“You can’t be what you can’t see” is the profoundly accurate statement coined by the iconic children’s rights activist Marianne Wright Edelman. It speaks to a reason so many young people wander aimlessly through life, becoming irresponsible adults incapable of providing for themselves or others.
Still, once-in-a-while, a rare spirit is born who defies that tragic existence by creating a brand-new one. My sister Lani and I were blessed to have that rare spirit for a father. Charles Williams became everything he didn’t see growing up. His own childhood ended at the tender age of 13, when his father left home–someone had to work and provide for his mother and siblings. It was our dad, a boy himself at the time, who stepped up and became head of the household. It must have been painfully difficult to carry so much weight on his shoulders, to watch classmates pass him on their way to school as he made his way to work, but we never heard him complain–he just kept on becoming what he hadn’t seen: a soldier who served his country honorably, an entrepreneur, a devoted husband, a loving father and a role model.
I’m at once deeply saddened and yet eternally grateful to friends and family whose recollections of him provide a deeper understanding and appreciation for the merit of our father’s true character. My childhood friend Diana shared in her note to me that her father respected our dad. From their window, they’d watched a man who worked hard, bought a house and owned a business. She described him as “handsome as all get-out”, and noted that, most importantly, our dad loved and adored his family.
Thank you, Diana. Your words bathed me in memories of those days he’d come home from work: I’d greet him with a “Hi, daddy, what did you get me today?” He always had something: a sweater, pocketbook or my favorite gift of all–a big warm hug. Daddy gave me my first blue car, washing, waxing and changing the oil before handing me the keys. I can only imagine the pride he must have felt, and I can’t help but to wonder whether he knew that the depth of my feelings went far beyond words spoken in the moment.
My heart will forever burst with gratitude for everything Dad did to make it possible for his Williams women to each become leaders in our own right. His working long, hard hours meant our mother didn’t have to–clearing her path to carry out the work God intended for her. Marie Williams was a woman on fire in those days–fighting against segregation in the Mt. Vernon school system, tirelessly championing for quality education for all children and being our warrior mom. My beloved sister Lani is a devout servant of God, great humanitarian and caregiver within her church and community.
As a woman, I’m finally beginning to comprehend the wisdom in the old adage that tells us, “Life always comes full circle.” I’m led to realize that harsh experiences that fail to destroy the spirit make us better and stronger in the end–like it did for our soft-spoken father, whose nature was kind and gentle as a kitten.
Dad held no grudge against his father for leaving–maybe in his infinite wisdom, he understood that my grandfather might have stayed too, had he not been born into a world of unconscionable cruelty toward Black men that too often sent them seeking safe harbors where they could live a life of human dignity.
When our grandfather became ill, he found his way back to the son he’d left behind, where with open arms my father lovingly cared for him as one would a baby–feeding, cleaning and bathing Arthur Williams until he took his final breath.
In my heart, no one will ever match my father’s ability to forgive and forget. He was an unsung hero to many around him, especially me. And I know that whoever I am and all that I will ever be is because Charles Williams was my father–a gallant, dedicated family man who remained in our lives to break a cycle of absence, enabling my sister and I to be all that we saw in him, and much more.
In the days before Dad departed, I couldn’t help but notice his deeply penetrating eyes, and though he wasn’t able to speak anymore, those eyes for me became the voice of God, gently asking us to let his son rest peacefully so that He could bring him home.