A man few people have ever heard of outside of the very small town of Raeford, North Carolina by the name of Melvin Chambers died yesterday. He was 79 years old and would have turned 80 on December 8. The story of his life as it has been imagined in my head up till now is very different than the story that I am going to tell you today. Pretty much entirely different. Why is it that death gives us the clarity to see and to understand things in ways we didn’t consider when the person was alive? Or maybe that is just me. I’m sure many of you have the capacity and the ability to see all the things that I am just now coming to realize. I’m a work in progress.
In the past, you may have heard (read) me say that I was “raised by wolves” and if you also know me and some of my story, you may believe that to be true. I apparently did. For almost all of my life.
I don’t anymore.
I was raised by a woman who though it is true did not know how to raise a child and probably had no business doing so, did the best that she knew how in her scope of ability and with the conditioning and emotional maturity that she possessed. I imagine she also has lived with mental illness of some sort all of her life and came from a time when people just didn’t spend money on psychology or on growing themselves. Or maybe she was just angry and unhappy. I’m not sure. I do know that she loved me. And loves me. I also know that it is enough to know that.
And if she knew how to make things better, she would have. I think she hated herself so much and for so long, it consumed her and colored everything she did, everything she saw, everyone she encountered or interacted with. Then again, that could just be another story by me about her, for I can’t really know her story. She’s shared so little of it, and I just know how I experienced her. She was a hurt and broken flower in a garden of weeds with no one to water her.
When she (my mother) was 30, she met and married a man (Melvin) who was 40. (He’d actually briefly dated my aunt back when they were teenagers, I think, but that doesn’t really count because my mom was just a kid then.)
When they met, I was 9 and I was convinced that he was OLD as dirt. My mother was young and beautiful to me, but they really seemed to be happy and I was beyond thrilled to see my mother happy. I had never witnessed her that way before. Not ever. She’d been dating men from all walks of life ever since I could remember. Heck, she didn’t even DRIVE when they met, but he convinced her to get her license and she bought her first ever car. It was a Honda Civic. The first one they made and it was light blue.
I remember being really excited because when they married, we moved out of one of the many dilapidated little rental houses we’d always lived in into a BRAND NEW HOUSE that he had built just for us. His mother had given him 5 and a half acres of land right next door to her home and they proceeded to build what I thought was a castle right in the middle. It was magical because it was brand new. I’d never even been in a brand new house before. I got my own room and they took me to pick out my own furniture for it. I’d always dreamed of a canopy bed and so that is what this little princess got. (mind you, this is the only time you will ever hear me refer to myself as a princess :))
….A beautiful double bed, dresser and chest of drawers that were this creamy white color and were, I thought, the most beautiful things I had ever seen. In reality, the house was a tiny, three bedroom, one bathroom brick rancher with absolutely no shape outside of a basic rectangle. But it was new. And BRICK!!! Are you kidding me? Brick!! We’d lived in so many broken down places made of rotting wood teeming with termites or weird siding made of asbestos, I couldn’t count. (Though, we did actually live with my uncle and aunt in a brick home once for a while, but that is another story and not a pretty one, so I’ll leave that one on the cutting room floor.)
Back to the story of our new house!! When it came to decorating and buying bedding for my room, I was allowed to choose again and sadly (or magically) picked the most impractical white, sheer, lacy-ish bedspread with matching curtains and canopy with tiny blue embroidered flowers all over it. Blue was my favorite color then, so I also got to help pick out this lovely shade of pale blue for my walls to be painted. The carpet was navy and my room was perfect. To me. My mother taught me to roll down my bed covers every night so that I could sleep with actual blankets and sheets that were conducive to sleep and not just decoration. It was the 70’s. What did we know?
They landscaped and planted azaleas all around the perimeter of the enormous yard along with a gorgeous circular rose garden that had every color of rose you could imagine. They were divine and quite sacred to me. (To see it today is heartbreaking.)
But that isn’t the story I came here today to tell you. I came to tell you about Melvin. My stepfather. He died yesterday. I’m not entirely sure of the cause. Likely a combination of kidney, lung, heart failure and his body just couldn’t do it anymore. Doesn’t matter now. He is gone.
Melvin was a hardworking man all his life. He was also completely selfless. I can’t think of a single example where he EVER put himself first in ANY situation. I used to think that made him weak. Henpecked. Abused by my mother. But maybe that isn’t the way he saw it. Or experienced it. Maybe he just loved her. I am now inclined to think that was it.
For me, growing up with a newly acquired stepfather (after the initial phase was over) went like this. My mother screamed and yelled and called him names (and me as well) and I could go on ad nauseum, but through it all – every single day of his life (or of my life while I lived there) he was kind and did everything in his capacity to make her happy and comfortable.
Yes, he was kind. He was selfless. He was helpful. He gave me rides to school when I missed the school bus, even after working 3rd shift in the local textile mill. 3rd shift means you work 4PM-midnight. He taught me to drive. He trusted me. He teased me about boys. He took me to see my first Disney movie in 1979. Sleeping Beauty. It felt so awkward going to a movie with him, but he really wanted to take me. My mom had no interest in going.
He never raised his voice or his hands to me or to my mother. He worked that late 3rd shift for decades to take care of our family which became a family of 5 when my two brothers were born. He never complained. Never. Ever.
And I thought that made him weak. (if you’re thinking that I suck right about now, you are not alone.)
And when I was 14…and my mother decided to quit her job because she just didn’t want to work anymore even though there were 5 of us and he made $18K per year? He didn’t complain. Didn’t nag. Never said a disparaging word to her or about her. He supported her. And me. And my two brothers. Unfailingly and always – and still with kindness and humor.
He was peaceful, good humored – always, always ALWAYS making jokes and trying to make people laugh. He loved his children and his wife faithfully. He loved his mother. His sisters. His brothers. He taught me sign language because his brother Clyde was deaf and this enabled me to communicate with Clyde.
He dropped out of school in the 8th grade to work on tobacco farms and help support his family at the time. Then he joined the Army. I don’t remember how long he was in or what happened in between then and when he became my stepfather.
And the whole time I lived with him, I judged him because I thought he was henpecked…unhappy…weak…(this is what my mother taught me)…because he only bathed once a week and was proud of it…because he smoked…because he was brought up as a racist and sometimes said things that upset me about people of color. Looking back…he never said it in the angry way many of my fellow Americans say things today. Or the way many of my relatives still do today. Not to excuse that action in any way. I’m just remembering that there was never any malice or animosity or hate behind his words. He didn’t have that in him. He simply repeated words he grew up hearing. His actions spoke much louder.
And while I judged him for not standing up to my mother and for a million other things, he just cooked me breakfast, gently called out to me to wake up for school every morning – even though he’d worked till midnight the night before every night because my mother wanted to sleep. He cleaned our house (or I did). He cooked. (or I did). He watched his boys (bathed, changed, fed them) or I did. Oddly, I don’t remember ever seeing him play with them. I’m not sure if he knew how. Or maybe I don’t remember. He certainly did love and protect them.
As the years went on, he taught me about Elvis, Johnny Carson, Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Liz Taylor, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, the Everly Brothers…and so many more legends. He made sure I always had food to eat and a roof over my head….and he dealt with my moody, introverted, shitty attitude, confused and very disrespectful teenage self with humor and kindness. Always. Seriously – always.
I’m not sure if he ever told me he loved me, but I know he did. He most likely thought I didn’t love him because I made sure to remind him that he was NOT my father. Regularly. I was an asshole.
Wow. Let that sink in.
Nope. That’s right, folks. Melvin was NOT my father.
My father was an abusive alcoholic who beat my mom and then my stepmom and who knows what or who else. He was a hard man who almost never had a kind word to say about or to anyone. He could kill you with his silence if you weren’t in his favor and almost seemed to get off on it. He judged me (and everyone around him) relentlessly and was never there for me, not even when I begged. He didn’t show up for anything in my life…again, even when I begged him to.
So, no, Melvin Chambers…you were NOT my father.
You were the unfailingly faithful and loving husband to a wife whose own demons ate her alive most of her life…doting father to your two sons, Clay and Andy – no matter WHAT they did.
And you were the man who raised me with kindness, respect, gentleness, trust and love. The man who RAISED me.
I used to think that I survived my childhood because of my grandmothers. They played a huge part, that is true.
But you played a bigger part. Much bigger because you were there every day.
No, you weren’t my father. You were my Dad.
It’s absolute shit that I am just now realizing this, but that is another story for another time.
Today – this story is about you. Melvin Chambers. My Dad. And about honoring you. And thanking you. And loving you. Being grateful to you for being in my life.
It was my honor to be your daughter, Melvin. Though I never knew how to tell you that. Or how to understand it myself. In the belief and hopes that we are all connected in the now and in the after – I will trust that you know now. And I know now. And maybe that is enough.
I wish you peace and so much love on your journey.
Thank you for being.