Today, January 29, 2020 my father celebrates his 90th birthday. I am a firm believer that life is not linear so the manner in which we keep time is entertaining and sometimes useful but it is not necessarily the measure of one’s life achievements.
I am the first person to say that quality of life is far more important than quantity of life; one we get to choose and the other we do not. Few of us get the pleasure of having both quality and quantity – long, well-lived lives – as my father has.
This morning I asked my father how he felt and he said he never thought he would see this day. It feels auspicious to him and it should. He said he has had ups and downs but he is very grateful to have walked this earth for 90 years although he said he feels like he’s in his 60’s. 😊
He mentioned how much he has shrunk and said that despite the fact he is now only 5’4” and 136 lbs. that he is still technically a man as he giggled. I said “90 years of gravity will do that to you” and we laughed. I told him that I don’t believe that age alone defines a life for there are people his age who have not necessarily lived as much as he has.
I reminded him that not many people can say they picked up and moved to another country in their lifetimes. I told him he also belongs to a small group of people who can say that they experienced the loss of a child and an even smaller group who have lived through the grief of losing two children but that he was also a member of a tiny group who can say they have lived to see the births of 8 children, 16 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great grandchildren – 56 offspring and counting; and that there are not many who can say that they have been married to the same person for 73 years. He smiled and in his usual humble way said “that’s all true.”
In the spirit of giving people flowers while they are still alive, I wrote the following piece “Metal, Magic Shave and Meditation” in honor of my father who is still very much alive and kicking at the age of 90. Happy Birthday, Daddy!
My father’s work clothes had the distinctive smell of metal and sweat. Not sweat as in BO but if heat had a smell it would smell like my father’s sweat. He was a metal worker and from my early childhood until the time he retired at the age of 73 he worked for the same company – Aluminum Alloys.
I don’t remember the smell of my father’s clothes from the times he would bounce me on his knee or give me piggy back rides or squeeze me and tell me I was the smartest or prettiest girl in the world – if such things ever happened, I have no recollection of them. I remember the smell of my father’s clothes from where they hung on the outside of his wardrobe on those occasions when I would rifle through his pockets looking for change to buy penny candy or to play Ms. PacMan. (Have no fear – I have since repaid him for all the loose change I stole 😉)
I now know that the loose change in his pockets was hard-earned by standing on his feet all day, carrying heavy loads and working with dangerous machinery (and probably tolerating a good bit of racism and xenophobia from well-meaning but ignorant co-workers in Central PA – there was no such thing as political correctness back then). I was oblivious to his efforts because never once in my father’s life did I ever hear him complain about the work that he did to provide for his family. Not. Once.
My mom made breakfast for him every single morning and packed his lunch for him; often just a simple cup of tea with loads of evaporated milk and sugar and a soft-scrambled egg with toast or Saltines with butter. She would also pack a thermos with tea to-go. I remember asking my mom once why she made breakfast, lunch and dinner for him when she too had to go to work. I don’t remember her response but I remember being perplexed by what I perceived to be, at that time, an unbalanced dynamic. (Much later in life I would come to understand and appreciate the intricacies of their partnership and I would see the tables turn and my father do all of the cooking and tidying).
It is interesting to note that my father did not sleep in or wake up later because my mom made breakfast for him; he was already busy working on balancing the su-su ledger. For those of you unfamiliar with a su-su, it is in essence a zero-interest loan or a zero-interest-bearing savings account, depending on how you look at it. The practice is quite common in many different immigrant communities throughout the US and fairly standard in many countries around the world although it goes by different names.
“A hand” is the amount that a party contributes. The total of the loan is determined by the number of hands that are committed in the beginning of the cycle. Simply put, if the weekly buy-in is $40 and there are 10 people who are participating then the total amount of the hand or loan is $400 and the total number of weeks in the cycle is 10 weeks. The pot was never that small; it was usually in the thousands.
As if working full time and providing for a gigantic family was not enough, my father had taken it upon himself to be a community resource. He established and ran the su-su for the local West Indian community and friends and neighbors.
Unlike a bank or a financial institution that charges fees, the su-su is run with zero fees which means the person running it does not get compensated for his efforts. Additionally, he takes on all of the default risk – meaning he bears the responsibility to cover the pot if someone collects his/her hand early in the cycle and never pays it back or when someone “forgets” or fails to honor their commitment some weeks.
Providing this service to the community meant there were always visitors to our already full house. Some people stopped by to drop off their su-su and have a little chat. But just as frequently people would just throw an envelope of cash through the mail-slot.
Can you imagine trusting someone and his family so much with your money that you just throw an envelope of cash – often unlabeled – through their front door? Or just handing it to whomever was sitting on the front porch or answered the front door? Daddy’s integrity inspired people to trust him and have faith in him and to this day I have never heard one person say that he betrayed their trust or let them down.
The house that I grew up in was always full. On weekends, holidays or during vacations people would often sleep wherever they could find a space. We had exactly 1.5 bathrooms for what felt like 50 people on any given day. There was a full bathroom on the second floor and a toilet and utility sink in the basement which in later years my dad fashioned into a handheld shower.
There was no such thing as privacy in that house. It was the rare occasion when one showered without someone using the toilet and vice versa. The bathroom was only off-limits a couple times per week – when my father performed his shaving ritual.
He would make the rounds of the house and notify everyone that he would be shaving in a bit so if you needed to use the bathroom you should use it right then and there which, in hindsight, was a super-courteous act considering he paid the mortgage and the bills. However even if you missed the announcement your nose would alert you to the fact that Daddy was shaving because you could not miss the putrid smell of Magic Shave™ which permeated all three floors and the basement of that house.
Magic Shave™ is an old school depilatory created specifically for black men as a method of hair removal which prevents razor bumps. It comes in powder form which you mix with water to create a paste or cream then apply it and let the chemicals work their “magic” to essentially burn the hair off of your face.
At 90, he still performs his Magic Shave™ shaving ritual even though I have told him that there are loads of other products that have since come onto the market that are easier and less odoriferous to use. He prefers the natural light now so on any given Wednesday or Saturday you can follow your nose and find him in the back yard next to the garbage cans performing his “magic” in the mirror he hung out there for this specific purpose.
He could make the choice to simply not shave; he’s 90 and has earned the right to have a long gray beard plus long beards are fashionable now. He would say it’s his vanity that makes him do it however the modern-day term for giving oneself what one needs to feel good about oneself is: self-care. He has been demonstrating how simple self-care can be and how vital it is to one’s self-esteem. He never needed fancy cars or designer labels to feel good about himself; just a little bit of time and Magic Shave™.
As I mentioned previously, I don’t have any memories of piggy back rides or receiving tons of affection from my father as a child. But nor do I have any memories of him snapping or losing his shit on me. Upon reflection, the household in which I grew up was complete and utter chaos almost 24 hours a day/7 days a week.
The house was filled with immediate family, extended family, friends, acquaintances and randoms living, coming and going; babies crying and children playing or “skylarking” as they called it. The TV was always blaring and at least one to two radios were being played simultaneously. Additionally there was a piano, steel drum, bongo drums and shak-shak (maracas) that at any given moment someone may feel inspired to play. Residents and visitors alike ate and drank what they wanted when they wanted.
We now know that while that type of environment may be fun or stimulating, it’s not exactly conducive to fostering inner peace and calm however somehow that’s exactly what my father always exuded. He maintained a calm, peaceful demeanor despite the circus that went on around him.
I mentioned that everyone in the house understood that the bathroom was off-limits when it was Magic Shave™ time. We all also understood that for the first 30 minutes of the day after Daddy woke up from 5:00AM-5:30AM, he was not to be disturbed.
Of all the gifts my father gave me, it is only within the last five years of my almost 50 years of life that I have come to appreciate his gift of meditation as the most priceless gift of them all. Before my father balanced the su-su ledger and before he took his breakfast and got ready for work or spoke to any of us; before he gave all of himself to everyone in his life – he made time for himself.
He began and still begins his day by reading scriptures and sitting or standing in silence. He was able to deal with the chaos on the outside because his first order of business was to cultivate peace on the inside each and every day. He never complained about his job, aches or pains; or about all of the people he was housing and feeding or the mess we all made. I never heard him say a negative word about anyone and there was a lot that could have been said.
He was not a bible thumper although he went to church regularly and made sure we did as well. Once in a while he may have quoted a scripture but only within the context of what one was experiencing as a way to provide comfort and never to deliver judgment. He did something far rarer – he walked the walk.
His consistent ability to be still in the midst of a storm provided a secure boundary that allowed us to stretch ourselves and set an example for all of us who were raised by and influenced by him. Ghandi said “be the change you want to see in the world” and Daddy understood that you can talk to people until you’re blue in the face but it’s far more effective to live by example.
My father didn’t shower us with praise or gifts but he gave us far more valuable tools and everything we could need to live happy, peaceful lives. His metal-shop work demonstrated a work ethic so we could learn how to feed ourselves; his Magic Shave™ ritual demonstrated self-care and the importance of taking care of our own needs instead of looking for someone else to make us feel good; and his morning meditation taught us that peace can only be found within and can be achieved and maintained regardless of the chaos in our external world.