Reflections on Fatherhood

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.
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Posted: Jun 21, 2010 12:21 PM

Father's Day has always been one of my favorite times. When I was growing up, I was excited to spend time with my father, Harry Sr, and his father, Simmie. My grandfather was a hardworking muscular man who stood 5 foot 10 inches. Although my lanky father’s 6’2” frame seemed to dwarf his father’s stature, they both seemed like giants to me. For the first 12 years of my life they towered over me both physically and emotionally.

Simmie’s broad smile was engaging and he had an amazing gift of gab. He seemingly could talk to anybody into anything, yet more importantly he always chose the most appropriate and timely things to say. Unlike a conman, Simmie’s gift of gab reflected a kindhearted man with the gift of encouragement.

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Our special family get-togethers had the feel of a Tyler Perry movie. My grandmother, Evell, was an exact replica of his main character, Madea, except for her size. She even owned a gun. Evell had an irreverent - mischievous streak - the only thing that was sacred in her world was the cleanliness of her living room and requirement that all her grandkids hang out in the basement.

Father's Day always included a big feast with my extended family. All 11 of us would gather at Simmie and Evell’s house. The adults entertained deep conversations while we kids played endless games. Other folks would drop in over the course of that Sunday afternoon.

The few adult stories we overheard taught the 5 kids in the family invaluable lessons about life. My grandfather was a homespun philosopher and church trustee with an uncanny knowledge of both the Bible and human nature. His wisdom was proven by his temporal success. Despite his a second grade education, this son of West Indian farmers and merchants made a tremendous life for himself in Cincinnati, Ohio. He carved a small minority construction business out of nothing during the civil rights days of the 1950s. His business eventually grew beyond the borders of the ghetto into the broader community, yielding him great financial security.

Simmie often spoke within the walls of his house about business and the social progress of the people in our community with the air of experienced authority. He modeled personal courage, hard work, ingenuity, and faith. He proved the words of David M. Gottesman, “Fathers, like mothers, are not born. Men grow into fathers - and fathering is a very important stage in their development.”

My grandfather gave our family 5 foundational disciplines. First of all, he gave us an overwhelming sense of acceptance. In my pre-teen years, I was tremendously insecure. He helped frame our family's reality and mine.

Second, my grandfather voiced appreciation of our achievements. He and my father mastered the ability to applaud our immature baby steps in sports or academics, while making it seem that our family had a special pedigree or standard to live up to. They observed my brother and I, discerning our unique gifts and making a demand on those gifts.

Third, they affirmed the good qualities of honesty and integrity that we exhibited from time to time. As we grew into teenagers, we began to understand the Jackson code of ethics. Even though it would take me well into my twenties to accept this code, I had a clear understanding of the character baseline to which my brother and I were expected to live.

Next, Simmie and Harry Sr. knew how to wield discipline and authority. They taught us that there were consequences to bad decisions or actions. I will never forget the time that I spent coins out of my father’s coin collection. My brother and I thought that we could get away with spending “just a few dollars” worth of quarters. We soon found out that the true name of our crime was not “borrowing,” but stealing and received appropriate consequences for our actions. I progressed into adolescence with a concrete sense of right and wrong.

By the time I was 19, one of my childhood friends was convicted of manslaughter. He killed a kid in a fight and was sentenced to years in prison. Thank God that the authority figures in my family never allowed me to be in the places where fights broke out. The fear of my grandfather and dad’s discipline compelled me to avoid hundreds of sketchy situations.

Finally, they mastered the art of expressing age-appropriate affection to their sons. No matter what happened in my life, I never wondered whether my father loved me or not. These above five disciplines of fathering are why I thank God every time I think of Simmie Jackson. His walk, his talk, and even his West Indian accent were a blessing to my life.

My family mastered the art of fathering through trial and error. They grew in wisdom and learned from their mistakes. I hope that I have done as well by my daughters as my father did by his sons. For dads of all ages, I offer these words from Bill Cosby, “If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.”

With Cosby's words in mind, keep reading about parenting, keep relating to your children at whatever stage of development you find them, and continue getting up when you fall down. Don’t judge yourself too quickly. Fatherhood is a tricky art to master and even trickier to evaluate. Your kids will likely join Margaret Truman in observing, “It’s only when you grow up, and step back from him, or leave him for your own career and your own home—it’s only then that you can measure his greatness and fully appreciate it.”