papers and assignments. He enlisted at 17, after tenth grade. His duties ranged from painter to supply records specialist, not much excitement for a young soldier crossing the threshold into manhood.
His fingerprints on the enlistment form startled me. Each filled its allotted box. I measured my fingertips against his, and for the first time in my life my hands seemed small. Those prints were more tangible to me than a snapshot. I could feel that hand, imagine it surrounding mine in the fatherly way I hear tell is protective and loving. If I met him would I hold this hand, or stand, arms folded, awaiting his rendition of a story I knew by heart from my side of the fence?
Often I have listened to woman friends recount fond stories of their fathers, and I get wistful with a dab of envy.
One told of Friday midnight pizza runs. She and her siblings would gallop to the kitchen in their pajamas to join their dad for a slightly naughty midnight snack. Another recalls the quiet moment when her father assured her that no matter what, he was in her corner.
Knowing that one man on the planet cares for you without ulterior motive seems impossibly wonderful to me. Then I stop daydreaming. There are fathers who get drunk and wallop the first thing that moves, or those present in body, but unable to give love they perhaps never got. My father made a clean cut, not as jagged or ugly as some. Was I picking at a wound that had healed as well as it could? I didn’t know, but I was not close enough to finding him to make myself answer.
At the Department of Health the clerk said I couldn’t get a copy of my father’s birth certificate unless he was already dead and pointed me toward the death records. I was annoyed. He was too young to be dead, but in the interest of thoroughness, I checked.
And there he was, in the ledger book for 1979–Charles Herbert Goins, my father. I stared at the page, waiting for some emotion besides shock to surface. He had never been real to me so I had no tears. He took up no space in my life, so I couldn’t feel empty. Nothing came, not anger, satisfaction or sorrow.
My father had lived and died in the Bronx at the age of forty-four, not very far afield for a traveling man. Had he changed much from the twenty one year old I had seen in his wedding picture? Dressed in a dark suit, he seemed very grown, but I have been twenty-one. At that age we are often better at the guise of maturity than the details.
I copied the pertinent facts so I could complete what would only ever be a rough sketch of him. If I find members of his family, they can only tell me about him. The things I most need to know could only have come from his lips.
I have added heart disease to my list of hereditary ailments. That’s what killed my father. The information is somewhat useful. I have heart problems of my own, so I guess the broken ones come from his side of the family. Yet, more than a hint at future ills, I suppose I wanted a cure for the recurrent ache I feel from being left without an explanation or a second glance. I guess it’s like the arthritis that runs on Mom’s side of the family. It’s not debilitating. Some days are fine. Others, the pain is sharp, so you take an Advil and keep going until it passes, but you know it will always be with you.
In Praise of Virginia’s Daddy
I’m the one whose father made midnight Friday pizza runs. He also teased and taunted my brother, sister and me through raucous games of Pick Up sticks, brought us Sweet Marie candy bars from his pre-dawn Sunday golf games at Niagara Parks in Canada. He cleaned up vomit soaked PJs at 2 am, proudly signed each and every report card and sent all of us off to college. My first dance was standing on Daddy’s feet. Years later, he gallantly “gave me away”, and danced with me at a wedding he knew was a mistake. When time proved him right, he never said “I told you so”.
No, we were not raised by a single father. My mother was a full and active participant in parenthood, but this is not about her. This is about my daddy, a man who was always there for us. Sometimes he wasn’t physically present. Snowy Buffalo winters forced him on the road, with his dusty, canvas tool bag, in search of construction work, but we always knew he was coming home. I don’t know how or why we knew, but it was probably because my mother knew he was coming home.
My father laid brick. Hard, honest, ordinary work, but we kids thought it was anything but ordinary. Piled in the car on summer Sunday evenings, we would gape out the window as Daddy pointed to sparkling new schools, sprawling hospital wings, sleek, modern churches and tracts of ranch-style suburban homes he had “built”. He told construction tales about each one, some funny, others harrowing (or at least it sounded that way to us). I still hear his voice when I’m home and drive past St. Rose of Lima church or the Maryvale School.
My father didn’t plan to be a bricklayer. He wanted to be a doctor, and served in the Army Medical Corps (colored troops) during WWII, (spending more time cleaning kitchens than wounds). After discharge, even with the GI Bill, medical school was beyond his grasp. Somehow, undertaking presented itself as an alternative. Frequently he pulled out his diploma from the Atlanta School of Mortuary Science. “I can do your hair,” he would tease my mother, my sister and me, “if you lie down.” He cracked up every time he said this. We did too. But Daddy had too much life in him to spend his days with the deceased. He discovered that being a mortician was not even a poor relation to being a doctor, so he learned to lay brick, like his grandfather, father and his older brothers before him. One of the proudest days of Daddy’s life came when my brother graduated from medical school.
My father believed in learning, for himself and for us. And I learned a lot from him: how to properly water a lawn, make oyster stew, drive a nail straight, and roast and grate fresh coconut. He taught me to believe in myself and be proud of being smart (like him), to laugh deeply and without reservation, to think quickly, respond decisively, and cleverly (I can go from dead sleep to a wisecrack in six seconds flat). He taught me how to be comfortable around men, how to hold my own ground, and not be intimidated by them.
He taught me how to live, love and trust. I thank him for these lessons.
I don’t know where my dad learned to be a father. His father died when he was a small boy, leaving my grandmother to raise him, his four brothers and one sister alone in rural North Carolina. I’m not even sure he planned to be a father, but he certainly learned somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. My dad was not a saint. He was a good man, which really is not an oxymoron. He didn’t think what he did was remarkable. He loved his wife and children and he showed it. He did what he was supposed to do, the right thing. When I was growing up, my cousins and childhood friends lived more or less the way we did. Everyone’s father lived at home, went to work, and grumbled about fixing broken bicycles and cleaning the gutters. It was all I knew. My father was smart, funny, wise and strong. I thought so then, I think so now. I took Daddy for granted–like air. Wasn’t I supposed to? I was thirty before I fully comprehended that my father’s extraordinary, involved, loving presence in my life made me unique among friends and acquaintances.
John Lafayette DeBerry II died in 1984. I still miss him every day, but I also feel his presence sometimes in a passing shadow or a fleeting thought. And every now and again I sense his presence. It’s not at all frightening. There is a fluctuation in the air –not a breeze, but a shift in the molecules and atoms around me and his nearness, his energy, is as real as he was. On a visit with my mother a few years ago, I brought her some clippings and reviews of our latest book because I knew she enjoyed them. She directed me to the den and told me where to find the scrapbook. “I had to get another one,” she announced. My puzzled expression told her I had no idea what she was talking about. That’s when she informed me my father had bought it when I embarked on yet another of my many careers—full-figured modeling. “I fussed at him for getting such a big one,” Mom said. “He told me not to worry. You would fill the pages.” Two years later my father died, and my restlessness with being told what to wear, where to stand and how to look, led me briefly to the business side of modeling. “But your father was right anyway,” my mother said. “You filled it up and last month I had to buy a new one.”
Until that moment I knew nothing about the scrapbook they had kept, and the faith it showed my father had in me, but I didn’t have to—I’d felt it my whole life.
…whether Dad gave us a good foundation or left us standing on shaky ground, a father’s influence on his daughters is undeniable. For one of us Daddy is a lifelong reason to give thanks–on Father’s Day or any old Tuesday. The other still works at feeling good enough, at believing that being disposable is not her birthright although it was her father’s legacy. Because in the best of times or the worst of times, at the core of who we are as women…and how we perceive ourselves, is the very first man in our lives–our fathers.