As a child, like all my peers at the time, I believed in the children’s book idea of a family. Even our teachers peddled the same ideas of a nucleic family consisting of a father, mother, and children, any deviation from this ideal was seen as unique and far from a “real” family. I had a friend whose father passed away when we were eight and he became an example for one such “unique” family set up. Overnight he ceased being Tinashe and became that kid without a father. Everyone looked at him with pity and changed the pitch of their voices whenever they spoke to him. No one wanted to play tag or chikudo, as we called it, with him anymore because we all feared he would break. I for one pitied him and was glad I wasn’t in his position. Little did I know, five years later I would join Tinashe’s elite club.
My father passed away in a car accident when I was twelve. Apart from the tragedy of losing a father at such an early age, the segregation I was going to be subjected to occupied my mind. Where I grew up losing parent was like having leprosy. One was ostracised and left to walk home alone after school and playing games with the guys was just out of the question. I guess it can be attributed to either the naive understanding of death that we had or simply that kids just weren’t that nice where I came from. Back then being friendless was the biggest and most detrimental side effect of losing my father. As I grew older I realised that growing up without a father had some other far reaching consequences that went beyond being picked last or not being picked at all for a game of street soccer.
Now as an adult I ask myself just how much growing up “dadless” will define me as a husband and father. Common knowledge and popular tradition dictates that boys grow up to be the husbands and fathers that their fathers set as examples. The examples my father set during his presence went largely unnoticed at the time. I was under the naive impression that when the time was right my father would sit me down and say “Son, get a pen and paper, I’m now going to teach you how to be a man.” Unfortunately for me, his life was cut short before that day came. The only example I had left was my mother. One can argue that I also had my uncles to look up to but apart from the occasional phone call and odd visit, I failed to get the advantages that would be gained from constant contact.
My mother found it difficult to cope alone with three kids so she employed the assistance of my unlucky-in-love Aunt Magdalene (four marriages and six kids unlucky). The oestrogen levels in that home were off the charts. For a boy who had just entered the confusing maze that is puberty this was far from ideal. With the lack of a male guide to help me through it I was left to my own devices and the shoulders of my peers to lean on. Everyone had their two cents to put in and I distinctly remember a young man who went by the nickname Mhungu. Those who had the misfortune of attending back-of-beyond boarding schools will agree that great story tellers were revered and venerated. Mhungu would beguile and dazzle us with tales of his holiday sexual exploits. The man would describe the female anatomy with such poetic accuracy that we could all paint a picture. If indeed all his conquests were true he must have bedded at least twenty six girls during the four years that we shared a dorm room. We would clap and unanimously agree that Mhungu was the epitome of manhood during those days. Unfortunately this was an idea that would deeply embed itself and stick with me through my adolescence and into early adulthood.
All through my encounters and experiences I had only my mother to look to for parental guidance. Obviously I was unable to speak to her regarding the more intricate issues of male adolescence but she was the only example I had. Bless the woman she tried so hard to fill that void. The fact that she worked as a Sexual Health Counsellor for an NGO really made our discussions all the more awkward. She found it difficult to deliver the raw facts of STDs without the added emotional burden of having to deliver them to her own son. As I left for college instead of giving me a knitted sweater or quilt to remember her by she gave me a carton of condoms. A carton, containing 75 packs, each containing three latex condoms, that’s 225 units. I guess she thought that’s what fathers did for their first born sons as they went off into the world. Her being without a husband and me being without a father we just made up the rules and expectations as we went along.
During early adulthood I was crippled by the feeling that I did not know the first thing about being a husband let alone a father. Having only the example of being a good mother I felt I had no practical example of a good father. Yes I did have memories of my father but my so called mature understanding only dismissed most of what I remembered as romantic impressions of a father sugar-coated by the eyes of a child. So I was in limbo and stole time by believing that one day a bright light from the heavens would shine on me and induce an epiphany that would reveal all the secrets to me. By the time I left fantasy land I was twenty nine, had been in a committed relationship for five years, but had not made any solid plans to put a ring on it. Even then I was still not ready to be a father and husband.
The fear of failing my wife and children crippled me into delaying the inevitable. As I realised that time was no longer on my side, the epiphany did come, without the bright light though. I realise that I had gone about the wrong way. I realised that my father didn’t have to hold my hand all through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood for him to have set an example. From the so called romanticised memories I have of my father I managed to sift the following out:
I do not have a single memory of my father being violent towards my mother. If they ever fought they made certain it was never in front of us.
Lesson: Never raise your hand against the mother of your children or any other woman for that matter.
When I was nine we lived just behind my school so it took me ten minutes to walk there through back street connections. I would get so jealous when I saw other kids being driven to and from school by their parents. I nagged my father asking why he didn’t do the same since we also had a car. Even though he tried to explain that the purpose of us moving so close to school was for him not to have to drive me there and he finished work late so by the time he was done I’d be home already. Still I refused to understand this. One afternoon I walked out of the school gates to find him waiting for me. He had got of work early just to come and drive me home.
Lesson: It’s your children’s job to dream and it’s yours to make them come true.
I was a very inquisitive child and always had questions about everything. From what incest was, to why the whole world went to war twice, to who gave all the colours their names and how he came up with them. My father always had an answer ready. If not he made an effort to find out before I forgot the question all together. This was before Google so he invested in a complete set of encyclopaedias for reference.
Lesson: You are to be an inexhaustible well of knowledge for your children.
My father helped me assemble my first BMX. He taught me how to fix a puncture on my tyres, he fixed my back pack zipper whenever it wouldn’t close and how to replace a blown out appliance plug.
Lesson: You must be able to fix anything.
My father was always there to help with my home work, attend my school activities, and even watch Brave-Star and Voltron with us. The only time my father was unavailable was on Sunday evenings while watching English Premier League soccer on TV. Apart from that he was ever present and the only time he went AWOL was the day he was in that car accident.
Lesson: Always be available.
My aunt had her wedding nine months before my father passed. My mother was heavily pregnant with my youngest sister at the time and it had been a difficult pregnancy. During the after party at my grandparents’, my mother got into an altercation with one of the uncles and retreated to her mother’s bedroom balling her eyes out. When my father heard of this he came like a freight train shoving all the elders in his way. He stormed into the bedroom and picked my mother up. As the uncles protested at his disrespect he merely pushed through them and put my crying mother in the car and drove off.
Lesson: You are Superman and you protect your family against any and all threats at all costs.
These are just a few of the lessons I picked up and will most definitely implement and add more to them. And even though I viewed my memories of my father as romanticised and fantastic, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t children have fluffy and dreamy visions of their parents? It’s when they don’t that something is wrong.
Being raised by two over protective women did however have side effects. I cried when Nicolas Cage died in City of Angels, I can carry a twenty litre bucket of water on my head; I know how to braid hair and could change cloth nappies since I was fourteen. I just hope I won’t smother my children and find that balance between over and under parenting.