The soundtrack of my relationship with my father has always been silence. It filled every crack and cranny, sipped in and cemented our interaction like melted cheese. He was always there without being there. We saw him. Felt him. Heard him. Smelled him (his aftershave) but you still felt the silence.
He had this chair. You know most of them had their own chair. The Chair. Their own chair. It was more than a chair, it was a throne. The patriarch’s chair. And you didn’t put your ass in that chair. Not unless you were paying rent that month. Neither did you move it. My dad’s was this sofa-like chair, with a beat-down sunken cushion that perpetually retained the shape of his ass. Revered. It sat in a corner of the living room, next to his bookshelf. A teetotaller, he would spend lots of time slumped in that chair, most weekends, after-work, forehead buried in some African literature, reading about Savimbi or Samora, music streaming from this old gramophone that you also didn’t touch. Neither did you paw his music records: T.P OK Jazz, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton. Odd music.
End of day, he’d come home, his tea ready by a stool, and he’d set up that baby. It had an arm, which had this pin at the tip. After setting his record in, carefully, with the focus of a surgeon, he would place this pin at the very edge of the record (it was called san) and the living room would suddenly fill up with this scratchy sound, as the pin rotated across the grooves, searching for the opening note. Back then – in the 80’s – we didn’t own a TV, so it was either you sat in the house to listen to Franco or you went out to play. You get a cookie for guessing what we chose.
If you ask me what sound reminds me most of my relationship with my old man, it isn’t the sound of him revving his Peugeot one last time as he parked it in the evening, or him coughing and blowing his nose in the bathroom as he showered, it’s the sound of that pin running the grooves of the san, searching for a sound.
But mostly it’s the silence that bubbled up.
It wasn’t an offensive silence. It wasn’t a disinterested silence. It was just silence. Fatherhood back then wasn’t about friendship. You didn’t tell your father how you felt. You didn’t sit at his feet and tell him about your pubertal girlfriend problems. You navigated your struggles alone. So we hardly conversed. We spoke, yes, but we hardly conversed. And when we conversed he was asking about school. He always asked about school. About grades. Seldom would he look at a math problem, which I sucked at, royally.
I remember my mom taking me to be snipped at the doctor’s in my teenage and her waiting outside the theatre as I “transitioned” into manhood (Oh mom, such an angel). But even after, when I was recovering, he didn’t ask how it went or how it was going. It would have been nice to tell me that the morning hardons would be a killer. But he didn’t know how to talk to us. He didn’t know how to put feelings into words, which was ironic because he has spent all his life buried in books. Buried in words. Words he has never learnt how to use.
Growing up there seemed to be some sort of a protocol: most communications passed through my mom. You want new school uniform? You tell mom, mom tells him (when he is in a good mood, obviously). You hate the school you are in? Tell mom, mom tells him. The pocket money you are getting is a joke? Tell mom, mom laughs it off. But now mom is gone dodo and he is left with kids he doesn’t know how to speak to. He tries. He really tries but he’s out of his depth. Old dogs don’t learn new tricks. He’s lost. So are we. Phone conversations last under a minute. Conversations filled mostly with niceties and the weather and cows. Him: Remember that white and brown calf, well now it’s all grown and recently had a calf? Well we are getting so much milk now. Me: Which brown and white cow? I thought it was a bull? Him: Loud sigh. That’s why you need to come to the village more often. Etc Etc.
In mom’s absence the silence of childhood is back again. Like an amoeba it’s filling again all the spaces, all the crevices mom left in her demise.
Why am I airing this family laundry here? Because it’s not a big deal, and because nothing is ever that serious for one and two because I have realised that now that I have a son, my relationship with my father is going to impact on the relationship I have with my boy. Guys have always asked me, how different is it raising a boy now as compared to raising a girl? The truth? Boys eat more.
But here is the distinction. Although Kim brings out the steel in me, Tamms makes me very vulnerable to the point I almost feel unworthy to be keeping a beard. As in when she is moody in the morning, and she doesn’t talk to me in the car as I drop her to school it bloody affects my moods. I seem obsessed with her happiness. There is a time she kind of dropped Kim, and Kim being a mama’s boy, screamed like his eyes had been gorged out (roll eyes) and I shouted at her, “WILL YOU PLEASE FOCUS WHEN YOU ARE CARRYING YOUR DAMNED BROTHER?” It just came out. And she shrunk and tears came to her eyes because I never ever shout at her and before she could break into a cry (she hardly ever cries) I told her, “Go to your room and read a book!” And then the missus gave me that look of “Come on, it was an accident,” and I went back to watching TV acting like I didn’t care but then it made me feel so bloody lousy, and guilty and I thought if she ever gets pregnant at 18 it will be because I shouted at her. So later, like an hour, I went to her room with intentions of making up by trying to be funny and shit. But before I said anything she said, “I’m sorry I dropped Kim” and my insides melted.
So you see what Tamms just makes me soft and vulnerable and mushy because she is so fragile and delicate and I treat her like fine china. She is my girl.
With Kim it’s different. I realised I’m treating him like a man even though he doesn’t even have teeth yet. I think it’s because I don’t want to raise a weak man. Weakness comes from lack of confidence. Lack of confidence comes from wrong socialisation. I have standards I wish of him that will determine how well I have done with him.
First, it would be nice if Kim didn’t like boys. I’m just saying. I know in another 15years time, mind-sets would have changed completely and my feelings on gayism would be out-dated and degenerated. But as a father I would prefer if he liked girls. Even though the thought of Tamms bringing home a boy fills my heart with sulphuric acid, the thought of some hot thing with an ass on it coming to ask for him would fill me with pride. I’d nod inward and say, “Here we have good taste.” I know, it’s not fair at all.
I don’t care if he pierces his nipples at teenage. Or gets a Dinka tribal tattoo on his ass. He can do whatever he wants with his body as long as he is respectful and humble. I would love if he was backed up against the wall that the one person he would think of calling to get him out of that jam would be me. I want him to tell his mates, that my old man, is that guy who puts shit in perspective. To respect me. When I die I want him to feel completely lost for a long time, to feel this large quarry open up in his life and know that no one will ever fill it. Not even his mother.
But I’m in danger of raising a weak man because my dig is an all-woman digs. They run that joint. I just pay rent and stay in my corner. But I see the way they handle that boy. The way they fuss over him. The way they femalise him. (Just made up that word). The way they call him weak names like “Chuchu”. Blimey! Chuchu sounds like a manicurist! Then of all the toys he has, he has grown very fond of this pink toy that looks girlie. It disturbed me a bit. OK, a lot. So I went and bought him this cool toy called Monkey Rattle (you are welcome Baby Shop), which he held once and threw away.
He cries too much. Maybe it’s a stage but it has to stop. So for instance now he is trying to walk and when he falls, not ati a bad fall that can potentially break his neck, and starts crying you should see ALL the females in the house falling all over themselves to reach him. It’s disgusting. And kids are crafty, they will fall down and then look around to see if you have seen and when you react with shock they will start bawling like they just sprained an ankle. The other day when he fell crying and every skirt was rushing to get him up I hollered loudly, like Shaka Zulu, spear blocking the path of the marauding women, “No!” I bellowed, “Let him be! Let him be a man and get up!” They all froze.
So he cried lying on his belly on the carpet, waiting for help, which was not coming. You should have seen Tamms she was near tears. Hehe. The Missus was looking like she was about to slap me. The maid stared helplessly from the doorway. So Kim cried. And cried. I told him, “get up baba, come up!” Finally, mumbling baby obscenities, he got up and sat on his diapered ass sniffing back the last tears. I looked at the audience with self righteousness and went back to watching TV sure that King Zulu’s wisdom had been adequately impacted on the females for generations to come.
I’ve watched my Landlady’s son – Paul – grow up from a boy into a teenage in the past six years I have lived there. I’ve seen his limbs elongate, seen him grow lanky, his voice break, his dressing change. Sometimes I run into him as he waits for his school bus outside the gate as I go for my run. (He attends Saints.) We share quick hallos, him in his deep pubescent voice. I have also seen how his dad relates to him. I noticed that when he comes back from work, he hands him the keys and he reverses this car into this garage like space. And I admire that because it shows trust, that his dad treats him almost like a man. And I’m always tempted to ask him what he likes about his father when I run into him those very early mornings but he’s a teenager and you never quite know what mood they are in.
Most of our fathers raised us remotely. That was their way. The times then dictated that. I think now things are different. We need to talk to these boys. Make them our pals without them thinking they can smoke before us. They should be able to tell us what they can’t tell their mothers. They should be able to see us as allies. And as the men they want to be. Sons should be able to say, “If only I was half the man my father is…”
You have to pass through a dungeon to get there, I guess. Because I interview many big-shots who are over 50, I find myself asking them about fatherhood and I realise that nobody really has a template to raise boys. Men just do the best they deem right because at the end of it all, it will be so hard to see how your son turned out – badly or well – and pretend that it isn’t a reflection of who you are.
Here is what I love about Kim. When his diaper is being changed, (I can count you the number of times I have changed his diaper, less than five. I hear chaps out there have really taken this diaper-changing thing seriously.) he normally has this thing where he immediately reaches out and grabs his jewels. Like he’s shooting a musical video in the Bronx. Like he is so blessed he just can’t believe it. I find it extremely hilarious. But it fills me with pride because that’s something that we guys do when we just chilling at home, you reach out absentmindedly and slip your hands in your peejays. Nothing says “guy” more than that.
This is to all men out there raising boys. Salut.