From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

My Father’s Son

The measure of a man is how well he provides for his children.

Sidney Poitier

It was one of those excruciatingly cold New England mornings in 1964. A four-day-old snow had turned to ice as it pressed against my bedroom window. In my twelve-year-old sleepiness, I staggered through the dark hallway into the bathroom, hearing the truck’s engine idling audibly outside.

Peering out, I saw his figure—a dark shadow moving against the white background, his breath clouding the air when he exhaled. I heard his work boots crunching the hard snow with his giant steps. I saw his dark face hidden beneath a knit cap, the upturned coat collar, the woolen scarf wrapped around his neck and chin. One gloved hand guided the ice scraper across the truck’s windshield; the other brushed the shavings like a crystal beard from the truck’s old weathered face.

Daddy. Moving with a quick purpose, driven by a commitment and a responsibility taught him thirty-five years earlier in Depression-era Georgia. Daddy. A silent gladiator who was stepping once more into the hostile arena of the day’s battle. Daddy. Awake while the rest of the world slept. And as he slid behind the steering wheel, driving carefully from the driveway onto the street, the truck was swallowed up by dawn’s dimness. As I returned to the warmth of my blankets—in my own bed, in my own room—I knew I could go back to sleep, to dream, because Daddy was outside facing the cold.

Throughout the many junior- and senior-high mornings I watched my father go to work, I never told him how that vision affected me. I simply wondered at his ability to do what he did: keeping the kitchen filled with food, making the payments on my music lessons, covering the car insurance so I could drive during my senior year, piling the Christmas gifts beneath the tree, taking me to Boston to buy new clothes, dragging me to church on Sundays, driving me to visit college campuses on his day off, kissing and teasing my mother in the living room, and nodding off in his easy chair in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps it was because these scenes seemed so ordinary that I never spoke of them, never weighed them beyond my own selfish adolescent needs.

And then at college, away from him—when his presence became merely the voice over the phone during weekend calls or the name scribbled at the bottom of the weekly letter stuffed with a ten-dollar bill—I thought other men were more significant than Daddy. Those men who taught my classes in polysyllabic words, wrote articles in journals and explained complex theorems and philosophies. Daddy never did any of that—he couldn’t with only a high school education. My hero worship made me a disciple to Ivy League scholars who ignited my dormant ideas and dead men whose names were printed on book covers, buildings and the currency I hungered to possess.

Then, as I traveled to Europe in my later college years, I realized I had seen more, had traveled farther and had achieved greater distinctions than Daddy ever had. I was filled with a sense of self-importance, puffed up with grad-school grants, deluded with degrees and accolades assigned to my name.

Then, I entered the formidable arena—the job, the relationships, the creditors, the pressures and the indignities of racial politics. As I reached my late twenties, I looked forward to returning home, talking with Daddy, sharing a ball game, watching an old Western on television, drinking a beer, listening to a story about his childhood days in Georgia and hearing his warm, fulfilling laughter. I rediscovered Daddy again—not as a boy in awe, but with respect as a man. And I realized a truth that I could not articulate as a child—Daddy was always there for me. Unlike the professors, the books, the celebrity heroes, the mentors, he was always there. He was my father, a man who committed himself to a thankless job in a society that had written him off with statistics and stereotypes.

When I reached my early thirties, when I became a father myself, I saw my own father with greater clarity. As I awoke in the early morning hours, compromised my wants, dealt with insults and worked overtime in order to give my son his own room—with his own bed and his own dreams—I realized I was able to do those things because my father had done them for me.

And now, at age forty-seven, when I spend precious moments with my own thirteen-year-old son, when we spend fleeting moments together at a movie, on a basketball court, in church or on the highway, I wonder what he thinks of me. At what point will I slip away from his world of important men, and will there be a point when he’ll return to me with a nod of understanding? How will he measure my weaknesses and strengths, my flaws and distinctions, my nightmares and dreams? Will he claim me in the name of love and respect?

Sometimes the simple lessons are the most difficult to teach. Sometimes the most essential truths are the most difficult to learn. I hope my son will one day cherish all the lessons and truths that have flowed to him, through me, from his grandfather. And as my son grows older, I believe that he, too, will measure his steps by the strides I have made for him, just as I have achieved my goals because of the strides my father has made for me. When my son does this, perhaps he will feel the same pride and fulfillment that I do when I say, “I am my father’s son.”

Mel Donalson

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