The Washington Post

Conjuring up memories of a father who was always there

My father, Thomas Curtis, connecting after a long day and his late-night job as a waiter with my mother, Evelyn Curtis, in the heart of our Baltimore home, the kitchen. (Family photo)

My father was a magician. He conjured up fairy tale fantasy for his little girl, with paper mâché wishing wells and swing sets in the back yard for a birthday surprise. He made the pain disappear when my street-skating adventure ended with me head over heels and crying. His own frantic reaction made me more concerned for him than for my broken wrist.

He died more than 30 years ago, but the vivid hero of my imagination never went away. Maybe it’s because my son, who never got to meet him is so much like him, so I have to keep repeating the story. Maybe it’s push back against the myth of the absent black father – a story line even our president repeats in his forays into family politics despite numbers that tell a different story. Or maybe it’s because I miss him so much.

My mother was the glue in our family. But dad was the one with the magic wand, the one to stare at mouths open when he delivered a pithy rant filled with wit and humor and laced with Richard Pryor-like profanity.

How he could convince you he was there for you whenever you needed him was a marvel, as well, when five children, mom, boarders and lots of jobs filled his time. He parlayed an eighth-grade education and grit into a home life that was far from luxurious, but hard to beat. It was only much later that I realized that we never took those vacations that filled friends’ childhood. But summers were fun nonetheless, with front-stoop games and lots of car rides to the ice cream store in his rust-colored Ford Galaxie. Maybe that’s why I can’t resist two scoops to this day. We sat on the hood of that car on a hill overlooking the drive-in, the better to make up our own running commentary – and it had better be good. So that’s how we saved the admission fee, I finally figured out.

I’ve written about him before, mainly because while he was extraordinary, he was only doing what so many others do for their children. It makes me realize how much the littlest thing means so much when it’s done with love.

After his mother died when my dad was a young boy, his home life was chaotic. Rather than repeat a cycle, he was determined to chart a different way. He did just that in that row house in West Baltimore, a magic castle if ever there was one, with trains under a huge tree at Christmas, carved wooden banisters, but, unfortunately, only one bathroom.

To those who point to his success – to lawyer son or writer daughters – as proof that anyone can do it, don’t. Racism dictated where we lived, where we ate and shopped and what jobs he and mom could have. He waited tables and tended bar for caterers on weekends to give his children a chance. It was another hurdle he had to side-step, or move ever so slightly with all the strength he could muster in that small, thin frame. When my oldest brother was a law student, dad booked extra shifts so his son would not have to work in the dining hall serving those he sat beside in class.

When one of my brothers was arrested for a sit-in at a restaurant, dad and mom, just returned from a church dance, kept their cool and hired a civil rights lawyer to get him out. They supported that work, making our home the safe place for meetings of black and white, where freedom songs rang out and I absorbed the education that the Catholic schools they scrounged tuition for could not completely provide.

Dad’s was the hand I held when I rode the roller coaster in the park that had just been desegregated by law – and I was not afraid of the steep hills or the stares because he was there.

He juggled so many balls at once, keeping them all in the air. And when he occasionally dropped one, like the time he crashed his car because working nonstop gigs between Christmas and New Year’s left him too weary to see the curve, he walked out of the hospital back into his house, our refuge, and became more magical than ever.

Though Dad never disappeared, he allowed me to — for a while — traveling away to college when he would rather hold me close to home. That was his hardest trick to pull off. We always retained a warm, jokey, genuine bond; when I repeat his well-worn phrases, which I do with intent and reverence, I see him.

Every Father’s Day, I spend more time than usual thinking of my dad. Sometimes, I believe I see him beside me, feel him holding my hand.

It’s the best kind of magic.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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