Family history, like history itself, is never perfect and is shaped by chance, circumstance, and story. Family history, like history itself, is always a little more complicated than it seems. My father did not want to get married and he never wanted children. Then he met my mother. She had a way of getting what she wanted. She wanted him and she wanted children. I noticed early that he was not like other dads. I had friends whose fathers spoiled them and could never say no. And while I wondered what that would be like, that was not the dad I got. My dad made the world bigger in so many ways. Other girls got little gold rings and tiny lockets. I got a passport and a library card with the strong message that those two things would work together. I was unfocused so he introduced me to ping pong to teach me a host of lessons: keep your eye on the ball, stay focused, you can’t hit it if you can’t see it. To give my mother a break when my siblings were babies, he took me to movies. I learned to see and love movies the way I would later read and love books. I still read several books at a time– a habit I learned from him. And I still have a deep love of movies.
First there was me. Then there were two of us and then three of us and then four of us. And he knew how to be the dad we each needed by being authentically himself and seeing each of us clearly. He lived his life by loving the world and by seeing the humor in it. He taught us to do the same by inviting us along for the ride. He had integrity and was absolutely fair. He was unafraid and embraced the complexity of life with his wry eye. He could get to the heart of life with a story and a point. If Aesop played jazz piano, he and my dad would have had a lot in common. He taught me insight is just a placeholder when you are learning something new. Life is not as simple as point of view, because there is always more than one perspective. We followed him around the world and learned those lessons everywhere we went.
When I wanted to be excused from school to protest the Vietnam War in Washington, he said I could go–but he had one condition: I had to articulate the other point of view before the protest. How could I? The other side was wrong! He held his ground and a couple of days later I told him why some one would fight in that war and how they might feel like it was the right thing to do. I went off to the protest and shouted out against the war with passion. But I also saw the quiet girl who sat by the window in my homeroom a little differently. Her father was in Vietnam. I thought about her again when my own son went to Iraq. My father taught us to have empathy with those with whom we disagreed, while taking a stand for what we believed was right. Hate is lazy. Disdain is a cheap way out. He drew a hard line against bigotry. “When you don’t limit your friends to the color of your skin, your world is twice as big.”
He was full of paternal paradox. He had both a sense of foreboding and an ability to throw caution to the wind. He was a devout Episcopalian and wide open to the faith of others. He did not ever take a day off from work, but would leave early once a year to meet the circus train and have a drink with the ringmaster.
It’s been 20 years. He died at an age that would make him a contemporary of mine now. I hear his voice in my brother’s voice. My brother and I do not always agree, but we were trained by the same guy not to be threatened by complexity– to respect and trust other points of view. We were trained by the same guy to argue for what we believe in persuasively and then listen to learn something new.
But I don’t just hear his voice in my brother’s voice. The lessons from my father are lit up right now and catch me by surprise in the voices of others. Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and the author of Amerianah (a wonderful book). Her Ted Talk on The Danger of the Single Story resonated with what I was taught and have come to believe. We all need diversity in literature and in the storytellers. We need to see and learn ourselves, but we also need to see and learn others. Then we can learn to embrace the complexity in which our stories are entwined. The “single story” normalizes the two dimensional into stereotype. This is the history of the Virginia History books of my childhood. These books told a single story and they got it wrong.
I had a historian for a father. Not everybody does. But everyone can have a library card. Everyone can embrace stories from different points of view. Everyone can listen and learn something new. We don’t need monuments to the single story. Nor do we need to rush to trade one single story for another. In stripping history down to truth we can’t, in our hurry, strip the story of hope. We need to ask questions. We need to listen. We need to wait. The answers are going to take time.
I made a donation to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia this week in my father’s honor. The mission of the museum is to preserve stories that inspire. I don’t have little gold rings and tiny lockets from my father. I have the treasure that I carry forward. I have a story waiting to be broadened by perspective and deepened by truth. The truth is our shared story. And that is where the hope is. Thanks, Dad.