Reflections on Father’s Day

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Up until adulthood Father’s Day was a deeply unhappy occasion for me.  My mom and dad split up before I was turned one and I was raised by my maternal grandparents until the age of 13.  I was told that I had a father but I had no contact with him and no one knew where he was.  It always hurt that I did not know my dad.  I would have rather been lied to and told that he was dead because I could never understand why he did not want to see me.

In my freshman year at Fordham University, I had a sociology assignment to trace my family tree and I knew little about its paternal branches.  So, I decided that I would embark on an effort to locate and meet my father.  In December 1968 I located him and was able to talk with him on the phone.  I made it clear to him that I wanted nothing financial from him but just wanted to meet him.  He was living in Washington, DC and he invited me down to spend Christmas week with him.  So, I took a Greyhound bus from New York to DC and on Christmas Eve Philip Pannell, Jr. met Philip Pannell III.  My getting out of a cab and shaking hands with my newly discovered father was that of an awkward encounter with a stranger.  I stayed the night in the home of his woman friend and the next day he took me to Christmas dinner at his sister’s home to meet my relatives.

My holiday visit with my father was very brief. After a few drinks he made derogatory remarks about my mother and I said to hell with the Fifth Commandment and responded in kind.  I found it difficult to honor a father who had never supported me or acknowledged my existence until I tracked him down.  The next day I was back in New York.  Eventually he and I talked on the phone and he apologized (sort of) and we kept in contact.  I was actively involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and would visit him whenever I was in DC to demonstrate.

In 1974 I was offered a job in DC working for the first Home Rule council and I jumped at the opportunity because it would give me a chance to get to know my father.  We actually became great friends.  My father would invite me to go with him to strip clubs and I would invite him to go with me to gay bars.

My daddy drank and smoked too much and esophageal cancer killed him at the age of 59.  At one point during his illness, I moved him in with me and became his caregiver.  On October 6, 1979, the day he died, Pope John Paul II, the Holy Father came to D.C.   I called my mother in New York to inform her of my father’s passing.  Even though they had not seen each other in nearly 30 years they were still legally married and I needed her consent to move forward with arrangements.  My mother was unforgiving because when I told her that he wanted to be cremated she replied “that’s good because he will have a head start to hell.”

My father had two services.  The one in DC was at the Jarvis Funeral Home where I delivered my father’s eulogy.  He had an eclectic group of friends; numbers runners, drug dealers and users and some women with love for sale came to mourn him.  At his second service in his hometown of Staunton, VA, which I was visiting for the first time, we had a church service and his ashes were interred in his mother’s grave.  On her tombstone was her death date, my birthday, an occasion my father never acknowledged with a card.

There are far too many Black children and adults who have no connections with their biological fathers.  I joined the chorus long ago of those who admonish men to be good fathers.  Even if they cannot give materials things at least be present in their children’s lives.  But also, if it poses no physical or mental risks, I recommend that children make efforts to make fathers aware of their presence.  I am glad that I did, and this Father’s Day will not be as sad for me as it was when I was growing up.

Long-time Ward 8 community activist Philip Pannell can be contacted at philippannell@comcast.net. Pannell is the Executive Director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Help Make Wards 7 & 8 Great! Become a Member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council: Visit http://www.anacostiacc.org/join-us.html.