All of My Fathers
“That’s your father,” my mother said to me. I didn’t know who that man was. I was too overwhelmed by that very moment – one I had anticipated for 16 years – to be 100% sure.
Years earlier I had come across a black and white passport picture of him. However, the man in front of me wore glasses and looked older than the one I remembered in the two-by-three inch photo. Actually I didn’t want to admit that this short man in the West African political suit with the receding hairline, wearing horn-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses (way too large for his face), and sporting a neatly cropped afro, was my father. We stood face-to-face on a rust-colored dusty road, the side street of a small hamlet in a subdued corner of Ghana’s bustling capital, Accra. The floorless Datsun from which he just emerged hummed reassuringly while a mother hen – sensing the disquiet between my father and I that she and her trail of chicks unknowingly pecked into – scurried to the lawn across the street.
I was angry. I was supposed to be angry. I was sixteen, a teenager, rebellious. Not
exactly. I was the proverbial good, Catholic school girl, I was everything but rebellious. I
had an A minus or higher average, never snuck out in the middle of the night to go to a
party I was forbidden to attend, never drank, never tried smoking on my private school’s
idyllic grounds nor tried drugs in the homes of my wealthier friends who could afford
drugs. I didn’t even have friends like that. So no, I wasn’t angry at the world or at life. I
was just as square as my father’s horn-rimmed glasses.
But I was angry at my father because I learned how to be angry at him through my mother’s tongue – the same one that also trained my ear to understand of my very first
language, Twi – and through her regrets and choices, that rendered her helpless,
overwhelmed, depressed and belligerent. I didn’t grow up with my father but he was
very present in my life because my mother’s anger was very present in hers. My mother
refused to go "back home" with him when he had completed his studies abroad.
They separated shortly after I was born, my father required to return to his homeland
once he had achieved his PhD in Economics; a common practice in the 70’s to stem the
brain-drain of intellectuals from Africa to the Americas. His full scholarship had been
sponsored by his native land’s government. They annulled their marriage, my siblings
and I became instant "bastards" and my mother never remarried. My father did remarry,
a woman who looked just like my mother. He had found a replacement wife then, six
years later, replacement children.
Growing up without a dad, I had always wondered about the dusty fishing poles high up
on the top shelf of the walk-in closet located in our home’s library. I fantasized about my
dad taking me fishing but that never happened. Instead, during that time, when
daughters are supposed to adore their fathers and fathers are supposed to dote on and
protect their daughters, I didn’t have him. I didn’t have that.
Instead, when I was six, I learned about humor from my best friend’s dad, Uncle
Jacques who told us French-Canadian jokes and made silly faces when he blew out his
ruddy cheeks and crossed his eyes at the same time. His chest heaved and shook with
laughter at my glee. One rainy day with nothing to do, I learned about awe when my
friend and I discovered a stash of Uncle Jacques’s porn magazines under his bed. We
giggled at the naked ladies with their yawning vaginas, Zeppelin-sized boobs, and
wondered when we would start growing hair down there, too. We flipped through the
pages until we heard steps approaching the closed bedroom door and then discarded
the once neat stack into a disarrayed pile of guilty evidence of what we shouldn’t have
been doing. I learned about curiosity that day and also how to tell a really good lie when
we were asked if we had been reading Uncle Jacques’s magazines. “Nooooo,” we
answered in unrehearsed, melodious unison, feigning wide-eyed innocence.
I cowered at old Nono’s wrinkled bulk, the arms and chest of a man who had toiled in
the heat for hours a day in his youth. I cringed at the sight of the white, wiry tufts of old
hair that protruded from the top and sides of his sweat-stained A-line shirt that he wore
when he tended his vegetable garden. His city garden seemed to be trans-lifted from his
childhood farm in southern Italy; a fertile plot of land that he would never have been
able to clear through customs so he recreated it in his new homeland when he
immigrated. He leaned when he walked, like the tower of Pisa, caused by either old age
or the home made wine he pressed in his cellar. The thick leather strap that hung at the
top of the cellar stairs was a portent of the beating that would befall disobedient children
if you dared enter his makeshift distillery. Yet, during the holidays he let me and his
grandchildren – with a wink in his eye – take a sip of that year’s festive batch when our
mothers weren’t looking. My cheeks flushed and glowed at the furtive ritual.
Uncle Memo, with his broad chest and thick, dark Mediterranean back hair protruding
from the neckline of his t-shirt, was a strong man to me. Rotund with early pattern
baldness, he displayed his macho by having me punch him in the stomach. “Harder,” he
would say. “That didn’t hurt. Again!” And I’d gleefully reel back my arm and lay another
punch into his soft belly to prove how strong I was. When I was finally able to knock him
down, topple him over with that last focused blow, I felt powerful.
I learned how to swear from Mr. O’Neil who could string the words “bloody”, “shit”, and
“hell” in all forms of jaw-dropping combinations and make them sound awesome
undulating on his heavy Gaelic accent. His wife drove the family car because Mr.
O’Neil’s love of swearing and liquor caused his driver’s license to be revoked
permanently. He didn’t work because of his “illness to the spirits” so he was a stay at
home dad. The first I ever knew. I never smelled alcohol on his breath when he gave his
daughters and I baths on the nights we had sleepovers. His words never reeked of
brandy, whiskey or rye when told us bedtime stories, tucked us in, or kissed us each on
the forehead goodnight. All I knew is that we were loved.
So over a decade later, in my naïve teenage years when my mother said, “That’s your
father,” at the short-statured and regal man in the sharply pressed West African political
suit, I thought about all my fathers at home; the one who taught me to be strong, the
one who taught me how to take risks, the one who taught me how to speak uninhibitedly,
the one who taught me about tenderness and I responded, “No he’s not.”