As Father’s Day approaches, the debate intensifies about Missing-In-Action fathers. Deadbeat dads. What useful nugget can I add to the conversation since I grew up without my dad? Before, whenever asked, I’d say my father left us when I was seven. His family stepped in to make sure we had a soft landing: the solution to the problem of who helps to raise these four girls.
Uncles asking about school, grades; who’s pickin’ on you. Babysitting because our mother worked on Saturdays. Loving you unconditionally. Providing the extras at birthdays, Christmas, and special occasions. Giving you the down payment loan for your first new car after college graduation.
Today, I decided to step back from the judgment of that seven year old who still lives inside me and take second look at my father, Nathaniel Box. Nickname Jake. Gramps.
My father’s roots are in Chidester, Arkansas and the surrounding small towns. Complicated. Family status is based on blood, marriage, formal and informal adoption, stepchildren. My father’s parents divorced when he was young. He and his brothers went to live with an aunt. Another family member raised their older sister. Both parents remarried and produced additional children.
The family migrated to Rockford, Illinois in the late 1940s. These hard working men came home at the end of their Friday shift at various Rockford, Illinois factories: bathed, changed into their best clothes for a weekend of partying, music, liquor, and gambling. Ultimately my father decided to live the single life all the time.
When we wanted to see our father, he could be found on Saturday mornings setting up his barbecue pit alongside our Uncle Red’s house. Before long, a crowd of men gathered to listen to him talk as he cooked his excellent pork ribs, shoulder, chicken, and sausages.
We stayed close to the house but kept a watchful eye on him. My father should have been a standup comedian. He had a biting, caustic wit and delivered the best one-liners. He was also a skilled debater. The men would egg him on with questions. With a glass of brown liquor and a beer chaser, he found his opponent’s weakness, poked holes in the other man’s argument, quoted scripture as well as dished about his opponent’s behavior, often leaving the person angry and the crowd roaring.
My father started showing up at our house when my eldest nephew, Kelley, was born. He loved his first grandchild. He arrived with gifts and money; and thereafter, he just showed up to spend time with Kelley. My parents had never divorced. Gramps and Granny knew what was urgent, necessary, and what could be discarded. They were awkward with each other but came together when necessary to support their girls and their grandchildren.
My father paid my room and board at Bradley University for three years. Just before time for me to return to campus at the beginning of my sophomore year, he showed up with the money. I was grateful. The university provided tuition assistance for four years. Freshman year, I’d received enough one-time scholarships to cover room, board, and fees.
One day during my junior year, there was a money gram for me posted on Williams’ Hall front desk window. Forty dollars from my father. I called my sister, Chip, a freshman at Northern Illinois University, to tell her. She’d worked part-time in his restaurant while she was in high school. By then, he’d moved into his own restaurant. Chip said dryly, “That’s my money. I called and left him a message.” All I could say was “Thank you and you better call him again.”
My father walked me down the aisle when I got married. Afterwards, he came to visit us on numerous occasions. My father showed us in multiple ways how proud he was that we’d become strong, resilient women. He was an excellent Gramps. He roughhoused with the boys and taught them life lessons. He spoiled Shawna, the only girl.
My father’s youngest sister commanded us to gather together to celebrate the 1995 Fourth of July in Chidester. She was scheduled for breast cancer surgery in September and this might be their last time together. Unexpectedly, my father died of a heart attack in January 1996.
Do I regret my father’s long absences? Yes! Did his absence shape how I approach relationships? An emphatic yes! My nephew says, “It is what it is.” Not perfect. Not fifties television families. But mine. I’m glad my father found his way back to us and I’m even happier that my mother never tried to block his time with his children.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.