The third Sunday in June is officially Father’s Day.
For much of my life, that day didn’t mean much to me.
My father, Henry, died when I was 10 months old and I was raised by a familial village consisting primarily of my hard-working single mother, Dorothy, her five sisters and a few of my adult cousins — all of whom were women.
And while I never engaged in many of the traditional father/son activities such as learning to change the oil in a car or the proper way to throw a curve ball that I watched on family television shows, I never really felt like I missed my dad.
Growing up in Oakland, Calif., I knew kids from traditional, two-parent households, kids suffering and/or benefiting (materially at least) from divorce, bitter kids with absentee sperm-donor dads and kids whose fathers lived nearby but might as well have lived in another country because they paid more attention to their post-midlife crisis second family (“whoops, I screwed that first marriage/kid up, but now I have a red convertible and a new young wife and I’ll get it right this time!”). I also knew a few kids like me, whose fathers simply died when they were too young to remember them.
In my teens, I began to think those of us whose fathers passed when we were infants may have gotten off kind of easy. We couldn’t be disappointed in them or be neglected or abused by our fathers and we had no memories to which to cling.
One summer during college. while I was working at a Wendy’s, a co-worker and I had a conversation about our dads and when I told her mine had died, her answer surprised me.
“You’re lucky,” she said.
“Umm. What?” I asked, taken aback that I didn’t get the sympathetic reaction to which I was accustomed.
“Yeah, you don’t have to worry about him,” she said before sharing that her father was a crackhead who would periodically show up on her and her mother’s doorstep for food, a place to sleep and money before suddenly disappearing into the streets of East Oakland again.
“Every day, I wonder: Where’s he sleeping? Is he OK? Is the next time I see him the last time?”
Her sad perspective solidified my own, and even when my mother died (20 years ago this December), leaving me a 22-year-old orphan (with very strong familial support; again I’m lucky), I didn’t quite feel the hole in my soul and psyche that many fatherless kids must endure.
But now that I’m a full-grown adult (biologically, at least) with friends who have children of their own (none for me, thanks), I realize I was lucky. Not because I didn’t have to grow up with a bad, self-destructive or neglectful dad, but because I was surrounded by father figures, men who explicitly or implicitly helped shape me into the reasonably productive member of society I’ve become.
Good men such as my uncle George Smith, the strong and silent type, with whom I didn’t even have an actual conversation until I was well into my teens. He was raised in rural Texas and California with old-school values that grown men “do stuff” … always. They provide for and protect their family and their family’s family. They give their time and skills to their church or whatever is important them, not to get in good with the Big Guy or collect accolades, but because there is something that needs to be done.
Men such as my smooth-as-silk cousin (in-law) George Callahan, who put up with having his wife’s preteen cousin and latch-key kid (that would be me) in his house five afternoons a week for about a year, and showed me my first few chords on the guitar and always seemed to me to be the coolest dude in the room.
Then there was my mother’s longtime boyfriend, Howard White, who despite having two grown children and a grandchild of his own, still treated me like family and took me to my first Oakland Raiders game (one of my happiest memories, even though they lost to the Dallas Cowgirls).
And my elementary school teacher and baseball coach, John McGaffie, who (loudly) taught his students and players about discipline, saying what you mean and meaning what you say, owning up to your foibles and being proud of who you are while always striving to be just a little bit better.
Those men were also fathers, but I was shaped by nonfathers, too.
There was my Uncle Paul, a longtime trucker and unique character who in his salad days sported a handlebar mustache, a top hat and, on important occasions, a formal cape and a walking cane. I learned the same thing from Uncle Paul as I learned from my high school math teacher, Mr. Nunley, a very flamboyant (yeah, that’s a euphemism, folks) man who wore egregiously loud Hawaiian shirts and daily professed his love of all things Patti LaBelle.
From them I learned — to use the vernacular — to always “do you.” Neither man cared about other people’s perceptions or stereotypes (an important lesson, especially for teenagers); they just “did them” and let the rest of the world deal with them as exactly who they were.
Yeah, I was lucky.
There are plenty of children who have no one. Kids who when they look around their immediate surroundings, see the street-corner pharmacist as the dude who seems to have it the most together. Little boys who grow up angry and confused for reasons they don’t fully understand and little girls who wind up looking for love in all the wrong places and people.
I know, these aren’t revelations, but simple, sad truths of our fractured, contemporary society.
But hopefully as you go through this day — Father’s Day — you’ll take a few moments to think of all the men in your life who positively (even if it’s through their negative example) impacted your life — be it coaches, teachers, relatives, family friends or the nice old guy at the store who always helped your mom pack the groceries in the car.
So happy Father’s Day to Uncle George, cousin George, Mr. McGaffie, Uncle Paul, Mr. Nunley, Howard White and to all of the fathers who “do stuff” for their families and all the men who make a difference to the young men and women in their lives.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at email@example.com. He’s also on Facebook (malcolm abram) and Twitter (@malcolmxabram).