There is an old pair of men’s dress shoes in my car. They are on the way to the repair shop at the request of my oldest son. The shoes are his. They used to be my dad’s. He gave them to my son a couple of weeks before he died. My son loves them and wears them anytime he needs to dress nicely. He wears them to church, on formal dates with his girlfriend and when we go out to dinner.
They don’t quite fit. They’re a little large but I never say a word. My dad’s shoes are big shoes to fill…both in reality (he wore a size 14) and metaphorically too.
My dad was born in 1923 in Oklahoma in an all black town. Some people don’t know but our country was dotted with small, completely segregated towns at that time in our history. His family had no money and relied on subsistence farming to keep themselves going.
My dad grew up and held a series of jobs. He farmed, he flipped raisins in the hot California, Central Valley sun, he drove a bus. When he was 40 he graduated from Medical School.
The journey from raisin flipper to physician was a long and arduous one. He wasn’t always treated well as he pursued his goal to become a doctor. Tangible racism was rampant…the institutional kind where it wasn’t just a matter of people not liking you or not wanting to sit with you at a table but it was doors of well-paying jobs and educational programs being closed. In those days you didn’t need to rely on conjecture or supposition. Employers would tell you outright they didn’t hire black people. One school program told my father that although he met all the qualifications to get in they wouldn’t accept him since they already had a negro in the program. That was the Medical school at UCSF (University of California San Francisco). Things like that were nothing new in his life. Years before he was accepted into an undergraduate program at Iowa State University. Their literature stated that they provided housing for students in the program but once he arrived they told him they didn’t want a black person in the dorm with the other students. At that same school although they seated students alphabetically in one class, they sat him out of order because they didn’t want him sitting next to a white female student.
So what did he do when these things happened? When he heard an employer say they didn’t hire black people, he left and applied somewhere else. When They wouldn’t let him live in the dorm he found a place off campus to live (an elderly black couple let him stay with them in exchange for help around the house). When he was moved out of alphabetical order, he stayed right there in class in his out-of-order seat and learned the material. When UCSF wouldn’t take him he applied other places. He ended up having to leave my mother behind for 4 years since she had a good job in San Francisco while he attended medical school in Tennessee.
In the 49 years I was blessed to have him, he never once said anything derogatory about white people. He never dwelled with anger on the many challenges he had to overcome. He loved America and the opportunities it afforded him even though his goals weren’t easy to reach.
When confronted with each obstacle, he had a choice. Would he lie down and quit or keep his eyes on the prize and persevere? Nobody would blame him if became enraged by his circumstances and stopped trying to get better jobs or into good schools. He had a built-in excuse. The playing field wasn’t level and he wasn’t treated fairly (and could demonstrate it in example after example).
But that’s not what he did. At each quit-or-go-on juncture he chose to keep bitterness at bay and to continue moving forward. It took him until he was 40 to realize his goal of becoming a doctor. He ended up with a thriving practice, a job that allowed him some economic freedom and the satisfaction of delivering over 7000 babies.
You know what he taught me? That you’ll always have something you can use as an excuse in life. You can get your friends, family and often strangers to sympathize with your plight and to support your excuses. You can get a whole huge segment of society to feel sorry for you…to weep, wail and rail along with you. You can all shake your fists at the moon….but that only gives you company in your misery. It won’t help one bit in getting where you were trying to go.
My dad gave his shoes to my son…and those shoes will be hard to fill. Nothing could please me more as a daughter and a mom than to see my boys grow into men who understand that their legacy is one of strength, perseverance, dedication and success. They, of all people should eschew the Siren’s call…that silky trap of sympathy that makes one comfortable in defeat.
Life will place roadblocks in your path and some people may be unkind but if you set a goal, keep your emotions under control and put in the work you can overcome. My father was living proof.
Happy Father’s Day to all of you out there! Never forget, the lessons you pass on to your children are those you teach by example.