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 BRIDGETTE BARTLETT ROYALL
I’m contributing a piece about our relationship to a book on women without fathers. So many days have passed as I’ve struggled with how to approach this. I’d sit down at my laptop to type or grab a good ol’ fashioned notepad and pen to write, but—nothing. Day after day, week after week, I struggled with what I wanted to share.
I pondered so many things. Should I write about how you taught me the importance of family? Or should I write about the way you insisted that Ben take his little sister outside with him, even though we both protested most of the time? “People need to know that Bridgette is your sister,” you’d explain.
How did you have the foresight, all those years ago, to know that your insistence would pay off decades later? The unbreakable bond that Ben and I developed as kids was the catalyst for dozens of folks in our community looking out for me—aka Ben’s little sister—when he went off to college and eventually left home for good. That was your doing.
Staying connected as a family was a big deal to you, from insisting that we sit at the kitchen table to eat meals together to all of us decorating our apartment during the Christmas season. You even bought me a gingerbread house every year. To this day, I don’t like the taste of gingerbread, but I looked forward to you bringing home that gingerbread house because it was one of “our” things. Those and so many other family traditions you implemented helped shape me into the woman I am today.
Then I wondered if I should share what you taught me about finances. You always stressed how important it was to save a portion of my weekly allowance in my piggy bank. When the money from my piggy bank was deposited into a bank account every year, you explained how interest was earned. As I got a little older, you taught me the value of not keeping all of my money in one place, too. Even if I only had twenty bucks, you made sure I put some of it in my wallet, some in my sock, and some in my book bag—ha! You taught me that diversification is key—which is exactly how I approach investing today. But back then, I had no idea that you’d learned that tactic while growing up on the tough streets of South Philly and Jamaica, Queens. You figured that if somebody robbed you, they’d get some, but not all, of your hard-earned money!
And speaking of money, or lack of it, you and Mommy did a phenomenal job of ensuring that we always felt loved and supported, despite whatever material things we didn’t have at home. As an adult, I now appreciate how much hard work and sacrifice it required of our household to keep me in private school, Girl Scouts, piano lessons, and dance class. And when school field trips came up, I always had spending money for snacks and souvenirs.
I wondered if I should focus on how you found a way to expose two little brown kids from a working-class family in Queens—just a stone’s throw from the stomping ground of some of New York’s most notorious drug dealers—to everything from The Last Poets to Thelonious Monk, with a dash of Karl Marx and Leo Tolstoy tossed in, too. You encouraged me and Ben to ask questions—“There’s no such thing as a dumb question,” you’d say. You also told us to always hold our heads up high and look people in the eye when speaking to them, whether we were talking to a Fortune 500 CEO or a minimum wage–earning janitor.How a black man who never met his father could become the dad you were to me, is beyond all. Click To Tweet
How a black man born in segregated Alabama, who was raised up North and never met his father, could become the dad you were to me, is beyond anything I can wrap my head around. The life lessons you shared with us at the kitchen table were priceless—from the stories of your days traveling the world as a Marine to your memories of living in the racist Jim Crow South as an adolescent. You were my first example of how it’s possible for a man to possess book smarts and street smarts.
Like most folks of your generation with Southern roots, you and Mommy regularly spewed off sayings and mantras. Some went in one ear and out the other, but many of them I now revisit frequently. Your words have helped me get through some of the most confusing challenges in my career, and even my love life. One of your sayings that is engrained in my head is, “There are three ways to do everything in life: the right way, the wrong way, and the Bartlett way.” Although I’m married now and my last name has changed, that message will be with me forever—stay true to who I am, always and all ways.
What you didn’t get to share with me were my high school and college graduations. You never had the chance to grill any of my dates before they took me to the movies or to prom. You weren’t around to help Mommy give me the birds and the bees talk. You weren’t here to teach me how to drive or help me navigate the first-time home-buying process. Although your spiritual presence was definitely felt, you weren’t physically present on my wedding day. If God sees fit for me to become a mother, my children will not get to experience your awesome storytelling or your tickling.
This hurts.What you were to me was a loving, giving, and protective man of many layers. #HeNeverCameHome Click To Tweet
Before your untimely passing in 1990, you made your fair share of mistakes. Some of those mistakes I am aware of, and many I am not. I never want to paint a picture of you being perfect—and besides, how boring would that be? What you were to me was a loving, giving, and protective man of many layers. You were funny, too, and along with being a dispenser of wisdom, you were definitely the best tickler in the universe. None of that will ever change.
Your last correspondence with me was via a handwritten letter that you penned from your hospital bed. My fourteen-year-old self had no comprehension of just how sick you were. Weeks of chemotherapy, coupled with the debilitating effects of lung cancer, left you very weak and diminished. I just didn’t understand all that you were going through.
In the letter, which is neatly folded in a frame behind a picture of us, you wrote that I was your heart and always would be. I never got the chance to respond or thank you for that letter. You took a turn for the worse shortly after writing it and passed away exactly one week later. I always wished we could have had one last conversation, just so I could express my gratitude to you for being the man and the father that you were, but God had a different plan.
Well . . . thank you. Thank you for everything, Daddy. I’m so grateful to have been blessed to be your daughter.
* * *
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.