My daddy prefers a hug, a home-cooked meal, and one of my mother’s deliciously lopsided golden pound cakes for Father’s Day, instead of one of my preferred bourgeois gifts, like Polo cologne or a delivery of gourmet steaks.
His reasoning is simple: He’d rather I save my money. He spent the prime of his life as the quiet doer for my sister, Jennifer, my mom, and me — the chatty recipients. He’s set up that way.
These days, however, the quick-witted, practical Clemon Wellington, who put two girls through college on a modest salary building airplane wires at Grumman/Northrop, is getting older.
Two years ago, he underwent grueling surgery to remove an aneurysm from his stomach. Nobody wants to admit it, but he almost died. He’s a little weaker and walks with a limp now. Thankfully, he’s managed to gain enough weight back so his ebony cheeks are full again. And just like they did before he became ill, his eyes disappear when he breaks into his trademark gravely laugh.
At 75, he’s still headstrong and independent, so it’s hard to know exactly what he needs. When it’s clear that he does need my help, I never know how much he’ll accept. For example, after the surgery, I went to Target and bought him several pairs of soft sweatpants for physical therapy (he’s a dungaree man to his core).
He yelled at me for spending my money.
Last month, Daddy’s first cousin and best friend, my Uncle John, died after a long battle with prostate cancer in his hometown of Seaboard, N.C.
I knew I had to get him there from our green-and-white house in Queens Village, a South Queens burb not too far from where L.L. Cool J grew up.
“Jenny told me Uncle John died,” I started, having crept up to the subject during the call. “Want me to take you down there?”
“Well…,” he began, “I called one of his girls and I asked her if I could ride down with her. That would be easier for you, right? I didn’t hear from her yet.”
That plan didn’t sit well with me.
“How much is it going to cost?” he asked.
Flying to Raleigh at the last minute on Mother’s Day weekend at the height of graduation season meant it was going to take $1,200 — not including the rental car we would need to drive roughly two hours to the woodsy North Carolina town seven miles from the Virginia border, where the closest Starbucks is 30 miles away. And then there were two nights at a hotel.
“Daddy,” I said when I called him back. “Looks like we are going to take a road trip.”
The first time my father and I drove to North Carolina together, he was taking me to Raleigh for a reporting internship at the News & Observer. I’d never been to the South before. And, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I didn’t drive much. We stopped twice for gas. He left his blue 1982 Volvo with me. And at the end of the two months, he flew back and drove me home. Daddy did all the driving.
He always hated my driving.
Twenty years later, he still hates it. When I’m behind the wheel, he sits in the passenger seat, clutching the armrest for dear life, slamming his foot on the floor like he’s got dual-control brakes.
“Bethie, you drive too fast. Just too fast!” he yells as I cruise up to red lights. “Why do you have to tailgate all the time? Jesus Christmas!”
For our trip to the funeral, my dad took the bus to Philadelphia and the next morning — after my 6 a.m., I-need-to-center-myself-today yoga — we hit the road, figuring the ride to Seaboard would take six hours. We would turn around Sunday and go straight to New York. I planned to do all the driving. We packed sandwiches. I put the address in the navigation system: 548 miles!
“Are you going to follow that the whole way down there?” he asked.
“Hmmph. I know how to get there.”
Daddy white-knuckled it through Pennsylvania, and we made good time all the way to the Maryland House rest stop. The navigation directed us through a few different interstate loops off I-95.
“Can’t we just stay on 95?” he asked. “Where did these express lanes come from?”
“Maybe it’s just … faster,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road.
Traffic stopped in Virginia.
“I used to drive this all the time with your Uncle John, and we didn’t have this kind of congestion.”
And then I realized I had been to Seaboard only once and didn’t know much about his friendship with my Uncle John.
My grandmother Lady Mae moved to Harlem in the late 1930s, married my grandfather, and had five children. Her older sister, Monesta, stayed behind in North Carolina and married Uncle John’s father, Nepoleon, and had six boys. When Uncle John was 20, he came to New York and moved in with my dad’s family when my dad was 14.
“I grew up with him,” Daddy said. “He helped me become a man. He was my best friend. The best man at my wedding.”
On the drive, I learned that, eventually, Uncle John’s brother Marco moved to New York, and the three of them hung out when Harlem was, well, Harlem. In the late ’60s, they would pile into a car and drive to Seaboard so Uncle John could visit his family. My dad talked about juke joints, corn liquor, Sunday church services, and big meals. That whole time, he didn’t complain about my driving.
We spent the night in Roanoke Rapids — yet another town with no Starbucks — and drove 18 miles to Uncle Marco’s house early the next morning. His son, Marco Jr., was in town from Milwaukee for the funeral. I’d met him only once when I was a teenager, and, honestly, I didn’t remember that. He did.
“You are the writer!” he said, barreling over and giving me a hug.
Within the hour, we were flipping through albums filled with pictures of my dad and uncles looking like the Temptations. Back in the day, my dad was the man!
The afternoon funeral was packed. The songs were slow. The eulogy was long. As is customary in Baptist services, mourners take the lectern and people remember the deceased. It would be the first time my dad had publicly spoken, ever — he was always self-conscious about his stutter. His voice was steady, though, and he ended with:
“John was a fair and good man. He was my friend. I’m going to miss him.”
The congregation clapped.
Later on in the service, Daddy took one look at Uncle John during the viewing and collapsed into my cousin’s arms, crying hard.
All I could do was rub his back.
The ride home on Sunday morning was quiet. After we stopped for breakfast at the Waffle House, we were both so tired the drive became arduous. I pushed through. Daddy didn’t go to sleep.
After Mother’s Day dinner, he yelled into the kitchen from his La-Z-Boy in the living room.
“Hey, Bethie, I was thinking: Did you make an extra effort to be sweet to me this weekend?”
I laughed. “Sure did.” (See the power of yoga?)
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
At that very moment, I decided to stop the tailgating my dad so hates.