Deesha Philyaw || June/July 2021
This story was co-funded by Pipe Wrench subscribers and fellow contributor Andrew Bohrer.
“Birds taught a lot of men how to become caring men.”
– William “Speedy” Boykins
“You can have success.”
– Paul Gomez
Despite his absence and his negligence, or perhaps because of them, my earliest memory is of my father. We are at the house where I live with my mother and my grandmother. This is the only time I remember him being inside our house in the eighteen years I lived there. In this memory, I’m a toddler, not yet potty trained. I know this because my mother has called my father to come and force me to sit on the potty.
My father arrives, and he is angry and threatens to spank me. I don’t want him to spank me or to be angry with me. I want him to love me. Somehow, I already understand that his love is tenuous. So I sit on the potty. When he begins to leave, I notice that wrestling (the fake kind) is on TV. I recall seeing my father, grandfather, and uncles watching wrestling during the occasional weekends I spend at my grandparents’ house, the house where my father lives with his parents and siblings — or rather, the place where he gets his mail and changes his clothes once or twice a week. Because I know my father likes wrestling, I try to point out that wrestling is on the TV: to get in his good graces, to put the whole potty thing behind us. But either I don’t have the words to tell him, or he’s ignoring me. I am not yet toilet-trained, but already I’m trying to figure out how to make my father stay.
In 1971, when 22-year-old Cornell Norwood was forming the Black Country Roller Club for Black male pigeon fanciers, I was born to my 18-year-old mother and 20-year-old father, Donald, who everybody called Snap though I never knew why. Did they call him “Snap” because he was a short, scrawny man, “not bigger than a minute,” as some old folks would say while snapping their fingers? Or was it because you could snap your fingers and he was gone that quickly from wherever he had been just before — a woman’s life, or a child’s?
We saved you a seat at the Pipe Wrench table. Did you bring an extra chair?
I said a long time ago that I was done writing about my father. That I had said all that I wanted or needed to say about him. But lately, he’s been showing up in my essays, showing up in places he has no business being. He did that twenty years ago when I was almost-30, trying to track me down when I was back in my hometown for a visit. I thought of all the lies, of all the times I’d waited on the front porch for him to show up, pick me up, give me lunch money, and he didn’t, after saying he would. You want to follow me around when I’m 30, but you couldn’t show up for me when I was 3? Or 13? I told him to back off.
There’s so much I don’t know about my father, and the little I do know has caused me more grief than happiness.
What I do know: Snap was a ladies’ man. But my (half) sister T and I could never understand the appeal of him. Once we were old and cynical enough to joke about his neglect, we’d wonder what our mothers had been smoking to make them think Snap was a catch; after all, crack hadn’t yet seized our community in the early 70s when we were born. My stepmother (Snap married in middle age) once offered a clue, oversharing with me in a horrible moment of grief-filled TMI, which, however uncomfortable, was fitting: I always felt my father belonged to women, to the streets, to the bar, to everything and everyone except me. In his carnal world, there was no place for a child.
How did my father define success? I never knew his aspirations, or if he had any. I never heard him complain about racism or White folks. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t; I never heard him say much of anything about the world beyond women, Champale, and his beloved Saturday morning wrestling. But perhaps he saw potential for success in me. He must’ve bragged on my good grades to the White bosses at the luggage manufacturing company where he worked for more than twenty years because on the occasions he took me to his job, these jowly, red-faced White men would say things to me like, “You’re the smart one. Spell a big word for me!” Dance, lil monkey, dance.
Years later, I learned that my father’s Black and Brown co-workers, the line workers who made the luggage, had considered him an Uncle Tom. He held a supervisory role, a layer of management between them and the White bosses. Neither the line workers nor the bosses respected my father, although the bosses did bail him out for a time. They gave him advances on his paychecks, believing his lie that he was a single father raising four daughters whose mothers were all drug addicts. They also believed the lie that he was paying for me to go to Yale, a lie bolstered by a bumper sticker he bought for his minivan when he, my uncle, and my mother drove to New Haven to move me into my dorm: My Daughter and My Dollars Go to Yale, it read. In the course of my four undergraduate years, my father gave me fifty dollars, once.
I think of my father’s multiple car repossessions (including the minivan and a car he “bought” for me) and how he never lived under a roof that didn’t belong to my grandparents or a woman, and I wonder what kind of father he could have been if he’d been successful at something. Or if he could’ve practiced caring on some birds. Or had space to be creative and feel in control, part of a community. Maybe then he would’ve taken me to the zoo, which is where my mother believed he took me when he did keep his word and pick me up on the weekends. She casually mentioned this zoo thing when I was in my 20s, and I laughed an unkind laugh and told her she had to be kidding, that there was nothing about my father that said, Take my kid to the zoo. His unkempt appearance and unreliability aligned more with the bars and women’s homes he took me to. My mother’s delusions about my father had roots in the wounds left by her own father’s absence. She never asked me where Snap took me; she needed to believe in a version of him that didn’t hurt me.
Chuck Hatcher, Cornell Norwood’s pigeon protégée, credits the birds with being “solace, meditative, almost a spiritual aspect to inner peace, because the Black man has so much to deal with…” Did my father ever know peace? Was he troubled by his life as a Black man in this country, or by his failures as a father? I used to wonder, as a kid, if he ever missed me, if he ever felt sad or guilty about disappointing me more than he kept his word. I wondered if he felt bad about missing so much of my life and my (half) sisters’ lives. I wondered if his many lies weighed on his conscience. I wondered why his mother’s God didn’t “convict his heart,” a phrase I’d heard in church. I wondered if my father thought of me on my birthday or at Christmas, even though he didn’t give me gifts, even though I still gave him gifts at my mother’s insistence. I wondered if he ever considered apologizing.
Brought together by my mother’s terminal cancer, my father and I had six good Sundays before he died unexpectedly of a massive stroke at age 54, a few months after my mom passed away. On those six Sundays, so much was left unsaid. My father left me with far more questions than answers. More than fifteen years after his death, the questions remain but the focus has changed. I wonder less now about how my father thought of himself as my father, and more about how he thought of himself as a man who lived, it seemed, without tenderness. If he thought of himself that way at all. I don’t have to wonder if he could miss what he never had. I already know that much to be true.
Deesha Philyaw‘s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.