I called my Dad out of the blue in 1988.    We hadn’t spoken in several years, and I wanted him to know that I had started law school.  Calling him was a way of dealing with a nagging burr of unhappiness.

Dad seemed happy to hear from me, which was surprising.   Most of our phone calls over my life were about me needing money and were painful as he explained how he didn’t have the money to give me.   Those were the days when fathers weren’t required to pay child support.   It was a terrible position to be in as a child.

I figured this phone call would be a relief to him, since law school sounds like a ticket to financial independence.   Ironically, Dad was finally doing very well for himself, and for his third family.   He wanted to fly me down to Orlando to see him, a first.

Funny how we adults can suddenly be transported to being a child.  Wow!  My Dad wants to see me.  How cool is that?  I was 26 years old.

Dad and I spent a lot of time on that trip talking and crying.  I expressed my feelings of abandonment, and he expressed sorrow for the pain he had caused.  He wanted to do better, and I wanted him to do better.  But there were a lot of broken promises in our past, so I tried not to get my hopes up, even as we lounged by his in-ground pool.

Dad took me to his local watering hole to show me off to his friends.  Occasionally, he would look at me and say “I can’t believe you are my daughter.”  “And you did it with very little help!” he would add proudly.    The “survival of the fittest” tradition was passed on.

Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.