Remembrances of My Father

by Charles M. Blow
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Occasionally, without warning, the drunken wreckage of my father would wash up on our doorstep, late at night, stammering, laughing, reeking of booze.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Beating on the door, pleading to my mother to open it. “These my boys just like they is yours!”

He was on his way home from drinking, gambling, philandering, or some combination thereof, squandering money that we could have used and wasting time that we desperately needed. Sometimes he was a stone’s throw from our house in rural northern Louisiana. As a parting gift, he would drop by to bless us with an incoherent 30 minutes of drunken drivel, crumbs that I hungrily lapped up, time that would be lost to him in the fog of a hangover by the time day broke. It was as close as I could get to him, so I took it.


It was the late-1970s. My parents were separated. My mother was now raising a gaggle of boys on her own. She was a newly minted schoolteacher. He was a juke-joint musician-turned-construction worker.

He spouted off about what he planned to do for us, buy for us. But the slightest thing we did or said drew the response, “you jus’ blew it.” In fact, he had no intention of doing anything. The one man who was supposed to be genetically programmed to love us, in fact, lacked the understanding of what it truly meant to love a child — or to hurt one.

To him, this was a harmless game that kept us excited and begging. In fact, it was a cruel, corrosive deception that subtly and unfairly shifted the onus of his lack of emotional and financial investment from him to us.

I lost faith in his words and in him. I stopped believing. Stopped begging. Stopped expecting. I wanted to stop caring, but I couldn’t.

Maybe it was his own complicated relationship to his father and his father’s family that rendered him cold. Maybe it was the pain and guilt associated with a life of misfortune. Who knows. Whatever it was, it stole him from us, and particularly from me.

While my brothers talked ad nauseam about breaking and fixing things, I spent many of my evenings reading and wondering. My favorite books were a set of encyclopedias — the greatest single gift of my life — given by my uncle. The volumes were bound in white leather with red writing on the covers. They allowed me to explore the world beyond my world, to travel without leaving, to dream dreams greater than my life would otherwise have supported. I’d pick a volume at random — G — and off I’d go: gemstones and Ghana, Galileo and gravity. It was fantastic.

But losing myself in my own mind also meant that I was completely lost to my father.

He could relate to my brothers’ tactile approaches to the world but not to my cerebral one. He understood the very real sensation of touching things — the weight of a good wrench, the tension of a guitar string, the soft hairs on the nape of a harlot’s neck — more than the ephemeral magic of literature and learning.

So, not understanding me, he simply ignored me — not just emotionally, but physically as well. Never once did he hug me, never once a pat on the back or a hand on the shoulder or a tousling of the hair. I was forced to experience him as a distant form in a heavy fog, forced to nurse a longing that he was neither equipped nor inclined to satisfy.

My best memories of him were from his episodic attempts at engagement.

During the longest of these episodes, once every month or two, he would come pick us up and drive us down the interstate to Trucker’s Paradise, a seedy, smoke-filled, truck stop with gas pumps, a convenience store, a small dining area and a game room through a door in the back. It had a few video games, a couple of pinball machines and a pool table. Perfect.

My dad gave each of us a handful of quarters, and we played until they were gone. He sat up front in the dining area, drinking coffee and being particular about the restaurant’s measly offerings.

I loved these days. To me, Trucker’s Paradise was paradise. The quarters and the games were fun but easily forgotten. It was the presence of my father that was most treasured. But, of course, these trips were short-lived. My father soon sank back into his sewer of booze and women.

And so it was. Every so often he would make some sort of effort, but every time it wouldn’t last.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I would find something that I would be able to cling to as evidence of my father’s love.

When the Commodore 64 personal computer debuted, I convinced myself that I had to have it even though its price was out of my mother’s range. So I decided to earn the money myself. I mowed every yard I could find that summer for a few dollars each, yet it still wasn’t enough. The grass just didn’t grow fast enough. So my dad agreed to help me raise the rest of the money by driving me to one of the watermelon farms south of town, loading up his truck with wholesale melons and driving me around to sell them.

He came for me before daybreak. I climbed into the truck, which was littered with months-old coffee cups, dirty papers and rusty tools and reeked of cigar smoke and motor oil. We made small talk, but it didn’t matter. The fact that he was talking to me was all that mattered. We arrived at the farm, negotiated a price and fussed over the ones we would take. We loaded them, each one seemingly heavier than the last, and we were off.

I was a teenager by then, but this was the first time that I had ever spent time alone with him. It felt great. We drove around a neighboring town all afternoon selling melons to his friends. I got to see a small slice of his life. People smiled when he drove up. They made jokes, some at his expense. He smiled and laughed and repeatedly introduced me as “my boy,” a phrase he relayed with a palpable sense of pride. We didn’t get back home until it was dark. It was one of the best days of my life. Small gestures are easily magnified when there is nothing against which to measure them.

ALTHOUGH he had never told me that he loved me, I would cling to that day as the greatest evidence of that fact.

He had never intended me any wrong. He just didn’t know how to love me right. He wasn’t a mean man. I had never once seen him angry. He had never been physically abusive in any way. His crime and his cruelty was the withholding of affection — not out of malice but out of indifference.

So I took these random episodes and clung to them like a thing most precious, squirreling them away for the long stretches of coldness when a warm memory would prove most useful.

It just goes to show that no matter how estranged the father, no matter how deep the damage, no matter how shattered the bond, there is still time, still space, still a need for even the smallest bit of evidence of a father’s love.

“My boy.”