When my father died, old men went out of my life.
From the vantage point of my girlhood, he and his peers had always been old to me, even when they were not. In his last years, the reality of his graying head began to hit home and I made vague plans to care for him in his dotage. When he died, I suppose, a theoretical weight had been lifted, since Daddy was a paraplegic because of a car accident he'd had when I was 10 months old.
No doubt his senior citizen years would have been expensive and exhausting for me, but after he was buried, I was alone with a singular contemplation: His death wasn't for the best. Not only had I lost a treasured friend, but gone was the ease with which I could connect to his brothers, his male friends and their heavy, raucous laughter. Once again, I was surrounded by women.
My parents had separated when I was young. Growing up in Philadelphia in the '50s and '60s, an only child in a doubly female- headed household, I could have died from overexposure to femininity. A grandmother, a mother, occasionally an aunt, all the time rubbing up against me, fixing my food, running my bath water, telling me to sit still and be good in those grown-up girly-girl voices. Chanel and Prince Matchabelli wafting through the bedrooms. Bubble bath and Jergens coming from the bathroom, scents unbroken by aftershave, macho beer breath, a good he-man funk. Ballet lessons, Brownies and choir practice all led by women who cajoled and screeched in distaff tongues. I was drowning in a sea of bosoms.
In my house there was no morning stubble, no longjohns or Fruit of the Loom on the line, no baritone hollering for keys that were on the table. There was no beer in the refrigerator, no ball games on TV, no loud cussing. After dark the snores that emanated from the bedrooms were subtle, ladylike, little moans really.
Summers were the most I could get of my daddy, and even those had to be shared with his momma. My arrival in Pasquotank County was a heralded event that brought out kinfolk and neighbors who lovingly poked and patted me, exclaiming over my growth, my Northern mannerisms, bestowing upon my beaming father a Southern compliment: "That baby sho' do favor you, George."
My father and I would cram our summer with togetherness: short trips to Elizabeth City, long rides past the Dismal Swamp. Sundays after church I'd get the alcohol and tweezers and pluck out the ingrown hairs in my father's chin. Later, I'd scurry about the roof of his Pontiac, polishing to his loud specifications. Daddy bought me cherry, orange and grape sodas, ice cream, comic books, all the junk that was absolutely forbidden in Philadelphia. When the mosquitoes made a pockmarked roadmap of my skinny legs, Daddy fixed a medicinal concoction of cream of tartar and water, which he swore would take away the itch. He stood guard each day as I drank the whole gruesome quart.
At the end of the summer, my father, grandmother and I would drive into town and while Daddy waited in the car, I'd pull Grandma through Belk and Tylers, checking off purchases from my school clothes list. Later, I'd present a fashion show of plaid horrors to my father, who'd enthusiastically comment, "Now, that's right sharp looking!"
As the cooler winds of early September drifted into Grandma's yard, I'd stand on the bracers of my father's wheelchair, my arms encircling his neck, talking half the night away, oblivious to the mosquitoes, until Grandma would come outside, just a-fussing, saying that little girls needed their sleep. "She doesn't understand," Daddy told me, "that fathers and daughters have to talk privately. We have to make up for lost time." I tried, but I couldn't crowd into short Southern hot spells enough of my father to completely dilute the Wonder Woman potency of my female world.
In September I returned to a household where capable and loving women made sure I had enough culture and Christianity, that I greased my legs and learned the difference between nice children and riff-raff. I was a girl and they figured that their love and North Carolina summers were enough. Maybe if I'd been a boy they would have taken me to my uncles more frequently, asked the men at church to accompany me to ball games.
My father and I kept in touch throughout the year with letters and cards. His handwriting was atrocious; his letters were short. "Hope all is fine with you. I am fine." When summer ran out, I longed for my father's voice, his thick, strong neck; I missed his snoring and his wonderful, joyful whoop of a laugh. And so I began to learn, in the fall and the winter, how to make do with what was available.
Rev. Louis used to preach so hard and loud till sweat would bunch up around his hairline and roll down the sides of his face before the first amen. Tucked into the corner of a pew, my mother's hips wedging me in place, I waited for the Avon-scented fat lady with the great big feather hat to start feeling the spirit. That Rev. Louis could evoke the same hypnotic response Sunday after Sunday overwhelmed my 8-year-old consciousness. He was the most important man I knew, the steel-belted thread that held more than 500 people together. After service, small groups would sometimes gather, speaking his name with the deference reserved for kings and presidents: "Rev. Louis has decided." "Rev. Louis said . . ."
And he knew me! After the sermon, he'd reach for me as I passed the doorway where he stood shaking hands. "Little Bebe," he'd say, pulling me deeply into the folds of his robe, "when are you going to give us another Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem? We're so proud of you, darling." Only his robe would see my shy grin. Late that night, under my cover, I'd be steady polishing: "Lias, Lias, bless de Lawd . . ."
Sunday after Sunday, for 10 years, I was pulled into Rev. Louis' robe and held. As I got older, there were other male fixtures in life. My seven uncles -- big, strong, handsome men with thick hands and fingers that tossed me quarters and handed me gum, pulling my plaits to make me scream -- weren't much on visiting, but occasionally one would come around and take me for a ride or to spend the weekend with his family. My dentist, optometrist and pediatrician were older black men who always had time for a friendly conversation.
Dr. Sewell, a roly-poly, jovial man in his 60s, was my reward for being brave. I was actually his son's patient, an allergy victim needing regular fixes to ward off ragweed seizures, but the elder Sewell appeared in the waiting room almost as soon as we'd left his son's office. "Was she a good girl?" he'd ask my mother, and when she nodded, he'd say to me, "I've got one for you," producing candy and a riddle or joke of the knock-knock or elephant variety. After a while, I didn't associate needles with doctors' visits, but with the grandfatherly warmth of Dr. Sewell.
It wasn't Mr. Wilson's warmth I enjoyed. He was the father of my three best friends who lived across the street. Although he took us all swimming and to the park, I much preferred to be included in his more upbeat moods. His hollering was exotic, much more dramatic than my mother's or grandmother's screechy wails. He meant business. Once he ran after all of us kids, his face covered with shaving cream, a razor in one hand, a thick leather belt in the other. "This belt's got your name on it too, Miss Bebe," he shouted. I was thrilled when the leather grazed my hiney with the vengeance of a father's wrath.
Ann and Pete rented out the third floor of our house. Ann could pop gum louder than any female on earth, and that quality alone endeared her to me. But it was to Pete that I gravitated. He was big, chocolate colored, his chuckles only slightly louder than his booming voice. "Where's my girl?" he'd ask, coming through the door, grabbing me for a hug.
He'd take me for a ride, or a walk to the store. He didn't assume my intelliqence and was duly impressed when I'd read: "In Philadelphia nearly everyone reads the Bulletin," as we passed the newsstands. At the Thanksgiving Day parade, I rode his shoulders, the women in my life stuck behind in some dreary, turkeyfied kitchen. I knit Pete the first scarf I ever made. It was 10 feet long and about four inches wide and circled his neck five times. "My girl sure can knit," Pete told me, grinning.
Pete was always around for the special occasions that punctuated my early childhood. I didn't have to ask for him; he sought me out. He sat in the front row watching me pirouette around the stage, beaming as I easy-versioned my way through the Moonlight Sonata. He'd assure me that my recital dress was pretty, my Shirley Temple curls gorgeous, that my behavior could improve.
"I'm going to tell your friend Pete how ugly you're acting," my mother would say, and I'd straighten right up. Pete lifted and lapped me for the extra years I needed. "That's all right," he'd retort to the women, "she's my big baby."
Little by little I approached adolescence, molded mainly by females, but having garnered enough maleness from my father and others to help balance me. I needed everything they offered: roughness, gruffness, awkward gentleness, but most of all their contrast. I've often felt the term "fatherless children" was too loosely thrown around and was in some cases a misnomer. My childhood experiences left me feeling that there have always been a number of men willing to be, if not fathers, fatherly, not because of duty, but because of natural inclination and the fulfillment they receive from that role.
I would have liked those relationships to continue forever. They couldn't. Dr. Sewell died. My family moved to a new neighborhood and joined another church where the new minister didn't know me. Pete and Ann bought a house in Germantown. The families visited back and forth, but gradually my beloved Pete became someone I saw at holidays with the rest of the annual dinner guests. I was losing the old men in my life.
Perhaps it was time. When a girl outgrows her undershirts she becomes too adult for lollipops and parades. At 13, I was into my emerging woman thing, much more concerned about young men than old ones. The women had the answers for most of my questions: How to put on a bra; what to do about cramps.
Still, I needed a male point of view. In my new church I sat each Sunday with Mr. Cosby, a man in his 80s who insisted he was going to marry me. My mother thought it was nice that I kept him company. I had a car accident and the deacons came to my house, prayed for me and gave me money, but that was all they gave me. I was missing something.
Mr. Logan taught me how to fry chicken one evening when I was babysitting his son. He'd come home to eat before going back out to his night job. "You just make sure that the oil is hot, but not too hot. Know what I mean? Come on over here, girl. You can't be scared if you're gonna cook."
I was 15; Mr. Logan was in his 40s, a tall, broad-shouldered man who towered over his diminutive wife, Brenda. He drove a mail truck during the day and parked cars at night; he'd urged his wife to go for her doctorate in education.
Mr. Logan encouraged me to do everything. He'd come in after midnight, see me collapsed across his kitchen table, a pile of books and papers on one side, an empty coffee cup on the other side and say, "That's right, girl, hit those books." He took me to the house of one of his "boys" once, and when the man mentioned his daughter the nurse, Mr. Logan casually disclosed my lofty future plans as though they were already faits accomplis.
Right before I went away to college, my father wrote me a letter. He had a new job. He'd bought a new car. He'd enjoyed my high school graduation. "Study hard, Kiddo. I will be sending you $25 each month." At home, my grandmother was all a flurry, washing and ironing my clothes, fixing my favorite dinners. My mother was up late, sewing clothes for me.
Mr. Logan took me riding in Fairmount Park two weeks before I was to leave for the University of Pittsburgh. He cleared his throat 50 times, sucked his teeth and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "You're a nice girl," he told me, "and smart too." He coughed. I could sense a speech coming on, but I hadn't the slightest idea what it would be about. "Now I don't know what you've been doing as far as sex is concerned; it ain't my business."
The birds and the bees, I thought incredulously. I started to put my hand on his, to say, "Mr. Logan, not to worry, the kid knows all about it."
". . . I don't know anything about these birth control pills; they're kinda new, but there's foam, diaphragms and rubbers," he said.
My eyes opened wide. Birds and Bees Part II. ". . . so you have to make sure there are no holes in them."
He told me things I'd never in my life thought to ask anyone, not my daddy, my mother, my grandmothers, my girlfriends, not anybody. "Now some fellas will try and impress you with a whole lot of huffing and puffing, but if it's done right, it might not take but five minutes. The point is, honey, you should feel good when it's over."
I looked at the dashboard, the floor, my shoes before I looked up. His face, even more than his words, said he wanted me to make the transition from girl to woman intact, unharmed. "Brenda and I are pulling for you," he said and started the car.
I visited my father in North Carolina the first year I taught school. We spent a lot of time going to see his old friends. I sat at strange kitchen tables, declined beers and laughed uproariously as they entertained themselves with stories and lies and baseball games on color television sets. And more lies.
Sometimes my uncles would be down there and we'd sit up late at night and I'd listen to them talk about old times. Some mornings I'd give my father a shampoo; I'd empty his urine ducts, refuse to wash his car and then stand over him, putting my arms around his neck while he read the paper. He'd look up and say the same old silly daddy things to me, a grown woman, that he used to say to his little girl. "Bebe shots, whatch know, Kiddo?"
There was a ritual my father had to endure before he and I could zoom away down the North Carolina road. He'd roll his wheelchair right up between his open car door and the driver's seat, hoisting himself from his chair to the car seat with one powerful thrust of his body. Then he'd clutch his leg, which would invariable start twitching with involuntary muscle spasms. When the shaking stopped, he'd lean out of his car seat, snatch his chair closed, press his body into the steering wheel, pulling the back of his seat up so that he could lift his chair into the back seat of his car. Then I'd hop into the seat next to his and we'd take off.
What was quite marvelous and magical to me when I was small is that invariably, at any of the houses we'd visit, there would emerge a little girl about my age. She would gleefully squeal, "Uncle George!" and start pushing my father's chair toward the largest shade tree in her yard, while I stood back and watched. She would bring him a big glass of water, giggling as he ruffled her hair in thanks. Then, at her mother's or father's urging, she would turn to me and shyly lead me toward toys, comic books, kittens, whatever she had to fill the afternoon with pure delight.
Even as a child I realized that the girls were the children who filled his life when autumn claimed me. I was grateful to them as I was to Pete and Mr. Logan. When the missing element is human, we are all dependent on the kindness of strangers.
I've come to a space in my life where the old men are too few and far between. I'm grown now. No strong hands reach out to boost me in ways that I was lifted before. My loss goes beyound the grave of my father; the void is vast and disorienting at times, causing me to grope and st ironing my clumble until I feel the invisible props that will always support me. I was given a rich and privileged childhood, a solid foundation on which to stand and, yes, even go forward. I was raised right.