Friday, June 15, 2018
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Harrisburg, PA, USA

My father - a lay reader

n a commentary I wrote many years ago, titled "Tribute to Mothers on Mothers' day", I recalled how mothers used to organize mothers' day church services at the St Mary's Church Nnewi, Nigeria. That was in the early 70s. During the services, they would sing several songs eulogizing fathers for "training the kids, building the house and making the money to sustain the family". They also remind congregants that fathers are strong, well-built and have a unique role in the lives of children. That was more than 45 years ago when fathers were still perceived exclusively as the "bread winners" in the family. Roles and perceptions have changed since then but that is a discussion for another day.

Fathers steer the ship of family, providing the rudders upon which the ship rests for the long generational sail. Before the ship sets sail, they strive to establish the family destination along with mothers and then push, cajole and encourage the children until the ship safely docks in the established destination. Children look up to and lean on fathers in times of distress. With steady hands on the tillers, fathers foster balance and assure security in the family. I have read countless stories where people talk about heroic deeds their fathers performed to remove or extricate them from danger.

Fathers do not always display their affections or show their emotions in time of family distress as should. They may not always provide, in the traditional mother's way, the tender loving shoulder for children to cry on in times of trouble and uncertainty. But deep inside them, they care. They work assiduously, even if unobtrusively, to resolve family issues as they arise without alarming the children. No child wants to see his father crumble under the yoke of life's obstacles or in times of adversity. Fathers understand this mammoth responsibility and hence strive to keep their emotions in check even when the world seems to be coming down around them.

Fathers may not always counsel their children in the most gentle ways that mothers are legendary for. When children go wrong, they may not always give them a pass. Yet, behind that tough veneer, fathers have a deep sense of pride in their children. They want them to succeed and excel and hence push very hard for excellence sometimes to the chagrin of the children. There was a time, as I was growing up, when I thought that my father was too demanding of us and had very difficult expectation bar set for us to meet. It seemed like no grade in class was good enough unless you scored one hundred percent! Whenever I brought home my report card, he would seemingly become fixated on the subjects I scored less than perfect. He would give me the 'traditional lecture' about excellence, ending with his usual mantra that "excellence in education will make you wine and dine with kings and queens". As time went on, my perception of his modus operandi began to change, even if slightly. It was in 1977. We had just received the result of my West African School Certificate Exam. In addition to doing very well, I concurrently gained admission to the University of Nigeria to study Architecture. I was only 17! His effusive reaction that day was not only unexpected but unprecedented. My mother danced around with joy but for the first time in my life, my father shook my hand and said: "congratulations my son". Then with a wide grin on his face he 'boasted': "I knew you would do it". I realized that all the firmness he exhibited whenever I brought home my report card was simply because he wanted me to be better. It was his fatherly way of showing his love for me.

My father - visit to Aurora, Illinois 1981

What I just described above can be said about fathers in general. They push and push and push and are often misunderstood because of their seeming brash approach. The children complain and sometimes even wonder if they are despised. As such, fathers don't often get credit for the many great things they do. I have lived in the United States for more than 30 years. I have met and worked with people from different works of life. Many have relayed stories of varied types of relationships they have or had with their fathers. It all boils down to the fact that children enjoy the joint activities they have with their fathers. These are activities that mold lives and sometimes shape destinies. From taking children to their games like football, softball and basketball, to teaching them how to ride their first bikes, taking the family on camping and fishing outings. I have heard countless stories from people who were taught how to drive by their fathers and they seem to cherish the experience. All these may seem perfunctory, but put succinctly, fathers help design the path a child toes in life as well as the destination the child finally settles in unless the father in question is an absentee one. Someone once told me he believes that he is the mirror image of his father's personality because his father taught him everything he knows in life, ranging from home repairs, safe use of guns for hunting, how to play basketball and camping. He added that he learned how to treat a woman from the way his father gently and respectfully treated his mother! Wao.

I must admit that I grew up in Africa at a time when it was not quite the norm or fashionable for fathers to engage in the types of activities enumerated above with the children just because of the prevalent culture then. That is rapidly changing in Africa. Fathers now accompany their children to picnics, play sports, go swimming and do other things that would have been unimaginable when I was growing up there. This turn of events continues to strengthen the bond between fathers and children. I hasten to add, though, that my father excelled at the things that were perceived then as the role of fathers in the house.

My siblings and me in front

Very early in our lives, my father inculcated in us the principle that "if you spared the rod, you would spoil the child". Even though he was deeply religious, he was a strict disciplinarian. He felt that children required guidance for success in life and part of the guidance included calling them to the carpet when they strayed from his perceived trajectory of uprightness. Hence, infractions carried consequences commensurate with the gravity of the offense. He demanded hard work and integrity at all times and taught probity through his exemplary life. He did not drink or smoke because, according to him, it would be hypocritical to indulge in such "vices" and expect his children to do otherwise. He railed against bribery and corruption and resisted bribing anyone even if it would mean the betterment of our family.

When I got into high school in 1973, I abhorred the idea that students had to wake up by 5:00am to go and fetch bath water from the spring. The spring was located in the deepest recess of a valley next to our school so climbing back up after fetching water was always laborious and energy-sapping. I noticed that some students were exempt from the water-fetching chore. I went home and asked that my parents intercede on my behalf so that the principal would exempt me. Even though my parents had enough clout at the time to do what I was asking for, my father immediately shot down the idea on the grounds that "other students that fetch the water have not all died". He wanted to teach me the importance of hard work and responsibility. From his perspective, relieving me of a duty that many other kids performed would confer unearned privilege on me. To this day, I believe that some of the experiences of boarding school in Nigeria prepared me for the rigors I was to encounter later on in life. Furthermore, I love my children but they understand that I would never try to hand them success on a platter of gold in any endeavor. It must be earned.

My father loved to write and worked hard to pass on that passion to his children. If you wrote a letter to him, he would point out any grammatical errors in the letter and return it to you for correction. That forced us to write better. When I graduated from the university of Nigeria in 1983, I proudly handed him my 200-page thesis write-up. He took it from me, looked it over and said he would read it. A day later, he quipped: "I see some spelling errors in your thesis, did you not have time to proof-read it before going to the typist? My heart sank. Yes, the stenographer that typed my work had made a few mistakes here and there that were too late to correct before I presented my thesis. But I had felt that the spelling errors were inconsequential and what mattered was the subject of the thesis which was the design of a car assembly plant. My feelings were hurt that evening, but my father's statement etched an indelible mark in my mind. To this day, I never send out texts, emails, or any form of writing without proofreading and correcting. Fathers may not always use the gentle touch children want, but their firmness and straightforward disposition produce the desired result.

In addition to my father's profession as a principal social welfare officer, he was a lay reader and hence delivered sermons in our home church. Invariably, he was a good public speaker. He once said that "you could be the best brain in the world, but if you lack the ability to present your thoughts in a logical, convincing and eloquent manner, you will hardly rise to the level your smarts and knowledge should propel you to". I watched him so many times deliver public speeches or sermons. I also listened to him during an event we had in my high school speak to the students. I was very proud of him and saw how a strong public speaking ability mattered in the journey of life. So when I had the opportunity to join the debating society in my school, thanks to a teacher called Mr Ojilere, I did not hesitate. I watched my father, many times, weather adversity with equanimity. He never allowed adversity to consume or disable him. After the Biafra war, my family could not tell the whereabouts of my brothers who fought in the war. It felt like the world was crumbling all around us. My father was devastated internally but did not display outward sign of grief. This helped hold the family together. He showed that if you remain stoic even in the most adverse situation, you will have a clearer mind to come up with a reasonable solution.

Most of the valuable life's lessons that I learned from my father were not taught in a structured manner. He believed that examples were better than precepts and hence lived by example. Right after the war, one bright Sunday morning, he was brushing his teeth in front of our house, when his car mechanic, Mr Eziuzo, came calling. The man was panting. "What is the matter?", my father asked. "They have stolen your car", the man said, almost in tears. "I came out this morning and noticed that the vehicle was no longer where I parked it", the man said. I expected my father to let out a yell, after all, the war had just ended and people in the eastern region did not have much. So a car was a very priced possession at the time. "What time did you notice this", my father asked calmly. The man told him. He asked a few more questions and then said: "You can go home now, I will get back to you when I return from the church. My father was supposed to give the sermon in church that morning. I expected him to cancel his sermon lesson and go looking for his car but he left for church shortly after. On that day, he gave what I felt was one of his best sermons. After the service, he came back home, assembled a search party and the quest to locate the car started. I learned from the incident the importance of grace under pressure. I also learned the importance of spirituality in his life and that has stayed with me till this day.

My father always admonished us to guard against doing things that would bring disrepute to ourselves and our family. He lived by that credo himself. I remember the early 70s, during a local ward council election. He was one of the two candidates. As the exercise dragged on, a young girl was brought before him and his opponent. They said she had come to vote for my father but that she was too young to vote. My father took one look at her and recognized her as the daughter of one of our extended family relatives - the Ibeanus. "Go home young one, you are too young to vote" he said to the girl. He lost that election but we learned an enduring lesson from that: integrity trumped instant gratification.

My father passed to the great beyond many years ago but his counseling voice is ever present in my head. His enduring admonitions and wise sayings have morphed into the partial compass that help me navigate through life. So on this father's day, I remember my father, Late Mr Sylvanus Chukwukadibia Uzokwe. I also honor my brothers who are fathers in their own rights as wells as the many fathers I have come to know in Nzuko Ndigbo of Central Pennsylvania. Happy Fathers' Day to you all.

Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War