Why Daddy Mattered: A Father’s Day Ode to the Commish
My daddy mattered as more than a symbol or memory. He was so there for me in ways that guided me through heady challenges and gave his unyielding support to make it possible for me to claim some of my life’s major victories. By the time I was seven-years-old, I really understood the power of words, language and the ability to communicate with others. It turned into a behavioral problem though, when in second grade, I just could not stop talking. I talked to strangers (and still do), imaginary friends, classmates and my brothers who were younger than me and still grappling with forming words and ideas into language. But my second grade teacher was not interested in the power of my words and as a real “Queenie Meany,” she struck holy terror in the classroom with a scowl and yard stick that ruled supreme; but obviously not supremely enough for me to shut my mouth.
As responsible teachers did at that time, she placed a call to our home requesting that my parents come up to the school and conquer my speak out demons. Daddy came and called me out in front of the entire class for lacking the ability to obey Ms. Hughes imperious command to shut up. Under my breath and in between my clinched teeth, I was saying all kind of defiant things, while being issued a cease and desist order to stop talking in class. Recently, my mom told me my dad was kicked out of Masons for being loquacious and challenging their practices.
That visit to my class would be the beginning of a series of visits my dad would make over the decades to speak with my teachers about my errant behavior and achievements as well. I would later find out that while he was growing up, he was rather challenging in his own right taking on my switch whuppin’ grandmother Johnny Clyde Muse, who would beat all up on you without batting an eye or issuing one iota of empathy. As her favored child, he was spared many a switch waging moment and her unyielding brutality.
One fire fly filled DC summer evening when I was all of twelve, Daddy called me to the porch front steps to deliver a very poignant biology lesson. As I sat on our front steps listening, he was instructing me on my pending womanhood. Three weeks later, my period showed up while I was riding my brother Fletcher’s bike. As an adult, he would give a similar set of instructions about pursuing a healthy sexual life, when in the course of a conversation we were having about my one college boyfriend; he realized that at twenty-two I was still a virgin.
Throughout my schooling he intervened to put me on a corrective course when I strayed morally or academically. In sixth grade, I stole a bag of potato chips, which fell from under my coat. The store owner reported the theft to my teacher and not the cops, thus preventing me from entering a school to prison pipeline. My teacher called the house to report the incident and the discovery of a journal he found which clearly detailed joining a girls’ gang. Mr. Brown was adamant that becoming a juvenile delinquent was not in my stars, as he guided me towards my passion for geography and cartography, both of which also were encouraged by my father through subscriptions to National Geographic, maps he brought home for his job and a globe that I kept in the room I shared with one of my brothers. Mr. Brown made it clear that prison was not in my future. My father showed up to gather the details and address the matters. He was furious with me and pointed out that I wasn’t a competent thief, nor was the gang life on my path.
In junior high he put the Algebra teacher on notice regarding her inability to teach me the subject comprehensively, because previous indicators through grades and tests indicated that I had solid math skills. He hired Mr. Guthrie, a graduate student at Howard University, to tutor me. Holding down two jobs, Dad was a clerk at the Defense Department by day and a private butler at night and on the weekends, serving parties in embassies, private clubs, museums and homes along the Eastern Seaboard. I now know he must have had to take on extra work to afford those fees. While my dad couldn’t make the plays I was in, my induction into the Honor Society or track meets, when called up to the school on matters of urgency, he was there. After telling him that my high school chemistry teacher “hit on me” (old school terms for sexual harassment), my father marched up to the school to meet with and inform him that he would put the Bunsen Burner up his ass, if that thought even entered his mind. I felt so protected by my dad.
In 1962 as I went off to Fisk University to go to college, my dad drove me from DC to Nashville. It was the road trip of a life time, for I had him all to myself as we navigated the treacherous unlit and especially racially inconvenient roads of the South. When I had to leave school for a year, because the scholarship promised in writing was given to someone else, he got me job as a maid with a family for whom he worked. After my mother expressed indignation and outrage at her daughter working as a maid, he called in another chit and I got very interesting job working at the C&P Telephone Company running IBM main frame computers for the telephone company. That job enabled me to save enough money in a year to complete my remaining two years of college.
When I graduated from college and stated I did not want to march, he was adamant that if he had to walk me across the stage himself he would. I was incensed that our speaker was some major or general in the army and refused to keep my mouth shut about it. But I marched, on my father’s orders. As I matured into an adult, my father stood with me during many a crisis. When I got my first apartment he was dumbfounded that I insisted on getting a single bed. Often slow on the social uptake, I couldn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t, until I got a boyfriend.
When I became a single parent at age twenty-six, we almost parted ways. He proclaimed he could have dealt with this if it had happened when I was fifteen. I doubt that, seriously. He stood with me at my wedding and couldn’t stop laughing when I told him I was about to marry a Mississippi born white boy. After all, I was still reeling through the headiness of the times I spent as a Black Nationalist. He came to cherish my husband and in-laws dearly and prepared a series of sumptuous dishes, including his legendary potato salad, for Art and Margaret’s 50th wedding anniversary in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He said he would have come to California more often, but always thought it would fall in the ocean. He also had a major disdain for Ronald Reagan, who was governor during some of times he and mom visited.
During an especially heady period where my parenting skills and daughter’s life were in real turmoil, he stood with me firmly and clearly demonstrated how he truly believed in me. Though not an affectionate man, he knew how to comfort me. His wit, worldliness and intellect served as reassuring stepping stones out of many an emotional quagmire.
When my parents moved from Washington, DC back to rural Georgia in 1980, dad got involved in local politics and became a county commissioner. We bestowed the title of “The Commish” upon him, as he challenged white folk hell bent on keeping the good ol’ boys club at full membership and took on black people who refused to challenge policies dismembering their humanity. He unnerved many a white man and upset too many colored people who just wanted to remain locked down in fear. The protocol that most often “filtered” his public tongue earlier in life, because of the work he did as a civil servant and private butler, was dismissed completely and the stark forthrightness of his manner reigned supreme, as he became a seasoned elder.
Witty, intellectually crisp and at times scandalous, I witnessed and understood his flaws and watched him navigate moral breeches that brought us to the brink of falling out, but never severing our ties. I’ve spent the last fifteen years, communicating with him through photographs, dreams and memories; some brutal and others endearing. Whatever his flaws and failures may have been, he taught me to address mine head on and helped shape my character is ways for which I am eternally grateful. He protected me in a Papa Bear kind of way and stood with me through so many of my life’s butt bruising, soul-crushing and spirit tossing lessons. I am partly the woman I am, because “Daddy Really Mattered.”
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. She spent more than thirty years in higher education, serving on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College and as an administrator. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, This Week in Palestine and in several curriculum projects including Breaking Barriers for the Commission on Major League Baseball. She blogs at www.daphnemuse.blogspot.com.
©Daphne Muse 2013, Oakland, CA