I recently interviewed the daughter of a trailblazing father, Dr. Vernon L. Walton, the first African American pediatrician in Sacramento, California, and one of the first in the country. I was humbled to meet his daughter, Dr. Stephanie Walton, a brilliant woman who’s followed in her father’s footsteps and has taken over the practice her dad started. My chat with Stephanie prompted some reflection on my own dad.
Unlike Dr. Vernon L. Walton, Charles Franklin Coleman didn’t graduate from medical school — in fact, he barely graduated from high school — but he was much wiser than I gave him credit for while he was alive. And with all of the differences he and I had, and despite the demons he wrestled, he was without question the unheralded glue that held our family together.
My relationship with Dad was, as they say on the popular dating sites, complicated. My older brother (and Dad’s namesake) walked on water in Dad’s eyes. And my younger sisters didn’t have Y chromosomes, so they were very highly esteemed, and the quintessential daddy’s girls.
But me and Dad? That was one rocky ass road. While I was growing up, I couldn’t get through a week without hearing the words “THAT boy is never going to amount to shit!” Dad was a man of very few, sometimes profane words with me, but I felt every word he said. I learned early on that, if I didn’t, I felt the extension cord on my behind that followed.
Dad had been born in 1937 in rural Mississippi and attended a challenged, segregated public school system. According to Coleman family lore, the day after he graduated from high school, he packed his belongings into two brown paper sacks and walked over 20 miles to the bus stop to buy a one-way ticket out of the Jim Crow south. After a quick sojourn in St. Louis, Dad settled in Detroit and started a four decade career in manufacturing, and started a family with my mother.
How’d that story turn out? That kid who barely graduated from high school helped raise four high school valedictorians, three college grads, an engineer, a writer, and (as of today) one kid with a Master’s degree. His four grandchildren are on the way to continuing that tradition.
And Dad’s pearls of wisdom? He had many! But perhaps the most memorable was the advice he gave me as I was uncharacteristically drinking at my parents’ house one day. Neither of my folks knew that I was thinking of separating from my wife of over a decade, and I was struggling with the decision.
“Son, I don’t know what you’re going through, but whatever it is, trying to drink your way through the problem isn’t going to work,” Dad said, with his trademark piercing gaze and while smoking that omnipresent cigarette. “If you try to do that, you’ll wake up tomorrow morning, sober up, and the problem will still be there, lying on the pillow next to you and staring you in the face. Solve the problem first. Then, if you want, pour a drink to celebrate.”
Dad’s advice was all the more poignant, coming from an alcoholic who’d been staring the same person…er, problem…in the face for almost 40 years at that point. If anyone knew about trying to drink through a problem, it was my father. But his advice probably kept me from going down the same road. I put my drink down right then. And to this day, I never drink when I’m feeling stressed or challenged.
As we celebrate Father’s Day each year, I struggle as I didn’t have the type of flawless father who’s described in Hallmark cards or depicted on episodes of The Cosby Show. But Dad loved me, in his own way, and I took the things he did right and used them as the foundation for the fatherhood template that I employed with my own two daughters.
Dad’s been gone for over 15 years now. I miss him every day, and I thank him often…both for the things he screwed up and the things he did right. Dad did the best he could, and gave all that he had to give. And that, my friend, is all any of us can do.
Happy Father’s Day.
Connect with freelancer Michael P Coleman at michaelpcoleman.com or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP.