I love my father. I love him for many reasons, but mostly because he did what he was supposed to do. He did it well. And beyond that, he did it alone.
My parents divorced when I was young—so young that I don’t have any memories of them being together. And for reasons that I may never truly know, my father got full custody of both my younger sister and me. My childhood memories are full of my dad doing all of the things that, in an ideal world, would have been shared by both of my parents. Around this time of year, when so many folks are contemplating the absence and shortcomings of their dads, I’m grateful to have affirming thoughts of mine.
Father’s Day reminds me of the many things that my dad taught me. Although he didn’t finish the 11th grade, he knew how to work with what he had. He loved math and was good with numbers so, before we learned arithmetic in grade school, he would sit my sister and me at the kitchen table to teach us the basics. At about five years old I knew the 12-by-12 multiplication table and how to move a decimal point when multiplying or dividing by a factor of ten. He enjoyed teaching so much that some of my early schoolteachers would grant him a few minutes to instruct the entire class.
Though my dad was never an avid reader or strong writer, he made my sister and I write book reports. Once, I remember choosing and writing about a short book with pictures on almost every other page. My dad was infuriated by my laziness and made me pick another book that was hundreds of pages long (320 by Amazon’s count) without pictures. It was a simple lesson: failing to apply myself was unacceptable.
The foundational skills I learned from my dad, combined with his enthusiasm for my education generally, gave me confidence and an eagerness for learning that guided me throughout my academic career. (And my dad’s encouragement pushed me and my sister, a lawyer and social worker, respectively, to earn the first postgraduate degrees in our family.)
While education was always important, most of my dad’s lessons concerned life outside of school. I learned to have pride in caring for my home beyond the typical “manly” duties of taking out the trash and mowing the lawn. Dad cooked; I cooked. Dad washed, folded, and ironed clothes; I did the same. And just as important was how I carried myself in public. My dad taught me good manners and about treating people with respect, but also about defending myself in the street when necessary. So at a young age, I could fold a fitted sheet and apply a chokehold with equal dexterity. My dad taught me how to do everything.
And for all of the ways that my father was there for me as a boy, he was equally present for my sister. She received the same lessons that I did, but she needed additional things that I did not. Like maxi pads. I remember the morning she started her first cycle. Panicked, she told me what had happened. (What an honor it is to be an older brother!) Naturally, I had exactly zero clues about what to do. But I accompanied her for moral support as she broke the news to my dad. He was unfazed and calmly directed her to the area of the downstairs pantry where we kept the toiletries. He was prepared, and my sister had several options. Granted, he could have given her a bit of a heads up about that rite of passage, but the point is that she had what she needed, and peace was restored.
Of course my dad also had to manage Black girl hair. He wasn’t as liberal as Jay and B are with Blue Ivy—so my sister’s hair was always respectability police-approved. In the mornings before school, he would braid her hair and put them in barrettes while the three of us would play word games that I would facilitate with the whiteboard in her room. It was a part of our daily morning ritual. When she got older, he pressed her hair. That was another kind of ritual with a separate set of defining characteristics: hot comb; electric stove; Just For Me texture “softener”; and my sister’s intermittent shrieks when the comb got too close to her neck while he was going to work in “the kitchen.” These are my memories. (I’m sure my sister would have plenty to add.)
My dad is, and always has been, relatively unaffected by the praise he receives for raising my sister and me. For him, it was as natural as driving his Cadillac (which is as natural as it gets for a Black man living in Detroit). Watching my dad over the years, as he supported, disciplined, and guided us, revealed to me that the essence of manhood (really, the essence of adulthood) is taking responsibility for my life. That means living with integrity, accepting the unpredictability of life’s path, and showing up. Everyday.
So yes, I love my father. I love him for being present. And I love him for doing all of the little, ordinary things that, when viewed together, make him extraordinarily worthy of honor on Father’s Day.
George C. Gardner III is a Detroit native living in Brooklyn. He contributes to EBONY’s “Ask a Lawyer” column and maintains a solo practice in New York. He is still capable of applying a mean chokehold and forming a respectable 3-strand braid. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @ggiii.