I read a book recently in which the devil asked a man: "who do you hate?" The man wanted to change his luck because his life had been so hard and happiness had always eluded him so he made a deal with the devil. To change his life he had to transfer his bad luck - his karma to someone in his life that he was close to.. but whom he hated. He transferred it to his best friend who he had been jealous of throughout their lives. It was a wonderful look into the dark side of human nature.
But that question has been turning over and over in my mind.
I asked myself: Who do I hate? And the answer surprised me. I didn't hate anyone. My mind reeled at this. With my childhood I surely had to hate someone. Didn't I hate the people who hurt and failed to protect me? Didn't I? Surely I had to hate Mr. Nap or Mrs. Alberta. Okay, if not them, then the men who visited the liquor house and tormented me...there had to be hate there. No? What about the cunning man who raped me, taking my virginity and leaving me with a son when I was only a child myself? No? Okay, okay what about the father who almost beat me to death when I was just a toddler? No? What about.........?
No I don't hate anyone. I feel sadness but no hate. I asked myself, why? The answer surprised me again. Forgiveness and power. I forgive them all. They took my power when I was young and couldn't protect myself. As an adult I take back my power. To let my past control my life now would be letting them still have control over me. And while I can't go back and change the past, I do have control over my present.....my now.
I take back my power. When I realized that, I also realized I was releasing the anger and the pain of my past and it staggered me. When did I take back my power? Did it matter? Those memories and the pain are things that will always be a part of me. However, they are not who I am. They are not what makes me unique...what makes me strong...what makes me a survivor...what makes me Catherines daughter.
I have been in the prison of my past for so long that this new found freedom feels strange. Don't I need my anger...my rage to protect me?
I remember the first time I saw my father after he was released from prison. We were strangers. I don't even think he remembered beating me before he went home and killed his wife. I remember Big Momma calling me outside...it was night and she said: "this yo daddy Neal...he came by heah to see you". I remember seeing a large man, very dark with huge white teeth. I was afraid of him. How could he be my father? I had only one dark memory of him. After that first meeting, they arranged for me to visit him at the hotel he lived in- The Mitchell Building- it was a big hotel boarding house on Cotton Avenue. Cotton Avenue housed most of the black businesses. Hair salons, juke joints, gambling houses, restaurants - it was all there. And the Mitchell Building was in the center of it all. People rented rooms by the month, the week and sometimes by the hour. It was a meeting place for hard men, bootleggers, pimps and pretty women with tight dresses and red lips. Anyone who loved the fast life would sooner or later make their way to the Mitchell Building. It was never called Mitchell Building, it was always The Mitchell Building.
And Neal's place was on the first floor by the door. It would be filled with men and women smoking, drinking, gambling and cussing. My father Neal was a violent man, quick to laugh, quick to pull out his gun and quick to hit his women. Plural. There were always at least two of them at his place when I visited. I would sit in the corner and watch all of this. Sometimes I felt this out of body experience, like I was standing outside of myself looking at everything but not really being a part of it. Everyone knew I was Neal's little girl and they wouldn't think about pulling the mess on me that I went through at Big Momma's. They were too afraid of Neal. So I was ignored by the men and fawned over by his girlfriends. I wonder why I never told him what was happening to me at Big Momma's. Of the torment and cruelty? I guess I felt I really never had a voice. Who would listen to me? Who would care? I think that I thought I was to blame and I was ashamed. And I was scared. I didn't want to make it worse. I realize now that if I had told him, he would have killed someone.
I usually visited him on Saturdays and one of Neal's girlfriends, Ms. Henrietta who had a beauty parlor on Cotton Avenue, would usually wash and hot comb my hair. I was tender-headed. I remember getting burned by that hot comb. You could smell the burned hair and hear the sizzle of the comb as she straightened my coarse locks. I would eat either fried chicken or fish with collard greens and corn bread afterwards and then he would take me back to Big Momma's house. This was our ritual every other Saturday until the Mitchell Building shut down.
Little girls and their fathers. The majority of my life my father was Neal and that was how I addressed him. It was only a year before his death that things changed. As he grew older he had mellowed and though I can never remember a time that he told me he loved me, he would always show up if I were involved in something. I'd see him in the audience if I did a speech at school or if I received some sort of recognition. I loved to act and was in several plays and he would always come to see me in them. When I became a television personality he always made a point of watching my show: Noon Over Middle Georgia and my news spots. He would never praise me, he would just show up or tune in. There was a longing between us. It was as if he didn't know how to express his feelings toward me and I was wary of him.
Time passed and my mother died. I felt as if the last person in the world that loved me was gone. My father and I got no closer.
And then I started to become reckless and dangerous to myself and others. I was so lonely...so angry. Neal started to call me just to talk. He started visiting me. He was a good grandfather, the love that he could not show me he showered on my two children. I would catch him looking at me and I would hold my breath......
We started having special lunches together. Every payday I would take him to a new restaurant and we would talk. I started to relax in his presence. He would work on my car, a Ford Pinto and tell jokes about it being found on the road dead. We started laughing together, I started calling him everyday. I love vegetables and he would cook my favorite foods. I'd visit him.
And one day while we were watching television at his house, I called him daddy. I was scared when I said it. He sat very still, but I knew he heard me. He didn't say anything but I could feel something changing. I leaned on him and he leaned back. We went to sleep that way and someone took a picture of us. That picture marks the day Neal became my father. It hangs on my wall today. After the first time I called him daddy, it seemed I couldn't say it enough.
That was in the summer and it was the beginning of one of the best times of my life. Thanksgiving came and he got tipsy after dinner and kept hugging me and telling everybody that I was his baby. I finally had my daddy and he loved me and he made me feel protected. I felt I could finally exhale and relax.
My father died of a massive heart attack a week and a half before Christmas of that same year. I felt tricked. I felt abandoned. We had just found each other. It was too soon to loose him. It wasn't fair. I loved him so much. For a little while I had had a father and I loved him and he loved me...fiercely.
But I was on my own again. Holding my breath...waiting to see what else would happen.
As I look back now, I see it was not all bad. I had the love of the most important man in my life. If only for a little while. And it was good.
I am Catherines daughter and I hate no one.