A Father’s Heart

It’s Father’s day and today, since I don’t have my daddy here to shower with cards, gifts, and cake, I had the opportunity to reflect on the things my father imprinted on me. What is one thing I can carry with me to remember as I parent our children?

It hit me clear as day. My father never treated us as if our mistakes, struggles and sins were a personal assault on him. It wasn’t his nature to get bent out of shape because we transgressed his teaching or angry because we made him look bad or embarrassed the family.

No. His heart wanted us to know and love God and His word. His disappointments were because he knew the things that would make for our peace. Rather than grab hold of those things, too often his children would go their own way.

His admonitions were never laced with the anger of offense. His scoldings were  bolstered by prayer.

What I wouldn’t give right now for a pithy one line correction or even a lecture from my father’s heart.

Happy Father’s day to any dad who might stumble upon this.

Dads Objectively Remembered?

This past week, since my contemplation on the subject of fatherhood memoirs, I’ve been thinking a bit about a comment left on that post:

One can be honest without romanticizing and without smearing, I think. What one can’t really do is offer a totally unbiased account of anything – there will always be subjectivity involved and that’s fine really.

With those words as the seeds germinating the decision about whether or not to move forward, it occurred to me that it was the written word that was one of the turning points in my relationship with my dad. Our relating wasn’t always easy -even most of the time- and I wasn’t always so enamored with him (what girl is if she has a father worth his salt?).

For most of my childhood my father seemed larger than life; intimidating even. My older siblings seemed to have found an easy balance between dealing with his dominant, aloof personality and the truth that he loved his kids and would never hesitate to help any of us when it was in his power. I however, just sort trembled in his presence. That is, except in the one area where we seemed to connect. That was music, the church choir specifically. Outside of that…nothing. Or so it seemed, until I was 16 years old.

Now, every boy in town knew and knew full well that Deac’s baby girl was off limits. Period. Those who didn’t know figured it our soon enough: don’t look too hard, too long, or too often. If so, it wouldn’t be long before one of my two brothers who were in school with me let it “slip”: “Johnny Smith was hanging around El today at lunch.” And that was that.

However there are always those not easily dissuaded or intimidated by a guard dog. They fancy themselves able to maneuver into any space they set their minds to enter and one such person showed up at our high school. Since he certainly couldn’t call me, I decided that I would call him. At 10, when my father, who worked as a garbage man and had to rise at 5 AM, was fast asleep.

This was 1987, so there were no cell phones. There were two phones in our house: One in the kitchen, and one in my parents’ bedroom. That alone made this a risky move, but Daddy was a sound sleeper, or so I thought. I went for it, and wasn’t on the phone 5 minutes before a click and baritone voice cut in:

“I know you must be new around here, so Ima give you the benefit of the doubt. She can’t take calls. She can not date. You can hang up now. And you (that would be me)? I’ll deal with you tomorrow. Go to bed.”

The level of embarrassed mortification I felt could hardly be put into words. Which is just as well, because had I said anything at that moment I might not be here today. But I digress.

I’m that person who can’t figure out how to formulate a quick reply or mount a defense in the heat of the moment. It’s usually later that it occurs to me what I could or should have said. Only then, it’s either too late or it doesn’t matter. Give me a paper and pen (or a keyboard nowadays), and the thoughts flow much more eloquently.

Since I couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t match wits with my father in a verbal discussion no matter how long I lay there and cooked up potential responses in my head, I wrote him a letter. Its contents are irrelevant, because seriously, how much sense do you think an embarrassed and overwrought 16-year-old girl made? But I wrote it, and I left it right where I knew my father would see it before he left for work the next morning.

I expected the worst, but got just the opposite. I still got it with both barrels, and punishment was still meted out, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Because Daddy was able to think about what I was thinking before we spoke, we were both spared my trembling, stammering, deer in the headlights response to his displeasure.

For the first time, I got an understanding that my father wasn’t trying to make my life miserable. He didn’t set out for me to be known as the untouchable girl (and the jokes that went along with that!), but he was completely at ease with that because he knew what I did not know: that it was what was best for me. One day I would appreciate it. That wasn’t the day, but at least I *got* a clue.

It was concern and love rather than sadism driving the narrow corridor and high walls he had built around his daughter. We got along much better after that. The rapport was easier not because he changed, but because I learned to “see past the weekend”, for once in my teen-aged life. It doesn’t mean I always understood perfectly from that day forward. It simply meant that my dad was no longer the distant figure providing my needs while making unreasonable pronouncements from on high.

Which brings me back to the possibility of a memoir and that tension between truth and subjectivity. When you are honest with yourself about yourself, there needn’t be any tension between truth and subjectivity. When the default position is one of honoring the one who was the vehicle though which you were given life, training and love, even the harder things are tempered with grace.

Therein lies the rub, I think. Love, and the difference between real love and our culture’s bastardized redefinition of it. It took me 16 years to get a glimpse of the difference, and I was well on my way to being 30 years old before the overwhelming power of my daddy’s love for me truly sank in.

We all remember our childhoods from a particular vantage point.Booky was right about that. Subjectivity comes with the territory. In fact, I suspect that overt attempts at an objective rendering of our pasts reveals a level of self-deception which makes it easy to romanticize or smear.

Taken all together, and no matter how I look at it, I was blessed with an excellent father.

I am suddenly reminded of the officer playing Taps at my father’s burial site. I’m going to take that as a sign that you’ve read enough to have gotten a glimpse of a great man in a world where great men are often unrecognized.


That’s a wrap.

Daddy-isms #4: My Wedding Day

Our family attended a wedding on Saturday. After we got home my husband noted that as the bride’s father walked her down the aisle, he remembered the last few moments he spent with my dad in the vestibule of the church as they waited patiently for me to get my act together so the ceremony could begin.

Daddy: You ready, SAM? Because once I let her go down at the front of that church, my job is done. You need to be ready to handle this thing and do it right.

SAM: At this point either I’m ready or I’m not, right?

Daddy: I hope so because you sure can’t send her back.

What did he say to me before he walked me down the aisle? Not much:

Me: No words of wisdom?

Daddy: What I’ve taught you has either sunk in by now or not. I love you, and you know that, so good luck.

Have I mentioned that I miss my daddy? I do.

I keep waiting for the pangs to stop. My husband says it’ll be a while so just learn to settle in with them.

That sounds exactly like something my dad would say.

Daddy-isms #3: On Money

My father took wise financial stewardship very seriously.Almost every one of his kids and local grand children can recall a moment when we succeeded an endeavor based on taking his advice or failed miserably as a result of not listening to what he tried to tell us. One thing he understood no matter which road we took: ‘Y’all gonna do what you want to do anyway, aren’t you?”

He often recounted the very day that he, as a young man, decided that he would never again be wasteful or foolish with his money. One of his sisters had died at a moment in time when he did not have the money to travel back home to be there in time for the service. Few had plastic emergency cards in their wallets in the 1950’s. He made a vow to himself right then that he would never again find himself in that situation, and he kept that promise.

Daddy died in good financial health precisely because of these principles, which he tried to instill in us from an early age. Sometimes I listened, such as in the case of being wise and avoiding car debt. Other times I didn’t, as in the case of the student loans for the degree I haven’t used and would have to dig through my file cabinet to search out. Either way, he offered us sound principles to live by. The first is common sense but…

Don’t spend every penny you make. Even if you can only save $10 per paycheck, that’s better than nothing. Learn to see past the weekend.

This next one might be debatable to many people, but it rings true to me.  As a very young woman I lent half my rent money to someone in dire straits. They promised to get it back to me in time for my me to pay my rent, and they didn’t, which left me in the position of having to go to my daddy to get bailed out. I hated that because to that point, I took a fair amount of pride in the fact that I’d never had to do it. He of course, reminded me of a cardinal rule of his:

If you can’t afford to give it, don’t lend it.

Someone (read: one of his kids/grand kids) was always asking Daddy to cosign for some car, truck, or other. I found it funny because it wasn’t like they didn’t know his stance on it:

If they need a cosigner, the bank has already determined that the borrower ain’t good for the money. I don’t co-sign for people and you don’t either. You’ll have enough bills of your own to pay.

The funeral home (whose late founder was a friend of my dad’s) gave us some lovely complimentary wallet cards with the picture we used for the cover of my dad’s memorial service book. My niece keeps hers in her wallet, right in front of her emergency credit card so that she can remember Deac’s near constant admonitions to her:

Live within your means.

And more than just living within our means, he told us:

It’s not so much what you make, but how you manage what you make.

It was good for me to write this so that I could be reminded of that last one in a world where it’s easy to think , “If only we made more money we could…”

So thanks, Daddy.



“Dress like you’re going to church.”

Not too long after I moved out of my daddy’s house, my crappy car broke down, so I called him and asked could he drive over and give me a ride to church.

He agreed even though I lived 15-20 minutes away and our church was only a third of a mile from his house:

“Be ready when I get there because I don’t intend to be late.”

When I saw him pull up I headed down the stairs to get in his truck dressed more or less like this:


He was incredulous and slightly horrified I think. Said I should know better than to go to church dressed like I was headed to a night club. Clearly, it had been a very, very long time since he’d been to night club, but I darn well knew better than to utter a word.

I offered to go back and change and he truly wanted me to, but then he looked at his watch. “Let’s just go but this is the first and last time you will get out of my car at church on a Sunday looking like that.”

Like most people in the church today, he lived long enough to see how benign my ensemble was, but to this day I wear a skirt or dress to church.

Daddy-isms #2: Words to Live By

Every parent has sayings that their kids can expect to regularly hear because they apparently did not sink in the first 100 times. My daddy was no different, except that he had a few that I have never heard anyone besides him use in my 44 years of living.

“Stay between the lines”

This was one he took to using when he talked with the children he encountered every day when he served as a crossing guard after retiring from full time work. It served a dual purpose, and even kids who had long graduated public school recall Daddy using the adage “Stay between the lines” when instructing them on how to cross the street, and how to live and make right decisions in life.

We didn’t grow up hearing this one. With me it was “obedience is better than sacrifice” since I always had a very good reason for why I didn’t so something the right way the first time. That’s a Bible verse though, so I won’t attribute it to my father.

“Use your head for something other than a hat rack”

Oh, how I hated it when he would say that to me! I would laugh when he said it to others, but not when he said it to me. I was smart, or at least I thought I was. Time will tell they say, and it has shown me time and time again how smart I’m not. So Daddy’s admonition was one I recall often.

“Life ain’t lived on flowery beds of ease”

Having faced a lot of hard things in his life, my daddy didn’t have much patience for wailing, whining, or pouting in response to difficult things. He was adamant that we understood that life will challenge us all, but it will trample the weak. And while he taught us that our hope rested in God, he didn’t think that meant we wait around for life to happen to us.

“Boys don’t bring the babies home”

If there was ever a time I saw my mother get truly angry at my father, it was the first time he said this. It was in a family meeting requested by my stepsister, who always wanted to buck the system. The meetings were few, far between, and farcical because Daddy would feign intent listening to the complainant only to shoot them down.

You see, he had a much stricter line for the girls to walk than the boys. It’s one of the reasons why my sister moved out as soon as she graduated high school when she was just 17 years old. His differing yielded mixed results, but not one of his girls brought a baby home. I didn’t say no one got pregnant, but no one did so as a minor living under his roof. And even though he knew how much it angered his wife when he would utter that saying, he never stopped saying it because he was focused on something bigger than avoiding her ire.

“Charity begins at home”

Yeah, I know that it’s not a Deac original, but he said it so much that it felt like it. Daddy had a real thing about taking care of your family. There were few things that irked him more than getting even a whiff of a hint that one of us was mistreating the other or withholding help that it was in our power to offer.

“You stand for what’s right, even if you have to stand by yourself”

If my Daddy had a life motto, without question this had to be it. And everyone he knew expected nothing less of him.

The Tough Get Going…

I thought I was at a loss for words. Then I spent a good long time with my mom yesterday, went home a cried, and the words came back.

I am struck with how tough my father was, and how he raised his kids to be the same. Daddy was all about working the problem rather than rehashing it and you could hardly work a problem if you were overly emotional about it.

About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Now, older black men and prostate cancer is such a common occurrence that if you have any kind of knowledge about it, you know that early detection equals a survival rate of over 90%. My dad knew this, and the last thing he wanted was to create a panic. So he kept mum about it to everyone except his wife….and me (which includes my husband by default), until it was nearly over.

When he called me he said that he figured at least one of his kids needed to know what was up and I was the only one who could both handle it without panicking and manage obeying him by not telling any of my other siblings until we were at the tail end of the thing.

Daddy didn’t like being fussed over and he certainly didn’t want to be constantly surrounded by others’ fears or harangued for updates. Oh, and he loathed the idea of being watched in a vigil-like manner. He was a strong man and he could handle whatever life threw at him, thank-you-very-much. His wife said it was male pride. He thought it an automatic requirement of true manhood.

My father spent one very uneventful week, medically speaking, in the hospital before he went home. It was also a very eventful week, and one in which we experienced the full range of who he was and what he was all about, in concentrated form. As we all look back now on individual conversations we had with him, we wonder if he and God hadn’t already talked about what was ahead.

Anyway, one evening there were a lot of us in his hospital room. That was often the case that week, but on this day it wasn’t just family. His pastor, two deacons from his church, and a young family from his church (husband, wife and 2 kids) had joined us to keep him some company. When the pastor broke up the conversations and suggested we all pray, Daddy spoke up:

“I always welcome and look forward to the prayer but.. I’m looking around here and I hope this ain’t some kind of vigil. I don’t like vigils, and I don’t need one. I feel fine, just need some rest and some things checked out.”

One of the men made it clear, “Nah, Deac. This ain’t no vigil. It’s a party“, to much laughter.

My dad never saw the point of crying over spilled milk, tough times (“it rains on the just and the unjust”), and he kept his emotional cards close to the vest except on very rare occasions. Those occasions were usually a very big deal. However, he understood that human beings feel, and that’s a part of life too. He knew how to offer comfort when it was needed.

The first time I recall my father telling me he loved me I was 18 years old. My maternal grandfather had just died and Daddy knew how hard that was. Grandpa was the funniest, most generous, and straight talking man you’d ever meet. All the time, but especially on the weekends after he had a couple. All his grandchildren thought the world of him, and it was a difficult loss.

It was one of those times when my father knew instinctively that his girls especially would benefit from the comfort of his arms and his words as well as his actions. It was a stretch because my father was one who believed wholeheartedly that a person tells you how they feel about you by the way they treat you, and he took good care of all of his kids. We knew, all 9 of us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were loved.

That day though, he knew he needed to do more and he did. After that, it was business and usual; stiff upper lip and all that. It’s the way Daddy bred us to be, and I have had quite a journey on the road to being more vulnerable, with my husband’s help. It’s been a great ride, one that has helped me be a better wife.

Nevertheless, one of the things I am ever so grateful to my father for is an understanding of how truly small most things are in the grand scheme. How rare are the things we encounter that are worth losing sleep over.

I hope the fact that the tears I still shed after two months are for him would qualify as a very, very big thing.


A Man Who Was Forgiven Much Loved Much

I notice among today’s Christian men (from the pulpit to the back pew) a tendency toward self-flagellation. Even if they were delivered from womanizing, dishonesty, alcoholism , or some other addiction decades prior, they feel compelled to preface every uttered truth with a sin bio for the sake of credibility. My husband isn’t like that, thankfully. My daddy? He most certainly wasn’t like that.

My father had his share of weaknesses as a young man. He never denied that, but he also rarely discussed it unless he could see an immediate and eternal benefit to the recipient for doing so. He was a firm believer that you judge a tree by its fruit, not by its ability to convince you of how much it has grown.

To that end, my father took a vested interest in men who were struggling in their lives, whatever they were struggling with. He rightly understood that “we all got somethin'”. So many of us forget the power of grace and redemption the farther we are removed from periods of our life which were rife with sin. We grow increasingly judgmental of people, even though we are well acquainted with their particular vice. Not so with Daddy. He was understood grace.

Over the past few years, my father had allowed my brothers to take over care of his yard. Having run his own weekend landscaping business for many years, my father took pride in a yard well kept. When my brothers insisted he let them take over care of it, he did so, but always under his supervision. But then he started noticing struggling men in his community, men out of work, men laid off, and some men he knew were struggling with addictions.

When he would see them around town, he’d pick them up and give them an opportunity to earn some money by doing odd jobs for him; cutting the grass, raking leaves, painting trim, weeding flower beds. In fact the week before he went home, in his hospital bed, he was concerned about a guy who was scheduled to come by his house to do some yard work: “I hate that I won’t be there tomorrow [David] stops by.”

My brother assured him that he would take care of the yard work and Daddy explained to him that he wasn’t concerned about the yard work so much as he was with spending time with the young man coming to do it. To my father anyone under 50 was “young”. He wanted to give these men more than just money. He loved much.

Every week he visited a local nursing home with the express intent of visiting those residents who never or rarely got visits from their own family members. Another day of the week, he loaded up his truck with bags and boxes of food from his church’s pantry and delivered them to families he knew were having a rough go of it.

He understood the importance of Christian fellowship and once a week he got together with a bunch of other retired men at a local church to have lunch. Every now and again- quarterly?- the men would be magnanimous and let their wives join them. Every now and again.The church’s secretary said she enjoyed it when they showed up and was more than happy to serve them in whatever way she could.

Because his life and work was touched with the Divine mark of one who had been redeemed, he didn’t need to waste words and self-flagellate trying to convince anyone that he’d had an encounter with The Master. His life was the evidence.

This generation talks too much about what we’re gong to do precisely because we don’t live lives that eliminate the need for excess words.

Daddy was forgiven much, therefore he loved much, and his life spoke for itself.





A Tribute to Stand…For a Good Long Time

Heather recently pointed out that (and this is my paraphrase of her thoughts) that we are born, we live, we die. Thankfully that’s not the end, but making exceptions for those closest to us, it’s not long before we are forgotten. For the most part, that’s as true of my daddy as it is of anyone else. Being a big personality in an obscure, largely unheard of town is certainly not the thing that lands one in the history books, and my dad could care less about that anyway. He was busy about his Father’s business.

Nevertheless, the call we got from his town’s mayor’s office was a big deal to us. For the last decade of his life, my daddy decided to be a school crossing guard. In that capacity he was to the people who walked and drove through there the equivalent of a bartender without the liquor. He rarely offered his opinion when it wasn’t asked for, but as he stood out there at that intersection, he found his presence and opinion highly sought after.

The kids were attached to him, but so were their mothers, and so were the numbers of people who would leave home a few minutes early once they realized he was out there just so that could stop for  a minute and chat between crossings.

Back to the mayor’s call. They have decided to honor Daddy’s 50 years of contribution and investment in his community by naming the crossing where he served for over 10 years after him, complete with a monument at the site. That call was the first tear of joy we’d shed since this enormous void opened up in our family.

I mean seriously, how cool is that??