Like Denzel Washington in Flight, my father was handsome, smart, arrogant and drunk most of the time. To his siblings and friends, he was a charming-life-of-the-party man who played jazz piano by ear and told funny stories. To his wife and children, he was a real-life Boogeyman—a violent, controlling, addict who yelled, demeaned, battered and blew grocery money on booze.
His job sucked, racism sucked, marriage sucked, and he had too many kids for his money, so it didn’t take much for my father to escalate to nuclear in seconds over something a sober, more emotionally balanced person shrugged off. But by the grace of God, those terrifying early years are a blur, except for scattered flashbacks of bruises, black eyes, and police banging on the door.
This is hard stuff to admit about your father. Stuff it has taken decades to process and be so matter-of-fact about. Thing is, I don’t think he ever had it in him to be a good parent or even an okay one, and while I don’t know his whole story or where he went south, I imagine the cycle started with his own abusive father.
Still, this is not the unrelentingly shitty story it could have been. One sunny day, my brave, fed-up mother conked him over the head with an empty whiskey bottle and, while he was passed out, piled five children onto a train for a three-thousand mile trek to her older brother’s farm. Whenever I reflect on the courage it must have taken for her to escape and lead us to freedom, it fills me with awe.
Uncle Frank welcomed us with open arms and was everything my father wasn’t—kind, generous, good-natured, happy for no reason—and he didn’t hit when we did something silly like chasing the chickens. He wore Old-McDonald style overalls, worked the land he owned, fished, took care of his family and called it good. When my cousins and I gather, we recall his big laugh and his even bigger heart. He was a humble man born in the same post-segregation-Raisin-in-the-Sun hard times as my father. Yet, he dug in, got the piece of the American dream he could, and didn’t complain. It wasn’t until he passed away in 1980 that I learned he’d been a retired Air Force colonel, something he never got around to mentioning.
If you’re lucky enough to have an incredible someone, real or pretend, stand in the place of some critical person who’s let you down in every way possible, I think you stand a chance at not being effed up for life, and I owe dear departed Uncle Frank a debt of gratitude I can never repay for giving us refuge and hope.
If an incredible someone rescues you, I also think you have an obligation to shrug off victimhood because some children don’t get saved. Minus my father’s toxic influence, we caught our big break, and eventually moved to the city projects, which wasn’t glamorous as it seemed at the time, but it was safe and stable enough for us to mend.
We have our blind spots so it didn’t even occur to me that I needed to forgive my father until one day Mom said he’d called, as he did from time to time the last years of his life, to tell her she’d done a good job raising us and she mentioned I was a new mom. When she mumbled something about him wanting to see his granddaughter, I came unglued. Predictably, he lost his battle to the bottle a few years later in 1987 without ever picking up the phone to hear my No way, no how first-hand. Or apologize, beg forgiveness, or congratulate me for surviving him too, all secret wishes of my seven-year old self.
Before his death, I’d been mostly floating along, handling my affairs like a big girl and pretending he was dead, but it was clear from my hostile reaction to him wanting to play grandpa that I had some room to grow.
Forgiveness, as those of you who’ve done it in a BIG way know, is a gazillion times harder than saying you want to because bad stuff usually happened and YOU DON’T REALLY WANT TO. Also, except for sappy, holiday movies, it doesn’t take right away when you’re stubborn, so I was still at it when the beloved, ambassador of peace, justice and equal rights, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.
When he, who had been imprisoned most of my life, began preaching forgiving his adversaries, it both stunned and inspired me since he had a lot more to forgive than I did. To get on with it, he said in that musical dialect of his, you have to forgive those who hurt you. Otherwise, you stay imprisoned.
If a Nobel-Prize winning prisoner-turned-president could forgive the misguided people bent on breaking him, I figured it was time I did too, and all I know is that after I had “the talk” with my father, it felt like a thousand pound weight had been lifted off my heart.
In different ways, all three men shaped me for the better. My father, aka the boogeyman, was a cautionary tale. Because of him, I don’t drink. I choose sober men who respect women, live on purpose, use my talents, never give up, and try to bring my best game no matter the hand dealt.
Nelson Mandela taught me to forgive and heal those childhood wounds and remains one of the most amazing examples of the resilience of the human spirit. Compared to him, Uncle Frank probably seems like a mere mortal, but he was my hero. By showing me the powerful simplicity of hard work, doing what matters, having the right attitude, being a good person and following the laughter, he was the one who saved me and made much of who I am possible. When I look at his picture, it doesn’t take much at all to hear his big laugh in my ear, and feel his big love in my heart, and that is priceless.