Okay, since I’m baring my soul here, here is another piece of information that I think is important to know about me and my upbringing. To say that my family wasn’t well off when I was growing up would be an understatement of epic proportions. There..I said it. Now, allow me to put it in perspective for you. It’s not that hard for me to call to memory LOTS of nights that would see me off to bed with a burning hunger in the pit of my being. Nah, it wasn’t a hunger for knowledge, or justice, and not a gnawing hunger for peace on Earth. It was nothing that admirable; just HUNGER. Mama did the best that she could with the money that she made from cleaning houses, but house cleaning money “don’t buy much meat” sometimes. Suffice it to say, stewed tomatoes and rice became a staple meal in my house.
As for my house’s location saying that it was smack dab on the middle point between two extremes would be a fair assessment. On the one side was St. John Missionary Baptist Church, and immediately on the other side, a bootlegger’s house. Now, for those of you that may be uninitiated with my down south colloquialisms, a bootlegger is someone that makes and sells alcoholic beverages…aka: a liquor house, a moonshiner.
Now, the funny thing about being poor is that you often don’t KNOW you’re poor until you have something to compare it to, or, worst case scenario, someone points it out to you. Fortunately, we were firmly of the first sort. We didn’t really know that we were poor for a few different reasons. 1) We didn’t know we were poor because EVERYBODY in our neighborhood was taking that same, slow train to nowhere. And 2) we didn’t know we were poor because we had a strong, intelligent, Black woman heading our household. (Yes, I know this is a book about FATHERS and daughters, but try to stay with me for a bit and I’ll bring it full circle.)
For years, we thought we were always eating fresh corn and fresh peas and stuff out of gardens because it was healthy…We had no idea that Mama was getting most of it for free, and that it was all she could get. What we did know was that it would stave off that hunger monster for a few hours…and we were ALWAYS cool with that. However, in the shadows, Mama was fighting tooth and nail for her family. Usually, we saw no signs of the pressure on her but sometimes the feeling that she had that she was failing would creep through to the surface, and we saw it.
I saw Mama cry once.
The visits from the “welfare lady” were always rough. I never understood why mama would allow this woman that knew nothing about us question her like she did, but Mama was walking the line; playing the role; doing what she had to do to keep us alive…and I appreciated it more than she knew. …but I despised how this woman questioned her. I always felt like she was treating Mama like a child. After the welfare lady left this on this one particular visit, the tears broke thru Mama’s defenses…I never asked, but later in life, I assumed that she felt as though she was failing us. Now, let’s bring this full circle…Hey, I DID promise that, didn’t I?
There was always a strength bubbling just beneath the surface with Mama. You could see it in her eyes. It was a quiet strength; a natural, innate grace that belied a woman of her stature. The really funny thing about it though, was that she didn’t really know that she had a strength all her own. Don’t get it twisted, my mother was never a weak woman, but she never had an inkling of the breadth s of situations that she could handle; not initially, anyway. She had been raised, like many in her time, to rely on a man to handle the bulk of situations and she would be his number one supporter; a living, breathing pressure relief valve.
Then, once upon a time, she was forced to raise 8 of us…mostly on her own.
Life forced her to recognize a simple, inescapable fact: she could be strong because she HAD to be. She forced herself to clean houses to put food on the table because she NEEDED to. Giving up was not even a blip on the radar, simply because it couldn’t be allowed. Doubt was a bitter luxury in which she could not afford indulgence. Don’t misunderstand, she HAD doubts, but she could never allow them to take root and grow. Instead, she drew her line in the sand, laid down the roots of HER choosing, and defied to let the possible become the inevitable. Mama developed resilience of one of those trees that you see getting battered and whipped around by the storms, but that is still standing when the sun comes back out. She is not a highly educated woman, but she is very intelligent, and she knew the her giving in to the storms would be, in essence, giving us over to the storms and that was something that she wouldn’t allow.
(Here comes another “full circle moment”).
Sometimes as fathers, we want to protect our daughters from everything. Yes, I have to include myself in this count, because this is one of the hardest habits for me to let go. (Notice, I said “is”….not “was”.) It took me a long time to learn, that by sheltering my girls from everything that could possibly hurt them, that I was in fact hindering their learning about their own natural, God given strength. If I was to never allow them to fall, how would they learn that they could get up on their own? That was another of the tough pills that I had to swallow. It’s hard to tell your daughter, when you know that she is deathly shy, that if she wants that part time job, that she has to go in there and ask for an application herself. It’s difficult to have to tell her that she is going to have to go in there and come across as strong, and capable, and dependable without your guidance. It’s like sitting on needles when you have to wait in the car for her as she goes inside, and your insides are screaming for you to just go get the app for her, but you have to.
Here’s another scenario for you to consider. My oldest plays softball. She LOVES softball and made the varsity team the first time she tried out. I’m not going to go into details, but a situation arose in which I thought, and some of the other parents thought as well, that she was not being given enough playing time. Let me rephrase. It wasn’t that she wasn’t getting ENOUGH playing time, it was that she wasn’t getting ANY playing time. We all saw her in practice; smacking the ball to the fence, sliding into bases, running faster than anyone else, etc., but on game days, she was bench warming. Well, it got to the point where it bothered her as well. I remember her crying about it, saying that it wasn’t fair and that her teammates were even saying that she deserved to be allowed to play.
Now enter the not just protective, but the often OVERLY protective Dad. My natural inclination was to go straight to the school, and have it out with the head coach, assistant coaches, scorekeepers, umps, principal, School Board and even the teachers that ran the concession stand, but I let a cooler head prevail, and it can be summed up in one sentence that I uttered to my daughter:
“Do you want me to talk to them or do you want me to let you try to handle it first?”
Simple enough, right? I thought it was going to be cut and dry; another case of Daddy having to step in and save the day. Clearly this was going to be another time to put my cape on and save the day. However, to my surprise, she asked for the opportunity to handle it all on her own, “chica y mano”. I don’t know what went down, I never asked, but suffice it to say, she played in quite a few games from that point on. And there it was…her own private victory; the fruits of her self reliance. She began to claw her way out of that hole, and my own eyes began to clear a bit.
I could’ve stepped in and handled it for her, but if I had stepped in, and taken care of the problem, she would never have been given the opportunity to see that she could indeed handle things on her own; that she had the strength of resolve to go in, plead her case with fact, tact, and intelligence, and come out on top. If I was to give an analogy simple enough even for me to understand and that would sum all of this up, I would say:
Look for every opportunity to plant a seed of self reliance. Attend to every chance to pull the weeds of self-doubt, and self-loathing. Use every moment to water the roots of self esteem. Allow the saplings of self-reliance and self-belief to weather the small storms. All trees know how to reach for the Sun. Let your daughters stretch for theirs.