Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Choices Papa Gave Me

By May Akabogu-Collins, PhD
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 21, 2009

His name was Chukwuneke. Formally he was Dr. G.C. Akabogu. Many called him Professor; I called him Pa-Pa.

His father died six months before he was born; his mother, two weeks after.

An uncle took him in but at the first chance gave him up to the missionaries in Nigeria. They baptized him, renamed him George and shipped him off to seminary. When he saw my mother, he abandoned the priesthood.

My father was handsome, although short. He had curly, jet-black hair -- bushy eyebrows, big brown eyes and narrow nose in a dark face. A lemon for an Adam's apple.

In a culture that prefers sons, he had seven daughters. Growing up, he said to us: Take it like a man. Back in Nigeria, when I was a high school senior, Pa-Pa summoned me to his study. Sitting behind his wooden desk surrounded by bookshelves filled with dusty Latin classics and Greek literature, Pa-Pa had Time in one hand and Newsweek in the other. Vivaldi's "Gloria" was playing. Jimmy Carter was coming into office in America.

"See?" he began in his courtly manner. "Half his Cabinet are barristers; the other half? Economists." I stared at his Cambridge diploma on the wall. Since my sisters were either in law or medical school, he continued, "You must major in economics."

"It's a man's world, Chum," Pa-Pa repeated all throughout my senior year. A woman's educational background would shape her future, he said. "A degree in economics -- the golden degree -- would ensure your independence," he concluded, rising from his chair.

I had wanted to major in journalism.

Four years later, after my bachelor's in economics, Pa-Pa insisted I earn a doctorate and become a university economics professor. We were sitting at the dining table. It was the height of the oil boom; free universal education was the national policy in Nigeria.

"In a few years," Pa-Pa predicted, "a B.A. will be common." I gazed at the framed picture of my dad with John Paul II, taken on a trip he led to the Vatican. "Moreover, you don't want to end up in a nine-to-five-till-you're-65-job, now, do you, Chum?" he asked in a tone of blatant disapproval. "No, sir," I replied. He smiled, revealing pearly teeth. "Good."

I'd wanted to be a writer.

Pa-Pa was unlike any other African father I knew. Growing up, Saturday was my Armageddon. The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary stood on a stand, and as early as kindergarten, we had to learn 10 new words a week and write a folktale every Saturday using those words. By junior high, I'd inhaled countless classics. All through high school, my father held me captive conjugating Latin verbs. During senior year, we spent uncountable hours together translating the Iliad. Times like that, I wished for one of those illiterate African fathers. Often during my college years, Pa-Pa provided an outline for my research paper. Moments like that, I was proud of my dad.

All those hours studying Latin taught me a lot about English and fostered in me a facility with French and Spanish. Years later, I would transform those hours into a new life.

Like most African fathers, Pa-Pa used proverbs to instruct. My first semester away in college, I blew my allowance. I asked for more; he declined. Go to the ant, Chum, he responded, discover its ways and be wise. I learned fiscal responsibility. While working on my doctorate at the University of Southern California, I hinted that I'd fallen in love: Until you finish chewing what you have in your mouth, he wrote, you ought not to bite off more. I learned focus.

After grad school, I brought home a male friend. Pa-Pa took one look and declared him "an addled-brain -- someone to avoid." But I was a big girl now. I didn't have to listen to Pa-Pa anymore. Five years later, my husband disappeared. Saddled with three kids, I rang Pa-Pa. He sold a piece of land, sent me a check with a note: "If you bungle raising those children, nothing else will have mattered." Eager to regain his approval, I secured a tenure-track position as an economics professor. I enjoyed teaching, but the thought of grinding out obscure scholarly studies -- necessary for tenure -- numbed me. I'd. Rather. Be. Writing. Interesting. Journalistic. Essays. I finally spoke up. Pa-Pa replied, "It's entirely your choice now, Chum . . . "

Huh? "Follow your deepest conscience. I left the priesthood when I realized the authentic thing to do was to marry your mother . . . Carpe diem!"

Yes, sir!

I last saw my father six months before he died. Eighty-five years old, he'd come to America for medical treatment. I escorted him home to Nigeria.

Heavily sedated, hunched over in his plane seat, he suddenly whispered, "Be attentive to your children . . . okay, Chum?" Tears knocked; I blinked and stared off across the skies. I saw Pa-Pa holding court under our mango tree, reciting Shakespeare under the moonlight. I can still see him, there, conducting an imaginary orchestra playing Vivaldi's "Spring."

In today's world of absentee fathers, my father took me beneath his wings. In a world where the pathology of dishonesty by priests is an old story, my father chose the path of honesty. In a culture where women are a second choice, Pa-Pa gave his girls choices. I owe him to live honestly.

May Akabogu-Collins is a professor of economics and a freelance writer. She lives in Vista, Calif.

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Temi said...

How many people can say this of their Dad. Many of our Dads had too many wives and kids to care at all.

Happy father's day to the great Dads out there.

amma said...

My dad had many wives and many kids too, but i remember growing up, he gave us as much attention as he could.There are many African fathers who have many wives and kids( not supporting polygamy), yet give attention to those kids. Yes, it might not be optimal, but its there.Some have only a few and dont care or cant be there because of the demands of work, trying to give the best to their kids.

My take on this is whatever time any father has to give to his children , however little, make it happy, memorable and inspiring. Thats what the children will remember.

Happy fathers day to all dads, good or bad, am sure they all wish they could be good, better or the best dads around. So call your dad even if he doesnt care about being a dad, you never know what might happen.

Someday, it might be too late. And then to all who didnt have May's kind of dad, determine to be better to your kids. The strength to do so lies in the arms of our Heavenly Father.

Anonymous said...

I also had some admiration for my Dad albeit a bit late but then that's what looking only at the bad side of someone does to you. You forget to enjoy, appreciate the good side until it's too late, much to one's regret but such is life. One only hopes we learn the lesson and not keep making the same mistakes over .

Our parents, loved ones all have feets of clay as well as their moments, but overall I guess the whole point is that whatever they do, is done with our interest in mind. Sometimes it might be overboard or misguided but mostly done in love.

So, I do regret not getting close to my Dad, a lot of wisdom and talent went down into the grave with him. What I regret most is that our last parting ended badly and I never got another chance to show him that despite everything, he was my father and I loved him, warts and all.Its too late now, so like May, I guess I will live well as he would have wanted me to. Its funny you know, when he died, and I was told, I couldnt cry. But at the burial as the choir sang the hymn " Only remembered by what you have done the dam holding back the tears broke . Then it dawned, I will never see him again. We will never exchange words again. He always used to say , you are my sister, we shouldnt quarrel! I guess we were too alike, both stubborn, unwilling to yield , or give an inch to each other. He gave me a headstart in my chosen profession and that I really owe him.

So happy fathers day to him, wherever he is and I hope I make him really proud of ME someday.

john said...

Happy Father's Day to all fathers.......the ones that are always there for their kids, even the absentees and dead beats....May the real fathers remain strong, and the mere chromosome donors change their ways