Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Remembering my father, who taught me to read

Today is Father's Day.

If you are one of the lucky ones to have a loving and caring father who is still alive and well, you should be thankful. And I hope that you will do something for him on this special day that will honor him.

My father died more than 10 years ago, and the best way I can honor him is to write about his strengths, traits and deeds that helped me earn a small measure of success in life.

By most standards, my father would be considered a failure. He left his wife, my mother, and three children to fend for themselves. When he left us, I was 6 years old, the oldest. He never supported us financially, forcing my mother to "work like a mule," as she called providing for us as a maid, dishwasher and field hand.

For about two years, we were on "public relief" and lived in the projects of Fort Lauderdale. My father would show up from time to time bearing cheap gifts, a few dollars and a lot of bawdy jokes that made us crack up.

What good can I write about a man who virtually deserted his family? How do I honor him? Well, he was a positive force in my life because of what he taught me.

My earliest memories, around 2 or 3 years old, are of my father placing me on his lap and reading comic books to me. We called them "funny books." He read to me every night and in the morning on weekends.

I vividly recall many of the iconic titles and page-turning plots: The Phantom, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, The Flash, Human Torch, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Plastic Man and Tarzan. The action and detailed drawings made my imagination soar. And my father's own excitement, his bass voice and rising and falling intonation made the action on the pages seem real. I look back and realize that as he read to me, he became a child, a little boy like his son, caught up in living words and pictures.

My father taught me to sound out each word on the page, especially those in the bubbles above the characters' heads. I do not know the exact moment I learned to read, but I was reading before first grade. I drew my own superheroes and wrote words in bubbles above their heads.

Soon, I was writing whole stories. I know now that they were not very good stories, but my father would lie and praise them as being excellent.

My first grade teacher wanted to know how I had learned to read. My father taught me using funny books, I said. Impossible, she said, knowing that my father, a farm laborer, had dropped out of school in ninth grade. She said that "funny books" were "trash" and I should stop reading them.

I was too young and scared to argue with her and tell her that my father was a great reader and that not only had he taught me to read, he had taught me how to write complete sentences. I knew that funny books were not trash, and I knew that my father was an effective teacher, if not a master teacher.

For all that, I am eternally grateful.

As a farmworker, my father taught me another valuable lesson. After he left my mother, he took me on the road with him to harvest crops up and down the East Coast. He never missed a day of work, and he was never late. He told me that migrant farmworkers did not have the luxury of living on a grower's property and not working hard every day.

He was right. I never saw a farmworker who did not work hard. Only bad weather and poor crop yields kept us out of the fields and groves. My father called them "acts of God." From him, I learned my work ethic: to always work hard and to consistently do that work well.

Did I have a bad father? In one way perhaps I did. But I never defined him totally based on the bad. He had a lot of good. What I learned from him was valuable, and I cherish it all. For that, this column is my tribute to him.

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