This essay is one of several running on MyBrownBaby over the next few weeks in celebration of the release of He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers, edited by Regina R. Robertson (Agate Bolden, 2017).
By SIMONE I. SMITH
My mother used to call him “Stupid.”
Whenever he called the house to speak to me, she’d say, “Simone, come here . . . Stupid’s on the phone.”
It didn’t matter what she said; I was always happy to talk to him. I believed him every time he promised to come see me, too. Sometimes he showed up and we’d have such a good time together. Then there were those times when I’d sit on the stoop for hours, waiting for him to walk down the block. That’s when she got loud.
“I told you Stupid was not coming,” she’d yell from inside. “He’s so full of shit and I don’t know why you’re out there wasting your time!”
That was all such a long time ago, and thankfully, I can laugh about it now. My mother was something else. That was just her way, and because I was mouth almighty and always so sassy, I didn’t think twice about speaking up.
“Stop saying that,” I’d yell back. “My daddy is not stupid!”
I loved my father and you couldn’t tell me nothing about him, especially when I was a little girl. But as I got older, I could see that he had problems. He was there and not there, and truthfully, he was never much of a parent to me or any of his other children, including three of my four brothers. It took a long time for me to figure that out because I always had a wonderful man in my life.
When I think about the true meaning of a father, the first person who comes to mind is George Samuel Pyle, Jr. He was my grand-
father, my mother’s father. He was the man who raised me as well as my youngest brother, who was born when I was eleven and had a different father. Papa was a God-fearing, hardworking family man and he just adored my grandmother, Oma. He worked for an airline for more than twenty-five years, then as a handyman, and even though he never made much more than $15,000 a year, Papa was a great provider. He and Oma bought our house on 198th Street in St. Albans, Queens, when my mother and uncle were just kids, and he retired, at eighty-four, after making the last mortgage payment, because he wanted to leave something for his grandchildren. That’s the type of man Papa was. He set the standard.
Most of my childhood memories are centered around my grandparent’s house, but I do have one memory of the short time I lived with my parents. We were staying in the downstairs apartment of a two-family house off of Linden Boulevard and my bedroom was up front, by the window. One night, my mother came home and couldn’t find my father. She was walking up and down the hallway calling out his name. When she finally found him, he was laying on the floor with what looked like blood all over him. She couldn’t tell that it was ketchup, at first, but when she got closer to him, he busted out laughing. He was always a jokester, and although my mother was pissed at him for scaring her like that, he just laughed and laughed. I was probably about three years old when that happened, but sometimes it feels like yesterday.
My father was only fourteen when his first child was born, and by sixteen, he had two sons. He and my mother were both in their late teens when they met and got married, then I came along. They were together until I was five but never got a divorce, and after she and I moved in with Papa and Oma, my father went his own way.
For the first few years after they broke up, I would hear that song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” during Christmas and pray for my parents to get back together. I’d be on my knees, just praying and praying—God . . . Jesus, please bring my daddy back and let me find him kissing Mommy. It’s not like we ever had mistletoe hanging up in the house or anything, but I guess I just felt that she was my mother, he was my father, and we should all be together. That wasn’t meant to be.
My father didn’t live too far from us, and when I was eight years old, he and his new girlfriend had a son. We talked on the phone, and I’d also go see him at his place and spend time with my little brother. I loved all of my brothers, and when we were younger, my mother made sure we stayed connected. She would take me to see my older brother, who lived with his mother in the Bronx, and during the summer, she’d drive me upstate, where my oldest brother, my father’s namesake, lived with his girlfriend and baby daughter. But as much as I was in touch with my siblings, the contact I had with my father gradually started to change. The phone calls seemed to be less frequent and his broken promises just kept coming. It was obvious that my mother had no tolerance for him, so Papa often stepped in to protect me from getting caught in the middle of their mess. If he noticed that I’d been outside waiting for my father a little bit too long, he would call me in, gently.Maybe he’ll stop by while you’re eating dinner, Papa would say. Come on inside now. Click To Tweet
“Maybe he’ll stop by while you’re eating dinner,” Papa would say. “Come on inside now, okay?”
If my father did show up, Papa was never disrespectful to him, nor did he ever call him names and whatnot. I’m sure he could sense that something was off, though. The fact was that my father was out in the streets, doing his thing and getting high. Eventually, my mother wound up doing the same thing.
By the time I was nine, my mother was an intravenous drug user. She used to smoke marijuana and have a drink every now and again, but when she started dating a new man, who was Italian like my father, she really started partying. After about two years, she tried heroin for the first time. That’s the story my aunt once told me. My grandparents were church-going folks, so I really don’t think they knew what was going on with my mother, but I stumbled on the truth one day while I was watching the news. Heroin was really killing the streets at that time, and I remember seeing a report about a group of addicts up in Harlem. When they showed a close-up of one man’s swollen hands, I recognized my mother’s hands, right away. I think I was about twelve years old then, and I ran to tell my grandmother what I’d seen.
“Oma, Oma, I know why mommy’s hands are that way,” I said. “She takes some type of drug and sticks the needle in her hand.”
She didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about, but it was all beginning to add up for me. Even though I was still a kid, I could see what was going on, and it made me wise up. My father was still not around much, but I hadn’t lost any love for him. I just stopped believing his promises. My normal became, If he comes, it would be great to see him. If not, that’s okay, too. I accepted that he wasn’t there, so I didn’t get upset or feel the need to explain anything to anybody. That came later.I hadn’t lost any love for him. I just stopped believing his promises. #HeNeverCameHome Click To Tweet
Dealing with my mother was a different story. Because she lived in the house with us, there was no hiding from the obvious. My friends used to ask me what was wrong with her hands, and I made up a story about her being in the Army Reserve and accidentally spilling acid on her hands, or something like that. I never knew what to say, so I lied because I didn’t think people would understand.
The fact that both of my parents were on drugs could have been devastating, but it didn’t affect me that way. I’d like to think that I came into the world with a strong constitution, but I also had a good upbringing. I grew up in a house filled with lots of love and constant words of encouragement. My grandparents made sure I stayed busy, so if I wasn’t singing in the children’s choir or playing with the bowling league, I was off doing activities with my Brownie and Girl Scout troops. There was a lot of church, too, and food and festivities. Oma cooked a big dinner every Sunday, and Papa, who drove elder church members back and forth to service, used to bake hams for funeral repasts. The foundation they created kept me grounded, and seeing how much they loved and supported each other really left an impression. Aside from providing a loving home, the greatest gift my grandparents gave me was making sure I had a relationship with God. They also taught me how to pray—and I did.
When I was a teenager, my father completely turned his life around. After many failed attempts, he’d admitted himself into a local treatment center and finally got clean. I’d visit him there and I remember how proud he was to introduce me to everybody.
“Come meet my daughter,” he’d say. “This is Simone.”
He used to love hearing people comment on how much we looked alike. I could see that he was as happy to see me as I was to see him, and he was also really optimistic about the future. Then he made me another promise.
“Daddy’s getting his life together,” he said. “When I get out of here, I’m going to be a father to you and your brothers.”
I so wanted to believe him, and I did believe him. And for a long while, he did have it together. For the first time in years, he was present and dependable. He was working as a drug counselor, getting back on his feet, and sticking to his plan. It felt so good to be able to call him whenever I wanted, whether to ask for a few dollars to buy the latest sneakers or if I just wanted to hear his voice. He became my father, a provider, and a friend. And I really loved having him back.
We talked about everything. He told me about the abuse he endured as a child, which was at the core of the issues he was dealing with as a man. We talked about drugs and addiction and the fact that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict. That’s when I really began to understand that addiction is a disease. He also apologized for not being there for me when I was younger, and I forgave him. Deep down, I knew he was a good guy, with a kind heart, and because of that, I always had a great deal of compassion for him. I felt the same way about my mother, whom he loved very much and talked about all the time. Because they were still legally married, he wanted to help her get clean, too, so they could be together again and healthy. He really seemed to want to make things right.
My father was by my side when I gave birth to my first child. I was a scared, skinny nineteen-year-old, and he was right there with me. He was cracking jokes with my then-boyfriend and now-husband while I was going through labor. At one point, I looked over at him and thought, Oh man, this is cool. My dad is here. After all the time he’d missed, I was really happy to have him in my life for the important moments. That lasted for a while, but not long enough.
A year and a half after my son was born, and two weeks before I gave birth to my oldest daughter, my mother passed away. I was twenty-one. Whereas my father had gotten clean, my mother had continued to spiral downward into drugs and never made it out. Shortly after praying with Papa and asking for forgiveness, she slipped into a coma. It was a sad time for my family, but I felt a sense of relief just knowing that she was at peace. My father didn’t handle it so well. Her death was really hard for him because it also meant the death of his dream for them to start over. But what really took him out was when his mother got seriously ill two years later. When Nana died, he completely fell apart and slowly began to slip back into his old habits. He was never the same after that.
He was living in the Bronx with his girlfriend when I noticed he was drinking. I’d taken the kids to spend the weekend with him, and as I was leaving, I saw him holding a beer. I was immediately concerned.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a beer,” he started to explain. “I’m good because . . .”
I can’t remember what he said to try to convince me that everything was fine. I really wanted to believe him, even as I watched him sip on “just a beer” for almost a year. Then it all started again. There were days when I couldn’t find him or wasn’t able to reach him. That was my first indication that something might be wrong. My suspicions were confirmed soon after, when I asked him to drop the kids off at their grandmother’s house. I made sure to pack everything they needed to spend the night, including clothes for the next day. I’d even bought them new coats as it was starting to get cold outside. Everything was fine, I thought. Then the phone rang.
“Simone, what are the kids going to wear tomorrow?” my soon-to-be mother-in-law asked. “Your father didn’t drop off any clothes for them.”
As I was in the middle of trying to explain that everything was inside of the bag I’d packed, I realized in an instant that he must have sold the kids’ clothes. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t even think of what else to say. Like many people, she was aware of the history of my parents’ drug abuse, so she was understanding and not judgmental. I was completely disgusted with my father, though, and when I finally got him on the phone, I cussed him out like never before. That’s when I knew I needed to take a break from him.
When I got married, it was my grandfathers who walked me down the aisle. I was pregnant with my third child then and the one person missing that day was my father. He was just . . . out there, doing his thing, again. As much as I’d loved having him around, my life was moving on. I was a wife and the mother of two, then three, and ultimately four, and I had to consider the needs of my husband and children. Sadly, my older brother died of a rare blood disease a few days after my youngest was born, which had to have been really hard for my father, too. I wish I could have offered him some support, but I just didn’t have the time or energy to keep up with whatever he was doing at the time. I continued to pray for him, though. I prayed for him all the time. Then I had another awakening.
When my son was ten years old, my father hurt his feelings so badly that it took me right back to the days when I used to wait and wait for him to walk down my block. He’d promised to come by and teach his grandson how to play the congas. Instead of following through, the phone calls and excuses started. I wasn’t going to deal with that. Not anymore. And when he called to make just one more excuse, I let him have it as soon as I picked up the phone.
“Let me tell you something, motherfucker!” I screamed. “Remember all those days you had me waiting on the stoop and you never came? Well, you will not do that to my son because he has a father and a great grandfather. If you want to be in my kids’ lives, you will be consistent. If you can’t do that, then don’t come around.”
And I hung up.
* * *
My oldest daughter recently told me that she never understood why I seemed so angry when my father died in 2007. I had my reasons. I tried to be strong while making his funeral arrangements, but what nobody really knew was that when I was alone, I cried about him and what could have been. I cried a lot. When I think back to that afternoon when my cousin called to break the news to me, I remember having so many emotions. I was heartbroken. I was shocked and sad, too. And I was definitely angry, because my father didn’t have to die.I cried about my father's absence and what could have been. I cried a lot. #HeNeverCameHome Click To Tweet
After decades of drug addiction, he started to develop poor circulation in his legs. He’d been staying with his father in Brooklyn for a while and I’d take the kids to visit him a couple of times a year. One day my grandfather called to tell me that my father’s legs had swollen up badly and were turning dark purple. He wasn’t in good shape, nor was he doing anything about it, so I picked him up and took him to the doctor. That’s when we found out that one of his legs was basically dead and needed to be amputated.
He was against it from the start.
“I was born with these legs, I’m going to die with these legs,” he’d say whenever the subject came up.
“Daddy, you’ve got grandkids!” I told him. “Don’t you want to be around for them? You can get a prosthetic leg and learn how to walk again. You could live to be eighty years old.”
As much as I hoped he could be okay in the long run, he wasn’t hearing me, or my oldest brother, or my uncles, when we pleaded with him to have the surgery. My husband and I even offered him help with his medical expenses. We all wanted him to live and be healthy again, but he wouldn’t budge—not even when the doctor said that not having the surgery would make him susceptible to life-threatening complications, including blood clots. All I could think was, After all those years of not being there for his kids, why would he want to miss out on having time with his grandchildren? Could he really be that vain . . . and selfish?
My father and I spoke two weeks before he died. I was so mad at him. After I pleaded with him again, I stared yelling and screaming. I just couldn’t believe that he would risk his life when he had a fighting chance to save himself and be around for his family. But he’d made his decision, and he paid for it with his life. That’s why I was angry. He could still be here, he should still be here, but he chose not to be.
I have made peace with the fact that I can’t change the past, but sometimes I look at my son and three daughters and realize just how different their lives have been. I wish I could have had what they have—a loving father who provides for his family, spends good-quality time with them, and most important, is present and consistent. I am forever grateful to Papa for stepping in and raising me into the woman I am today, but I really wish I’d had my father there, too.
My parents and grandparents are all in heaven now, but I feel their presence every day. I see them in the mirror, too, and in the faces of my children. And like those who knew and loved my father often tell me, there’s so much of him in me—from my quick wit to my smile. People always comment on my smile.
“She sure does look like Renato,” they say.
When I think about how far I’ve traveled since my days on 198th Street, I understand that while my father was flawed, the best parts of him, and of my mother, are what make me who I am. For that, I feel so, so blessed. And I am here.
* * *
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.