Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My father

For some reason, I spent much of last night thinking of my father and his influence in my life. I guess the thinking and pondering was triggered by the announcement that UAW Local 659 now has its first African American President. That was my father's union to which he belonged his many many years as a laborer for GM in Flint, Michigan. His union and his buddies were his life: his pride and joy. Often, I thought, he was more in tune with them than with his wife and children.

My father, "Frenchy" Plount worked side by side with many black men...maybe women back then also, I am unsure. However, he proudly lived in Owosso, Michigan, a town with a long history of being a white's only kind of town. My dad talked about his friends often, many he even spent nights drinking with in bars across Genessee County...none of whom came to our home. Ever.

The union was the antithesis of, "the man" or the company. The union supported the working person and fought for good hours and good pay and, at one point, that is truly what unions were all about. My father stopped speaking with me twice in his lifetime: once when one of my sister's mentioned to him that I was dating a black man and the other, when I left Michigan to teach in Virginia, a non-union teaching environment. At that point, I seriously refused for any organization to tell me how many hours I could work with children and their families, and then, be forced to join and pay for the privilege. To me, the union was about more rules and regulations which I didn't need to help those interested in learning.

My father was also an alcoholic who had to be dug out of bars every Friday night before he spent his paycheck. My sisters and I rode many a Friday night with my mother, waiting in a dark car, in bar parking lots, while my mother hurried into one bar after another looking for her husband. We usually found him and fortunately, my father was a gentle drunk and loved his family. He had run away from his family as a child, leaving his brother, Kermit behind as well. Whatever life he had in the bayous of Louisiana, he knew as a sixth grader he could improve upon if only he left. And leave, he did.

Dad cared deeply for us and for our extended family: many of whom ended up living with us for long or short periods of time. There was an aunt who was pregnant and needed shelter; a cousin with parents who were not the best; another aunt divorcing who needed help and always, extra cousins to help in some way or another, several living with us for months at a time in a very crowded, bunk bed filled room of girls.

We had little money but we had parents who loved us. My sisters and I went to Catholic Schools until my father abstained from his drinking, joined AA and attended meetings religiously. There were relapses but he was comitted to making better life for us all. Our parents knew that education would be our way to a better life and both mom and dad insisted on good attendance and good grades.

When I was about 13 years of age, we moved up in life...moving into town from the countryside where our home had a dirt cellar, huge garden, which was worked feverishly by all every summer so my mother could put up fruits and veggies for us to eat all winter. We raised chickens, as well for protein. Life changed when we moved into town.

The schools were now public and good. The Catholic lessons learned served us well. The gardening continued, but on a smaller scale and we had no animals around. Chickens came from the store and didn't have to be plucked! Very cool. We had friends and some of them had money and had their own bedrooms and beds. Amazing experiences. I had best friends who were Methodists, even daughters of a Methodist minister and so, I went to youth group and to church services with them and learned much about community.

My father continued to commute to his union job in Flint and eventually retired from GM. Later, after I taught and returned to Lansing to work on my Ph.D at MSU, I accepted a position at The Lansing State Journal and then, five years later an even better job at The Flint Journal. My now much older father was petrified to hear that we planned to live and work in Flint, and worse yet, raise his grandson in "THAT PLACE."

My father didn't sleep well for quite awhile after our move, said my mother. When she died suddenly and dad came to live in Flint with my husband and our family, he was beyond petrified.

My husband and I worked full time and my father, still somewhat independent but yet, ill with respiratory diseases, was home pretty much all day, alone. We asked that dad receive "Meals on Wheels" for lunch because the old curmudgeon refused to use the microwave to warm up leftovers. These began and dad was assigned a delightful old man, who was a Meals on Wheels volunteer.

"Owen" was African American and, of course, he came to the front door to deliver that lunch to dad. Dad signaled to him that he would have to go around back and dad took his lunch from this volunteer through our sliding glass doors. I found out that this gentle old man was walking around our home every day after several weeks when I was home from work ill. Dad had told me earlier that I had to fix the situation because they were sending a "N...." to our house and he didn't like it and it was my job to feed him and take care of him. I wouldn't "fix" this situation but dad had not told me about making Owen or his substitute come to our back door.

We had quite an argument about the treatment of guests/visitors to MY home and I also met with Owen and apologized. Owen laughed and said my father was always polite and that they were becoming, "friends" and he understood my dad. This "friend" situation I hoped to live to see. And see, I did one day when I came home and Owen and my father were playing cards together in the house. Somehow, along the road, Owen had become a friend...those other people out there still qualified to be called the pejoratives we would not permit in our home.

Before my father died, we were able to see him enjoy and play with our son who went to a Catholic daycare and school in Flint and who often had black friends in our home. The lesson learned and taught unknowingly by my father: when people are close to you and part of your life, their color, their culture, their education, and their wealth matter not. And so, today, I thank my father for teaching me and my children a lesson that has made my life ever so much richer.

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