While it may have had its origins in wanting a day to commemorate men, Father’s Day really was more of a creation of the retail industry. The fact that it wasn’t signed into law until 1972 may account for my lack of memory of celebrating it with my own father, who died in 1973.
As I searched my blog, I realized that I had missed posting about Daddy last year. Not because I didn’t think about him – because he is never far from my mind – but because I have pretty much stopped posting on the weekends. Although I have no plans to regularly post on Saturdays and Sundays, for some reason my father was on my mind when I awoke today. His presence seems to loom large whenever I have a break in my too-busy life.
I realized this morning that in my search to know the man who left us far too soon, I don’t have a single photo of the two of us. For that matter, few photos exist of him beyond those for which he posed. One of my sisters sent me a handmade Christmas ornament a few years ago. The photo of my father on one side – my mother graces the other side – was one with which I was not familiar, showing that smile I remember so well.
If there is one, overriding thing that I picked up from my Daddy, it has to be my sense of right and wrong. As I read through his columns, it’s pretty much right there in plain sight. My godmother, with whom I spent countless hours after my father’s death and until I left home for college, used to always admonish me against being “the martyr for the cause.” Quietly, in his columns, and not so quietly, in his public stance against Jim Crow, my father was a martyr for the cause.
The story, as it has been told to me, goes something like this.
My father was employed as the chaplain at a mental facility in Memphis, where we were living at the time. We were doing quite well. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, with a paid helper coming in to assist her in caring for the then seven children. (An 8th would come later.) Our home was paid for, although shortly before the “incident” my parents had done a major renovation, prompting them to take out a mortgage to finance it.
My father observed the difference in treatment between the white patients and the black patients at the facility, a difference that has been described to me as quite stark. The rooms housing the black patients were dirty and overrun with roaches, while the white patients lived in much better conditions. My father urged the head of the facility to change things; otherwise, he would report the conditions to the state board of health. The facility manager reportedly told my father to not make trouble; after all, my father was the first black to serve in that position. My father insisted – and gave the man six months to clean up the facility.
After six months, nothing happened. My father reported the facility manager to the state board. The man was fired, but not before firing my father and promising him that he, my father, would never work again in Memphis or neighboring Mississippi.
Somehow, the man made good on his threat. I’m told that my father searched for work for nine months and found nothing. In the interim, we lost our home and nearly all of our belongs. We survived on the generosity of neighbors and friends. A letter from his sister reminded him of the house that had been left to him by his stepmother, so our family made the bus trip to Virginia. (His “loving” sister took him to court and took the house away from him, but that’s a story for another day.) We came to Virginia with what we could carry on the bus with us.
(I’m not sure why there are only seven bus tickets for a family of ten. Perhaps a couple were lost, or perhaps they didn’t charge for all of the children – my baby brother was just 9 months old.)
So little survived of our life before November 1963. Items that were supposed to be shipped to us later never came.The re-telling of this story over my childhood years made a heck of an impression on me. Doing what is right is not always easy, especially when it comes at great personal cost. Lots of folks paid for their objection to Jim Crow with their lives, and I count my father among them, even though his death came ten years later.
My Daddy was not a perfect man, but his willingness to sacrifice for the greater good remains an inspiration.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!