The Vanishing Days of Our Fathers

E on DC

While my father was alive I never had a conversation of any length with him. Our love was maintained by my fetching the newspaper for him so he could check the television schedule. Watching television was my father’s major form of relaxation. It was often those westerns like Bonanza, Gunsmoke and Maverick that found us in bed together. We never watched a baseball game. Our television compromise was watching the Ed Sullivan Show.

I think my father made the trip from New York to Washington only five times to visit me. The first time was 1972, when I graduated from Howard University. I recall my father being more concerned with the heat of the sun than my scholastic achievement. Yet I knew everything was made possible by the money he made to pay for my education. My father worked almost his entire life for the U.S. postal service. He had one of those “good” jobs where one expected a decent pension and simple respect at the end of one’s labor journey for all the days and years worked. Today that respect no longer seems to be given to the American worker.

It is difficult being an African American father in the 21st Century. The media circulates the message that we are missing, like the lyrics of a song no one can remember. Is it “Lift Every Voice and Sing?” My father was always in the next room, sleeping or mumbling to himself. At the kitchen table his head was often bowed as he silently ate his food.  I never talked to my father while I had meat or potatoes in my mouth. I never questioned if there was going to be a next meal. There are some things you simply expect to be there the next day; near the top of the list is air and gravity.

My father never provided me with rules on how to be a good father. Every June I pass the rack of cards in CVS and wonder who the Father’s Day cards are for. I have two children. When my father was alive I would buy a card for him which he would never read. I would print my name in it and first show it to my mom. Maybe my Father disliked mail because he handled nothing but envelopes his entire life. At times I thought his love for me was as small as a stamp.

I know better these days. Love has many definitions, we just struggle to use it properly in a sentence. I never told my father that I loved him.  It was only in those Hallmark cards that I could find the courage to print a four-lettered word. There is a strange silence that can engulf the men in a family. The silence between brothers as well as fathers and sons can be deafening.

When I wrote my first memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer, I tried to recall every memory I had of my father. I found there were few, so I went about the business of “inventing” a man who would be as heroic as any character in the center of a Greek myth.

I wanted to create the ideal African American father in much the same way Ron Karenga slipped us candles and called it Kwanzaa. Last month, my father would have been 100 year old. He is buried in a cemetery near Yonkers, outside Harlem and the Bronx. My father was born in Panama and came to America when he was a little boy. I believe he was a man who lived his entire life in exile. My father was a man who worked hard to build a home while understanding the loneliness built into the walls. My father was a man from Panama with a canal running through his heart. Today, I have nothing but oceans of love for him.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. His Collected Poems (edited by Kirsten Porter) will be published next spring by Willow Books. Mr. Miller was recently inducted into the Washington D.C. Hall of Fame.

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