One of my favorite memories with my daddy is going to the beach at Lake Michigan in Chicago. We would walk on what we called “the rocks” – huge rock-like structures you could sit on – and watch the sunset. Every time we were there, I remember asking a bunch of questions, picking little pebbles to show him how far I could throw them out into the water. Recently, my father shared that he often took me out on the rocks when he needed to think. I would’ve never known. Still, I learned later that it was one of our last times out at the rocks when he decided to leave me behind in Chicago with my grandmother. When he told me this over the phone just a few weeks ago, there was regret in his voice when he said, “I didn’t know anything about trying to raise a girl.”
I mourned what was lost as best a seven-year-old could. As an adult, I’ve tried to understand his dilemma a bit better. The best way to do that has been through the stories he shares when calls to check in on me. Over the years, our phone conversations morphed from casual check-ins into recollections of his childhood, funny moments from my early years, gossip-laced lessons about our sometimes-chaotic family. That has become one of the things I look forward to when we talk – stories upon stories upon stories.
During a recent phone call, my dad was telling me stories about my family. He reminded me that he was 23 years old when I was born, and “still trying to find myself.” Growing up with a large family it was sometimes hard to find his place. His uncles, who were more like older brothers to him, bullied him some, but not in a bad way. “They were just trying to make me tough,” he said.
For a while, my dad would only vaguely mention his father in these stories, but during that call my father shared more. Like his uncles, my granddaddy was hellbent on making a man out of my father. In my father’s words, my granddad believed he couldn’t cut him any slack; an approach taken by many Black parents to prepare their children for a world that seldom gives Black folks second chances.
My granddad’s strictness stemmed from another trait: “He was just angry,” my daddy would tell me. He noticed this anger in other men on his father’s side, including my great-grandfather. When I asked what he thought it was, he attributed it to the world they grew up in, Jim Crow Mississippi. There was a sort of empathetic intention with his words when he discussed the not-so-great qualities in his father. “I think he was just trying to find his way in this world,” my daddy said. As I reflect on our father-daughter dynamic, I understand the sentiment.
As a child, I saw most things in black-and-white. I had no concept of the life my father was trying to escape in the city. All I knew was – my daddy was here and now he’s gone. As a teenager it became, my daddy abandoned me.
I’ve never uttered those words aloud, and I’m not sure I ever truly believed that truly my father’s intention. I do know that the feeling of abandonment lives in my body because of certain decisions by both my parents who were trying to find their way just as I am now.
Now, I am learning to hold space for the grief I still carry from his leaving and for the gratitude for the evolution of our current relationship. What I understand now is that he was a very active and consistent part of my life from the time I was born, until I was around seven. In fact, he was the only presence during certain periods, defying the common tropes of absent Black fathers.
At 28, I have gotten to know him more as a person outside of just fatherhood, and I think that’s been necessary for my own healing. That healing has been about allowing multiple truths to co-exist. Recognizing my father outside the confines of his relationship to me is also about valuing his personhood as much as I value my own.
The experience my father and I both share is getting older and shifting our perspective towards our parents. Once he became an adult he says, “It wasn’t about [my daddy] bossing me around anymore. It was about us growing together.” That’s how I see our relationship. It has been super hard to develop a sense of trust and safety with my father once I got older. What I love about us is that, like him and my late grandfather, we are both growing and learning new things about each other every day. I don’t take that for granted.
So, who is my father to me now? He is a son, a brother, a husband. He is a worker in this capitalist society that seldom pays Black men adequately for their labor. He is a storyteller. He is my daddy. But more importantly, he is my friend.