Saturday, June 14, 2014

No more apologies: A daddy story

I refuse to be apologetic anymore because my mother and father were married and my father lived with us.

I. Refuse.

I will not be treated like an anomaly.

I am not a freak of nature in the black community.
My dad listening to Jazz 1970s

I just grew up with two parents. I also had a village that included two sets of grandparents. And men: three uncles I saw on a regular basis, an amazing godfather, and cousins and family friends that for some reason always knew when I was doing wrong.

For years I’ve felt guilt about having my dad around. For. Years.

Kids at school made me feel guilty that my father came home every night. That he was the one who made sure I made it to school every morning. Or that he had a job. In third grade a girl who I had never been friends with tripped me in the lunch line and told me, “You think you better than me cause your daddy dropped you off. You not.” Kids laughed and pointed as I sat on my behind on the gray concrete confused. Thinking, “everyone had a father, right?” The next day I told my dad to walk me to the corner and I’d walk to school by myself. If fitting in meant dropping dad, so be it.

Or in 4th grade when Yolanda Gray took my watch and my mother and father sat with her mother in the principal’s office. Her mother told my mother, “Oh you brought your husband to make me look bad, huh?”  I sat behind them confused. How could bringing my father make anyone look bad? Didn’t he have a stake in me? After that, I begged my mother to go to parent-teacher conferences in the mornings when my father worked. My mother attended plays and other day-time events by herself. I stopped asking my father to show up.

My Wedding in 1998

It hurt my father. I hurt him on purpose so I wouldn’t be an outcast. I did it because the community around me (and I'm only talking about this specific community not the entire black community) had internalized that dads were expendable and had placed this pathology on kids who really weren’t sure what to think. So we acted out our parents' pathology on each other because it was easier than trying to get an answer from an adult.  And to be “normal” in my neighborhood meant you had to have fly jeans, a name belt, live in the housing projects, and have a family situation that included lots of women. In those spaces men were aliens. I couldn’t change where I lived, but I could be conscious that folks didn’t see me with my dad. Even though I knew LOTS of families that were like mine, the overall consensus was that folks that looked like me didn’t have families like me. So in elementary school I dumped my dad whenever I could.

The few friends I had in school didn’t have dads living with them. When they came to my house they would shy away from my dad as though he was the boogie man. When he’d offer to drive them home after our playdates, my friends’ moms would think he was trying to be fresh with them. Two of the moms called my mother and told them to stop sending my father over and rubbing their marriage in their faces. Needless to say that stopped a lot of future playdates.

Not that my father wasn’t without his faults. He could be distant. There were things in his past (mostly about the South) that he didn’t want to talk about with me. He didn’t know exactly how to raise a girl. He had been raised by women but had never raised one himself. I was foreign to him especially when I went to high school. His anger was quick, and he could fall asleep at the drop of a hat no matter what the conversation. We didn’t become close until Milton came into our lives and bridged a gap we both hadn’t been able to.

But I will say, he tried.
North Carolina, Christmas 2011

When I went to the University of Rochester I was again made to feel guilty about my father being there. A financial aid advisor suggested that if my father moved out of the house for a year, I’d be able to get more financial aid. “Don’t worry, he can just go stay with one of his boys.” My father was 48, don’t you stop having boys at 30? My parent’s income combined with my grades exempted me from the HEOP program 95% of all the other people of color were in that Summer.  So when I arrived in the Fall of 1987 to the lush greens of Rochester and the home of the Yellowjackets I was on the periphery of a black community that I was never able to fully penetrate. After one night of drinking and folks telling their stories. I told them a story about my dad and his golf obsession. I’m not sure why I told it, but looking back I think I was just proud of him. When I had finished, a dude I had just met said, “Shiiiit. Erica, you making that shit up. Ain’t no daddy in the Bronx playing no golf with no white folks. Tell the truth. You ain’t got no daddy. It’s cool if your daddy split.” Split? He had just made the first of a dozen payments and taken out a loan to pay my tuition. If anything he was bound to the University of Rochester for the next 4 years and might have to give up his first grandchild to pay my tuition.

I’m not sure if there were times he could have split and didn’t. But I do know he was more than there. Not perfect, but there. I was loved imperfectly, by a man who didn’t know what he was doing, but was trying the only way he knew how. If it wasn’t for him, my grandfather, those three uncles, and godfather, I wouldn’t have known my husband when he showed up.  And my father and grandfather helped paved the path for the fathering my own husband has shown up for.

I. Refuse. To. Apologize. For. Him. Being. In. My. Life.

I no longer apologize for living where I lived, or not being Bronx enough (whatever the hell that means) or my family having a car, or my mom and dad being married, or not being poor. I’m done with that. We all have our pain, I have mine too. But we don’t get to piss our pain on others. We just don’t.

Raleigh, Christmas 2013

Whether we’re 4 or 44. We don’t get to shut down other folks’ memories and belief systems. We can debate them, we can talk about them. But we have to respect the way that folks feel. For my entire life, I’ve heard others tell me how hard their lives were because their dad wasn’t around. And I have compassion and empathy for them, and I try to fight with them. But there are multiple narratives in our community. Narratives that are just as valid even if they aren’t tragic.

What is tragic, is that the man I knew, loved, hated, loved again, and laughed with is disappearing. The sticky protein that is blocking his brain cells from remembering my wedding, or my age, and more recently my oldest daughter’s name is taking him away from me and my mother.  Day by day, he grows more and more distant. Our 20-minute conversations are only 3 minutes now. Our discussions of Jazz or politics are now one sided. Two weeks ago he walked out the door of the building he lives in and got lost in the rain for two hours. I thought I’d never breathe again.

So instead of feeling guilty, I remember our life together in little vignettes. When we get on the phone I tell him a little story about the two of us.

  • I remember that he never missed a graduation. 
  • I remember his excitement when he drove eight hours to Rochester, a city he’d never been to and dropped me off to do great things. I remember his hands touching the bunk bed and closet doors and his smile.
  • I remember seeing him cry for the first time at his mother’s funeral.
  • I remember having my first beer with him in the airport and thinking, “I’m an adult now”.
  • I remember him telling jokes in the limo with me and my bridal party and holding my hand under the train of the dress. Or when we walked down the aisle he said, “Let’s do this!”
  • I remember him calling me right before I left the house to a have Lauryn, “I felt like something was going to happen today,” he said.
  • I remember him holding Lauryn for the first time, and later Nathaniel, and later Vanessa.
    Nathaniel, Dad, Vanessa, and Lauryn.
    The Bronx 2012
  • I remember him winking at me at times when my mother’s huge family had engulfed us into one of their events. The two of us would sit like deer in the headlights not knowing anyone or having anything to do. He’d wink at me, and I’d smile. He's passed that wink onto Vanessa now. I smile every time I see it.
  • I remember the long trips to Tennessee, and the speeding tickets in Virginia. I remember the trip to Disney.
  • I remember his joy when I gave him a hat from my first overseas trip. He was more excited than I was.
  • I remember him with his headphones and t-shirt listening to the MJQ, Monk, Trane, Davis, Vaughn, and Red Foxx (only on vinyl).
  • I remember him walking out early on Sunday mornings with his golf bag, his sun visor and his Pall Mall Golds in his shirt pocket to go make that 8a tee time.
I remember for both of us.

See that’s my daddy story. It will have a tragic ending I’m afraid. 

But there were happy, sad, pissy, and awkward times.  But my narrative is just as honest, just as necessary, and just as important as the many narratives that will be told this weekend of missing fathers and women who have held it down by themselves. I will feel the pain of those stories. I will reach out to the authors of those stories and send out virtual hugs and words of encouragement. Some of those folks I'll see next week and ask them "How can I help?" I will validate their stories. I will hear them with all my body, heart, and soul.

But I want the same.

My story is valid.

I will no longer feel guilty.

Dad & Lauryn, Christmas 2012.
(Lauryn taking pictures with her new cellphone)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Unemployment in words and pictures

One of the humiliating parts of being unemployed is certifying your unemployment with the state every Sunday.  Every Sunday at 12, I type in the same information:

Have you looked for work this week?                                             Yes
Have you refused work this week?                                                  No
Have you kept track of the work you applied for this week?          Yes
Have you received any pay from anywhere this week?                  No

It’s not the questions. The questions would be fine, it's the fact that they haven’t sent me a dime in 10 weeks.  10 weeks.  In North Carolina if you’re fired, it’s more than likely that you won’t get unemployment benefits. North Carolina sides with the employer not the children who have to eat or the electric company that needs to be paid.  So every week, Sundays at 12, I click yes, no, yes, no and then certify that I haven’t lied to them.  Every week.

When I click over I get the same message:
Your claim has been accepted, but we cannot provide a payment at this time, because there is an issue on your claim pending an eligibility ruling. A determination will be made and mailed to you and your claim will be processed accordingly.

According to various Internet sites this message means you’ll never be paid. Which is interesting because the government never delayed in taking the unemployment taxes out of my paycheck.  But North Carolina loves businesses, it can’t get new businesses here if they don’t sell out workers by promising big companies they won’t have to pay unemployment insurance for it’s employees. I suspect that’s why there are so many Walmarts here.

So I wait. And I hope for money that likely won’t ever show up.

I’m luckier than most. We had a little savings. But we’ll be done with that by August.  So if nothing happens for Milt and I, we’ll have to go back to NYC.  Proud of our experience in NC, but we'll be in an immediate scramble to find schools, pediatricians, dentists, a place to live, and the three to four months rent we’ll need. Not to mention jobs.

It sounds like I’m complaining. 

I am.

We live in a great place, but it’s quickly slipping away from us.  Millions of folks are in this same predicament. The blame of our situation is clearly with me, but for others who are the result of lay offs, and reorganizations or corporate greed there is no fault. There is no blame. But in North Carolina the state blames you if you’re unemployed. Period. And there will be no funds to feed your kids, fill your gas tank to get the kids to school, or get a pair of second hand shoes from the thrift store.

But who pays attention? Is it true that I didn’t pay attention until I was laid off? Nope. My husband was already laid off. I knew all too well how the state and its corporations were giving folks the back of their hand.  In today’s New York Times, the most emailed article was “Why You Hate Work".An opinion piece on what everyone already knows.  You hate your job because creativity is sapped out of it and if you don’t know someone, you’re pretty much regulated to a job of nothingness.   What it doesn’t talk about is how those elements contribute to folks losing their jobs. What no one talks about is the estimated 4 million people who no longer qualify for unemployment or whose states like North Carolina refuse to extend unemployment.  Many governors believe that there are jobs to be had, and if you don’t find one it’s your own fault. (I was also disheartened by the comments sections where the employed thought that the unemployed were lazy and dysfunctional. Jesus, these are the people who I'll be sharing a cubicle with.)

No one blames the companies. No one blames the human resource people that put you in an electronic blender and when all your skills don’t match on your Linkdin profile you are automatically rejected. I had a company reject me 10 minutes after I had uploaded my resume to their site. I had another company tell me that my qualifications were too awesome for them. Another company wrote me a personal note to tell me I would be better qualified as a publishing assistant (a position I had held over 15 years ago). The company I just had an interview with has delayed the choosing of candidates for a second interview three times. No reason given, and to ask them why seems like job suicide. I need this job, so I remain quiet.

So I wait. I look for jobs. I wait for the rejection. And I apply again. Today’s job application is at one of the state universities. According to the Internet, they are notorious for burying your resume for months while you wait for a response. I have kids to feed and electricity to burn and I need work now. But I must take a risk. Even if it means I might be in New York City when they finally get to my resume. Even if it means another rejection.

I have no choice, but to remain hopeful.

So I will.