Janelle Harris reveals she's OK with having had an absent father all her life.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a documentary called Off and Running, the story of a Black girl named Avery who had been adopted and raised by a white, Jewish lesbian couple. She was the middle child of two adopted brothers, one Korean; the other Black and Puerto Rican, and their happy little rainbow coalition operated smoothly until she got the urge to make contact with her biological mother and, with the blessing of her adoptive family, started exchanging letters with her. The experience of chasing after her real mom for answers to uncomfortable and difficult questions -- about her decision to give her up, about her choice to keep her other children, about her dad and the other half of who she was—surprisingly resonated with me.
I never met my father. I haven’t had a father. I’ve never cuddled my forehead under his chin while we watched TV together, never ran home from school to tell him some pointless story, never had him pin a corsage on me for my high school prom, carry my stuff to my dorm room when I went away to college or listen under the hood when my dilapidated car was making a noise. For as many years as I’ve been alive, my father has been a figment of my imagination, a figure shrouded in as much mystery as the tooth fairy and as much relevance as say, a dry cleaner at a nudist colony, which is pretty darn irrelevant. I’ve never met him, I’ve never talked to him and aside from two or three ancient pictures that my mom saved of him from his Afro-wearing days back in the 70s, I’ve never seen him. The same goes for my whole estranged paternal family -- grandparents, aunts, cousins, uncles, the entire brood.
I’ve watched reality shows where grown people in their 40s and 50s still lament the absence of their missing parent, dig up all kinds of info online and literally track their mamas or daddies down. I, on the other hand, could go weeks, maybe even months, without the reality of my missing in action father interfering with my random thoughts. Even as a kid, I never felt like something was missing because I didn’t know him, except around Father’s Day when my class made a crafty gift for their respective dads out of, like, macaroni and a paper plate.
First of all, my generation kind of ushered in the epidemic of runaway fathers, so having a man in the house -- especially in my neighborhood and especially as a young, Black child—was more of an anomaly than not having one. An on-site daddy who was an active member of the household was somewhat of a luxury, something to be appreciated like having central air conditioning or a dishwasher or cable TV, but nothing that moms and their kids couldn’t live without. Besides, I’ve had a good time creating pretend dads, like Healthcliff Huxtable, who even as a fictional character is surely more fulfilling than the real deal. I was the sixth Cosby kid, somewhere in between Vanessa and Rudy, and was even willing to put the kibosh on my crush on Theo to be part of the family. Since growing up, though, I’ve traded the Cosbys in for Frankie Beverly. The general rule is, when you don’t know your real father, you can pick silky soul singers to stand in his stead.
Besides that, the good Lord gifted me with an awesome father figure. My granddaddy, a man of honor, integrity and masculine head-of-the-household-ness, was the quintessential daddy dearest. He sat on a barstool at the end of the driveway and watched me teeter back and forth on my first two-wheeler. When I busted my lip wide open with my color guard flag, my grandfather escorted my blubbering behind into the bathroom to patch up the bloody boo-boo. And when I entered my dreaded tween years and my mother and I butted heads about going to school dances, my grandfather pulled her to the side and reasoned on my behalf. I don’t know what he said to her, but all I know is when they came back out, he gave me a wink and she grunted that I could go to my ol’ silly dance. With a man like that playing his part, I didn’t have a reason to miss the relationship I never had with my biological father.
In high school, through sheer happenstance, I met one of my dad’s other children, my sister Nichole, while we were rooming next door to one another in the Upward Bound pre-college program. I didn’t even know the child existed but meeting her opened the floodgate, and sisters started pouring in from far-flung corners of the country. I have sisters in Atlanta, sisters in Pennsylvania, sisters in Texas. Heck, you might be my sister, and not just in the we-all-sisters-‘cause-we’re-Black kind of way. (I had a brother too, but he unfortunately passed away before we had a chance to meet.) Some of them have a relationship with that unknown man known as my father and as a result, there’s opportunity for me to meet him if I ever wanted to. But like Avery had to find out in Off and Running, some mysteries are better left unsolved.