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Op-Ed: My father was an upright man

Los Angeles Times illustration
(Los Angeles Times illustration)

My dad was born in 1918 in New Orleans. He never said he was a Creole, a man of mixed race, though that’s what he was. He thought of himself, in the terminology of his day, as colored. During World War II, he shipped out as a staff sergeant with a Negro unit to Iran. He never said what he did there, but later I learned he ran the bakery, which explained his passion for baking crackers that never turned out quite the way he wanted them to.

My dad was an upright man: He didn’t drink, didn’t curse, didn’t look at pornography, as far as I knew, and was always prepared for action. Once, on the way to the Griffith Park Observatory along a winding road, the car in front of us failed to make a turn and went right over the edge. He pulled over and bolted from the car, running along with other rescuers down what was a dangerously steep hillside to help pull people from the car before it burst into flames. That accomplished, we went on our way to Mineral Wells, where he grilled burgers.

My brother Jeffery thought the world would end when Daddy moved out. I, at 6, had no idea what divorce meant other than the priest came by to tell my mother she would go to hell if she divorced Daddy. Mama said: “Well, Father, then I’m going to hell. Because I’m sure going to divorce him.”

Daddy didn’t let that disrupt his place in our lives. He no longer lived at our house, but he came by every day and did pretty much what he always did, including fixing my mother’s car and those of everybody else in the neighborhood. He was a certified mechanic but worked on cars as a hobby after his job as a postal worker.

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I was a pretty high-strung kid, and he was the perfect father for me. Daddy was always present whether I needed him or not, acting often as a one-man neighborhood rec center. He’d just appear in his Galaxy 500 to take me and the neighborhood kids to the beach or Griffith Park.

Around the time of my parents’ divorce, possibly in reaction to it, I began to eat as if I were worried a famine was coming. I became a round, brown little potato, and my mother decided to take me to Weight Watchers. All that did was make me want to eat the plastic pie slices that they used to show the calories in desserts.

My father’s approach to my weight gain was different. Once, as I watched him work on Mama’s engine, he came out of the garage and called me over to him and pulled me onto his lap. “Jervey,” he said, “stop eating so much; you’re getting so fat you’re going to get sick. You might die before me, and I don’t want you to die before me.”

I don’t know why, but I began to cry, and I couldn’t stop, just like I couldn’t stop stuffing my face. Later I realized I couldn’t stand the idea of Daddy dying

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Daddy handled all the hard pitches thrown his way. When my two eldest brothers started smoking weed, Daddy became the neighborhood G-Man doing his best to catch them getting high with their friends in their cars, or on the porch or even in Mama’s kitchen and chase them off to somewhere else to smoke out. His actions didn’t change anything, and it became kind of a game, though Daddy got respect for his boundless anti-drug campaign .

The Black neighborhood I grew up was weirdly polite; adults were referred to as Mr. Baggett, Mrs. James, Mrs. Tervalon. My brothers’ weed-smoking buddies called my dad G-Man among themselves, but they all called him Mr. Tervalon to his face. The neighborhood stayed a neighborhood until rock cocaine in the mid-'80s, and then all bets were off, and we all scattered to the winds.

I went off to college but didn’t easily make the transition to a largely white, Wonder Bread world. Daddy would drive to UC Santa Barbara and take me home every weekend and bring me back on Monday until I could face spending weekends at school, making it possible for me to transition to college at my own pace.

Both my parents knew that I was an emotional child with a weird inner life and an obsession with Gothic literature who couldn’t stop reading Dracula. Dad just accepted that this was me and stood by my side until I began to trust myself, and he could trust that I was an adult.

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Daddy lived until he was 96, after a long decline in which death was more of a release for him than something to be feared. Until then, he was there for me and my kids and my brothers’ kids, a monument of steadfast fatherly and grandfatherly devotion.

A few years later came the birth of Colette, his youngest granddaughter. How he would have enjoyed spoiling another of his grandkids with ice cream and trips to the Huntington Gardens.

What he taught me about being a father still resonates: It’s not words, it’s actions. When my eldest daughter, Giselle, started at UC Riverside and she needed the familiarity of home on the weekends, I was prepared to make the drive or her mom, Gina, would. I had to make many slow-crawl 50-mile drives to pick her up on Fridays from campus and drive her back on Mondays. But I was just doing what my daddy did for me.

Jervey Tervalon is a poet, screenwriter, dramatist and author of several books, including “Dead Above Ground.


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