Fathom Mag

Fix Your Own Oatmeal

Living with the generosity and fury of my father

Published on:
May 10, 2017
Read time:
6 min.
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I was raised by a black suburban pastor who seemed to have it all—two college-educated boys, three vehicles, a lawnmower, a house, and a loving wife. The way he lived taught me two lessons I will never forget.

     1. There is one thing he loves more than his wife, and that is his reputation.

     2. There is one thing he loves more than his children, and that is—you guessed it—his reputation.

My father believed he was entitled to a certain kind of respect. So despite how she felt, mother took care of the frivolous needs of my father. She was the embodiment of the 1950s’ “take care of your man” woman. She cleaned. She cooked. She washed clothes and held down a full-time managerial accounting position for the state.
Nonetheless, like many women, she remained underappreciated and overlooked.

A long time ago, I asked God to take away my resentment, my fury, for fear that I become just like him.

The Fury That Was

Father’s anger always stopped at the cusp of physical abuse. One of my earliest memories was of this “almost” violence.

My parents were in the new addition of the house at the time, and they were arguing. My father had that look on his face—eyes bulging to circles, biting the bottom of his lip. He never gave the look to church members. He never gave the look to his coworkers. He never gave the look out in public—unless we were in the corner of the restaurant, or alone in the bathroom.

Father had his hand in air, raised above his ear, stretching beyond the back of his head. He had his bottom lip in the grasp of his teeth, his eyes protruding from the sockets. Absolute fury.

Mother screamed, “Romey, if you hit me, I’m taking the boys and leaving! You hear me? We’re leaving!”

My memory cuts short there. All I remember is father’s hand still in the air ready to strike.

I’ve never seen Father strike Mother (after all, we never packed and left), but in the name of child-rearing and leadership, he reserved his rage for his family.

I resented him for that. A long time ago, I asked God to take away my resentment, my fury, for fear that I become just like him.

But when we reached the cusp again today, I remembered the scars. The fury may have gone, but those scars . . . they remained.

The Fury That Is

Today, my mother told my father that she wasn’t feeling well and would be spending her whole day sitting on the couch. She was sitting on the couch when she said that—in her red Vera Wang bathrobe I bought her for Christmas a few years ago. Surprisingly, the robe was still without blemish.

It was her lounge robe. She had another one she used after an actual bath, but this one she wore to get comfortable. The red Vera Wang also signaled when she wasn’t feeling well—enduring her weekly and days-long migraine or flares of her rheumatoid arthritis.

While mother was lying on the couch I was lying in my bed. I had just finished my third or fourth episode from Hulu, and was making my way back to sleep.

I was dozing when stuttering feet stomped down the creaking hallway. I thought for a second it was mother, but I had recently heard her walk down the hall. Surely it couldn’t have been father—these steps were swift and father just had a full knee replacement surgery. Just yesterday, he was using all the privileges of modern medicine to their fullest extent: his walker, groaning along the way after each—what seemed to be—dying step.

If I hadn’t been so mad, the sight of him threatening me with a belt might have made me laugh.

The landing of these feet on the creaky floor was heavy. The gallop was swift, yet it was accompanied by my father’s voice.

“Iva! Iva!” Yes, it was my father. “Iva! Where is my oatmeal?”

Mother responded, but her voice was so faint I could barely hear her.

“Iva! I don’t care if you’re sick! You can’t sit around here all day. Get up and fix me my oatmeal! You have to help me out,” he demanded (he has an organic knack for doing that). Father stomped back down the hallway just moments before I heard vomiting.

I don’t think I had ever heard mother vomit before.

I lept out of bed to find mother hurling whatever was left in her stomach from dinner last night in the toilet of our newly renovated, almost-completed bathroom.

Then it happened: the look I inherited from my father started to form. I was enraged. I knew Father still wanted her to fix his “no sugar, just milk and honey” oatmeal. In righteous passion (or so I thought), I left
mother and made my way down the hall.

“Mother doesn’t feel well,” I said. “She is not fixing your oatmeal.”

“Yeah, she is, because she should’ve had it fixed twenty minutes ago.”

I stood—stood there glaring at him. How can someone be so inconsiderate? She’s throwing up for goodness’ sake!

A third lesson from being raised by my pastor-father:

     3. There is one thing he loves more than the wellbeing of others, and that is his own.

“This entire week when Mom is at work, you’ve fixed your own breakfast.” I repeated myself, “Your own breakfast. And now you’re demanding Mom to fix you oatmeal?”

“I’m fine, Wilton,” mother pleaded.

I ignored her. “Fix your own oatmeal! Who do you think you are?”
The real question should be: Who do I think I am talking to my father like this? But I’d held my tongue far too long over years and years—all the while enduring the look and watching to see where, or on whom, the violence will land: myself, my brother, or my mother?

Father reached for his belt. “Come here.”

If I hadn’t been so mad, the sight of him threatening me with a belt might have made me laugh.

“No, you come here! Let’s see if you can chase me,” I said. “If you can run down the hall with no walker and demand that your sickly wife fix you some damn oatmeal, then you can walk over here and whip my ass.”

He sat back down and began to fiddle with some things that were in his reach. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Good, because I’ll do all the talking.”

“Well, I don’t want to hear it!”

I started to feel my voice rising when I looked over at the window and saw that it was open. “Too bad because you’re going to listen.”

But here lies a paradox with my father: generosity and fury can coexist.

He saw me notice it and went back to sorting his things. He probably feared the neighbors would hear us, and that would embarrass him.
That feeling was satisfying—that feeling of embarrassing my father. He hated backing down, but even the threat of embarrassment straightened his attitude and quelled even the most vehement fury.

I had him, I thought, right where I wanted him. It was then that I thought of all the thousands he spent on my education (and still does), and the even more thousands he spent on me traveling abroad. I shouldn’t be talking back. I should be grateful for what my father has done for me and for what he will continue to do for me.

But here lies a paradox with my father: generosity and fury can coexist.

The Fury That Will Be

He is a man of duty, and it is that same sense of duty which justifies his rage. “Iva, do this.” “Iva, do that.” “Iva, remember what we have to do that weekend.” “Iva, don’t forget we have to do this.”

His use of the collective pronoun never refers to the collective group, but solely to the other person he’s talking to.

So, not only is my mother the accountant, maid, and stress reliever for her husband, she is also the accountant, secretary, communications coordinator, and pastor for a church they started. Every week, mother designs the bulletins, composes each PowerPoint for every resident and guest pastor, counts and deposits the tithes and offerings, and orchestrates Sunday worship service. On top of that, she holds a weekly women’s fellowship and Bible study during the fall, winter, and spring months.

My father? He preaches—and not even sermons he wrote. I remember him gloating because he found a database of sermons on the internet. He said, “With this, I don’t ever have to write another sermon again.”
“I’m tired,” he says every Sunday. “I’m going to lay down as soon as I get home.”

Mother predicts the same for herself, but he would quickly and indifferently mention, “Oh remember, Iva, we [you] have to count the money and tell all the pastors that we have rescheduled the Saturday breakfast because I have to umpire a game that morning, and don’t forget we [you] have to call Jerry about the new signs.”

“Oh, he called yesterday and said that he finished them,” she reports.
Enter the look.

I’ve always known the look could come at any moment. The biting of the lip and the bulging of the eyes were just the beginning, but this time, somehow, I will be the one to finish it.

Mother continues, “Jerry said he’ll bring it down Wednesday.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me,” father asks.

“I just did!”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Does it matter when I told you?”

They could go back and forth.

And they will, because that’s life with my father, the black suburban pastor.

Wilton Howard

Cover image by Matt Howard.

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