TITLE: No Tears for Daddy
By Phyllis Stokes
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No Tears for Daddy
I didn’t sleep for a week. When she told us we would leave soon, that they had decided to give it another go, I chewed my fingernails to the quick wondering if she would really go through with it. One afternoon, without warning, she left to do errands. Curious about her unexpected departure, I kept watch waiting for her to return. In about an hour, I saw her heading towards our barely painted white frame house, cardboard boxes stacked to her chin. “We can put our things in here, but we can only take what we need.” A half-turned, deliberate smile emerged as she dropped the boxes in the middle of the floor. I couldn’t tell if she felt happy or just relented to the move out of desperation.
It was the summer of 1970 and I had just finished 6th grade. Looking back, it seems like my parents spent more time separated than together. But my older brother says we were apart maybe three to four times. I just remember her dragging us kids to find another place to live after one of their “misunderstandings” became something to expect. First there would be some kind of fight, next we would be moving out. She would get an apartment, or we would go live with Grandpa or Aunt Thelma. Then before we had time to settle into the new place, we moved back home again. Daddy was always there waiting.
I got so worried about him getting lonely without us being there. Daddy never complained, though. His mild manner was a direct contrast to her explosive temper. He spoke quietly and gently and always had candy corn in his top work shirt pocket. He would reach in and pull out some for us to eat while he talked to me about the importance of family sticking together. I never saw him share his candy corn with anyone else. I tried to eat it one section at a time to make it last longer. Methodically I snipped off the tiny white tip, then making sure not to cross the line between the orange and yellow, bit off the orange middle, leaving the yellow bottom for last.
I don’t remember the last misunderstanding, but it must have been a doozie, ‘cause this time while we were gone, he left too. My mind couldn’t picture daddy being anywhere but right there in the small town where we had lived all my life. We all were born right there in Jefferson County, my parents, their parents and their parents’ parents. We had lots of relatives who lived up north for years, but the dusty back roads of Arkansas were all we knew. Cousin Mitch with his smooth, processed hair and perfect teeth came down every year to parade his latest new car or something else he wanted to show off. Now daddy had gone to Chicago, too.
The farthest we had been apart, for more than a couple weeks or so, was the thirty yards between the shallow fishing pond that ran behind our house separating the property on the other side. That’s where daddy had his mechanic shop. After school, I’d walk the wooded trail around the pond to the shop to talk to his legs sticking out from beneath some beat up rusted out car he was fixing. It would probably end up sitting on the lot waiting for the owner to pay up. I don’t think we ever really owned a car; daddy always had one on hand that got left behind. And it
didn’t matter the condition, as long as it ran we rode in it. Even that old blue and white Chevy with no doors, we rode right down the main street in plain sight. We would’ve been the laughing stock of the neighborhood. But most of the neighbors were too busy with their own issues to notice.
Our closest neighbors, the Samuels had seven or eight mysterious kids slithering in and out of the back door of their house, talking to each other in hushed tones. One of the girls who occasionally played dolls with me in our backyard told me their house was haunted. She said the whole family could see ghost sitting at the kitchen table playing cards, but it didn’t bother them. On their weekly trips to the grocery store, Mrs. Samuels sat in the back seat with the Mr. driving up front alone—perhaps they were leaving room for the card playing ghosts.
It must have been 2 a.m. when the Greyhound bus pulled into the first rest stop. The bright lights from the restaurant rudely interrupted the best sleep I had gotten in days. As it pierced the dark, tinted windows of the bus, my younger brother Larry awakened. He squirmed and finally buried his face into my shoulder to avoid the invasion. Lare, as we called him, wiped the drool from his mouth as I pushed him back to his half of our shared seat. Momma was scavenging through her purse; her brow wrinkled the smooth dark skin on her face. At thirty five, she still had the beautiful youthful complexion of a twenty year old. I wondered why we had stopped. Are we there, already? I could tell it wasn’t a good time to ask. I had already learned most things in life by watching anyway.
By now most of the other riders were getting off the bus. They all looked so confident and sure. My mother got up and slowly started down the narrow isle, holding onto the back of the seats for support. She glanced back over her shoulder at us. “I’ll be back, just stay here with your brother.” The bus so quiet and dark, I hoped whatever we were there for would be over quickly. Before panic took over my thoughts, people begin loading the bus again and the air filled with the smell of hamburgers and hot dogs. My stomach responded with a growl. We had not packed a lunch and it had been a long eight hour ride with at least four more to go.
Realizing now what this stop was all about, I pressed my face to the glass to get a glimpse inside the restaurant, wondering what she would bring back for us. She was nowhere to be found in the crowd. Finally, I saw the top of her head as she stepped into the bus and made her way back to our seats. Without saying anything, she opened the twenty-five cents bag of Planters nuts and handed them to me. “Share these with Lare.” Tears welled in her eyes but she managed to turn away just before one escaped down her cheek. The next time the bus stopped at the Effingham rest area, I tried hard to pretend everything was okay so she wouldn’t feel any worse than she already did. This time, as other riders came back to the bus, hands loaded with goodies and making cheerful conversation, I crowded out the smell of food with thoughts of seeing daddy for the first time in what felt like a lifetime.
I didn’t know what it would be like in Chicago, but surely it couldn’t be any worse than what we left behind. Daddy had started another little mechanic business and got a place for us in a two-story building where our cousin Mitch lived. As we drove from the downtown bus station to our Westside apartment, I took in the unfamiliar sites—crowded city buses, towering housing apartments, buildings all huddled together, street peddlers, people coming and going in every direction.
When we got to our second floor apartment a few blocks from the L, kids were playing in the streets as if they had a right to be there. Our driver, another of our cousins, had to hunk the horn to get them to move so he could park the car. I noticed one girl about my age had on shoes, and then I noticed… they all had on shoes! I mean it wasn’t even a school day; they weren’t going to church or anything. I soon realized the children just wore shoes for no reason at all, all the time… everyday, and not just shoes, socks too! I knew city life was going to be different but this was going to be harder than I imagined.
Lare had already begun to meet some boys and making friends but the girls in the neighborhood were a lot more discriminating. “You don’t jump double-dutch?” By the look on their faces, you would have thought I had three heads. They would laugh then, but my solace came long after their fun was over and they were made to go inside. Most every night after we ate and cleaned up the dishes, daddy had the same question for me. “How ‘bout taking a walk with your ole man?”
Nighttime was better, the bright stars above winking down their approval. Under the cloak of darkness, the scorching beam of the summer sun no longer threatening our comfort, we went for a stroll around the neighborhood. Sometimes we would talk; sometimes we would just walk. Either way, it was fine with me. We were deep thinkers and daddy had his own fair share of pain and rejection. It gave us both time to clear our heads.
One night after we had gotten a few blocks away from the house, daddy broke the silence. “Are you ashamed of me, honey?” I was caught by surprise by the question, but I instantly knew what he meant. How long had he wrestled with this, wondering if his disfigured body was an
embarrassment to his family? It was not something any of us in the family had ever talked about. When I grew older I learned that the protruding hump that covered a quarter of his bent over back was the result of a brutal beating from his alcoholic father. I loved daddy so. But truth is, I had always shied away from anyone I knew meeting him. The other kids already had enough to tease me about. Just as I would do almost anything to avoid any more of their cruel comments, in that moment, I would have done anything to spare daddy any pain. Using my most convincing voice, “No, daddy, I am not ashamed of you. I love you and I am glad you are my daddy.” He smiled and grabbed my hand, and other than the pounding noise of my racing heart as I wondered if he could read my thoughts, we returned to absolute silence.
We had been in Chicago 6 months when my mother, my little brother, my cousin and I all got into the car to drive daddy to the hospital. He had not been himself lately, but I didn’t know he was sick. I had never seen daddy wear anything other than his work clothes, blue or khaki colored Dockers with the matching shirt. That day he wore a crisp white shirt. Something about that shirt gave me a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I sensed that something was about to change forever. Sitting directly behind him in the back seat, I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of daddy’s head the whole way to the hospital. His recent odd behavior, the doctors said, had been the result of a stroke. He stayed in the hospital for a week and contracted pneumonia. He never came home again. His death certificate stated renal failure as cause of death.
At the funeral I sat there puzzled as I watched the few folk who attended chatting as if it were a mere social gathering. Where were they hiding the pain they should be feeling? Didn’t anyone feel like kicking and screaming and crying to the top of their lungs? Was that the proper way to respond to the anguish ripping through the core of my being? Since I was the only one who cared that the kindest person who ever lived was gone, never to return, why then, did I just sit there? I sat there on that cold, under decorated, unpadded, wooded bench, staring at the unfinished corners of the pine box provided by the state of Illinois and did not shed a single tear for my daddy. That day I swore to myself that nothing would ever be worthy of my tears.
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