A King in Our Household
The following is a reprint of a June 14, 1997, Father's Day column:
By the standards of today's popular culture, my father would have been labeled a poor catch. He was a high school dropout, worked as a laborer a good deal of his life, often two jobs at a time, and retired from the government as a supervisor. Definitely "a less attractive marriage prospect," according to today's stilted communal values.
It's true Isaiah King never gave his three kids an allowance or took the family on vacations. He didn't even own a car. And he didn't have the kind of jobs that made it easy to take time off to attend a kid's high school drill competition or football games. But failure? No way.
My father was simply the best.
With the exception of a one-week hospital stay in the 1940s due to a job-related injury, a brief visit to his birthplace in New Bedford, Mass., and short trips to my sister's home in Gary, Ind., to Newburgh, N.Y., where my brother was stationed in the Air Force, and to Bonn when I was overseas with the State Department, my father spent nearly every night at home with Amelia, his wife of 53 years.
His only other absences? For cancer surgery in the '80s, and two nights in a local hospice before he died in 1990.
Failure? Isaiah King was a living example of what responsible fatherhood was all about.
My dad's life refuted the notion that wealth, academic degrees or social status have anything to do with being a good father. His lasting achievement was to show, through example, that the most vital and irreplaceable condition for being a good father is simply being there.
To the outside world, he may have been an average working-class man of little consequence. Lord knows, he endured more than his share of insults and slights growing up in this racially segregated city. But Isaiah King's home was the most cherished part of the Washington landscape, as far as we were concerned.
Anyone familiar with the King household will tell you that my mother held the reins in her hands. She was the brains and inspiration. After taking in washing and toiling as a domestic to help send three children to college, she went on to collect undergraduate and graduate degrees herself, and retired as a D.C. public school teacher. Amelia King was a spark plug. But my father supplied the horsepower. He was a king in more than name.
Looking back on it, I'm still amazed how we kids took his word for everything. Isaiah King had us convinced that we were the most ingenious and richly endowed family in our West End neighborhood. For example, we never knew the luxury of owning a garden hose or lawn mower during our many years at 1101 24th St. NW. Yet our front lawn was one of the best on the block. That's because my father would get on his hands and knees and clip the grass with household scissors. And we would haul buckets of water from the kitchen so he could sprinkle the grass by hand. Rudimentary? Yes. Embarrassing? He had us feeling sorry for kids with fathers who weren't as thrifty and as smart as ours.
Riding the streetcar or bus was considered a treat. We usually walked everywhere we went. Cars were an extravagance (Daddy said so). Besides, as he used to remind us, walking ain't crowded.