When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s—in my father’s absence—there were a number of black men who were the fathers in my life. Some I knew as family friends. Two men, Rex and Charles, came close to being my stepfathers.
Had it been a different time, Charles and my mother would have married, I’m sure. To me, he was my dad anyway.
With Father’s Day and all that we’ve been living lately, I’ve been sitting with their memories, feeling thankful to have had so many sweet moments with these kind, beautiful men.
These are just a few memories I have of my black daddies. I share this to honor them and their kindness to me and to thank them for teaching me this:
A man’s greatest strength is found in his tenderness.
Here’s a story about Beauty.
Truckin’ Through the Zoo with Carl
I was four years old when my parents split up in 1975. Some time after that, my mother started working outside the home for the first time in her life. She had quit high school to get married and have babies, so she didn’t have many options for work while raising her four children. I remember she worked at the Pillowtex warehouse because I spent a magical day once in the pillows when she couldn’t find someone to watch my brothers and me.
Maybe she worked other places, too, I don’t know, but ultimately she ended up working at the Main Post Office in Dallas.
It was here she met her best friend, Connie.
Connie had daughters too, so it was decided that all the girls would go to the Dallas Zoo for the day. When we met them at the zoo, the father of one of Connie’s daughters—Carl—was with them. I was excited to have a daddy with us. It was something I wasn’t used to and a real treat.
I’d probably met Carl before this day because I don’t remember being surprised to see him. Something about my memory of him tastes like banana split cake and baked beans, so there must have been a fish fry or some other get together where I’d spent time with him at some point.
Childhood memories aren’t much different from dreams, with times and places getting all mixed up in an instant. You hardly know what happened, but you’re left with strong feelings and pictures that stay with you.
To me, Carl seemed tall. He was definitely lean, with hardly any meat on his bones. Long, lean, and built for truckin’.
If you don’t know what truckin’ is, I’m not the person to explain it. No one ever told me the origins of this particular style of walking, its reason for being, or its rise in popularity. I may not know much about it, but I know it when I see it.
It’s a long stride kind of walk. When done well, there’s a certain regal-ness about it. A stroll of lackadaisical pride.
As far as I was concerned, nobody could truck like Carl.
Carl, with his magnificent Afro dancing and swaying in the wind, something I’ll never forget. I didn’t know a man could be beautiful like that.
He kept his hair pick handy in his back pocket for easy access, sometimes taking it out to pick out his hair a little. I liked it when he’d put the pick in his hair and leave it there. Wear it like a crown.
Someone asked: “What animals do you want to see?”
Someone said: “Oh, I like the lions.”
So we went to see the big cats.
Zoos then weren’t like zoos now, where some consideration is given to the happiness of God’s creatures.
The lions we saw paced back and forth in small cages. It didn’t occur to us to pity them. We didn’t try to look at it through their eyes, being pent up like that behind bars. What it must feel like to have that much power running through you in a world of concrete and steel.
The lions were something there for us to look at while eating ice cream.
That day with Carl at the zoo was a happy one. I don’t remember anyone not getting along or doing anything but laughing and feeling good. It was a day to feel free and happy. That’s my child memory of it, anyway.
Wondering about it now, I suppose it was a radical thing. A shocking site in the 1970s South. A black man, walking proudly with white women and their daughters, one of the children obviously his.
She had pretty hair, too.
There are dots I could connect here. Dots about cages, magnificent hair, and ways of walking.
But I just want to remember the feeling of freedom and how happy we were.
I just want to thank Carl.
To come in this series…
Rex, with a Possibility of Sisters
Dwight, the Sunshine Marine
Charles, My Black Daddy
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