I’ve been told I’m not a single dad. I’m a dad of two boys, who splits custody 50/50 with my ex-wife. So I’m single and a dad. And dealing with the kids always makes me feel outnumbered and understaffed. I work as a TV producer/director/editor, and when they were younger, I got maybe an hour to read stories to the kids, and connect. I would read books about a rabbit that stalls going to sleep by saying goodnight to as many things as he can before he drives his parents insane, and a monkey that is kidnapped from Africa, put into a bag and thrown into an animal jail (aka zoo).
One night, I decided to tell the boys a personal story about something that happened to me. I had heard another report on the news earlier that day of an African-American man who was beaten nearly to death by police officers. I myself had been punched by a cop as a teenager and have a scar on my chin to show. But it wasn’t a beating, and I didn’t get murdered. When I came home, I didn’t pick up another Curious George book, but told the boys a story of before I was a dad.
My girlfriend in my 20s, Freda, was black … and probably still is, I added as the obligatory dad joke. We were a couple for a while. I played drums in an all-lesbian band (except for me) and was Jewish in a town that had a decent amount of anti-Semitism. So I always had my radar up for hate against black people, gay people and Jews. One weekend, we went back to Illinois for a family wedding. I introduced my girlfriend and everyone was kind and polite. At one point I went off by myself to get us some food, and when I came back to our table, Freda looked stunned and upset. I asked her what the problem was. She said, “Your grandmother just gave me the dirtiest look, like she wanted me to die.” I told her I’d be right back. Freda was not prone to hyperbole. If she said it, it happened. I went up to my 80-year-old grandmother and told her how I felt. I didn’t want an explanation, I wanted to just let her know what she did was not right.
“Grandma, I don’t care how you were brought up, or what justification you feel you have for treating my girlfriend like any less of a person, but I can’t let that happen. I love her and the color of her skin is of no importance in how you treat her. And you will treat her with respect. You are family, but I will not allow a good person like Freda to come to a family event and be treated poorly. It can’t happen. Am I clear?”
She nodded her head, contrite and ashamed. I told her that I loved her, and hopefully we all learned something. I went back to Freda and before I could sit down, she had a new look on her face. This was not a look of hurt or shame. It was a look of “what the hell did you just do?”
“What?” I asked. “I will defend you against anyone.”
She answered slowly. “It was not that grandmother, it was your other grandmother.” I looked back at the grandmother whom I had I just yelled at. She had been admonished for something she probably was thinking, but didn’t act on. And then I looked at the actually guilty grandmother. I didn’t have the energy to read her the same riot act. I looked back at Freda, who just shook her head. We laughed and had a great time at the wedding, then got in the car and left Southern Illinois for the beauty and unrest of the little town where I was born called Chicago.
The boys had many questions. And it opened the door to one of many conversations about the confusing and complicated topic of racism. They asked if my family was racist. I told them I’d like to think we aren’t. But it’s not such an easy answer. It may not even be for me to determine.
I asked them to do what I do. Listen to your friends of different races. Always look to see if your words or actions are hurting people. Talk about what has hurt them and what has helped them. Look to eradicate bad ideas, not people. Fight racism, not racists. And continue to ask hundreds of questions, even if it annoys me. Annoy me. Annoy others. In a few minutes, your brains will be whirring away, creating their own, sometimes bizarre, stories in your dreams. That’s your brain exploring the questions that these stories bring up with more stories! This is the importance of stories. Enjoy them!
My hope is that, this Father’s Day, dads leave a bit of energy at the end of the day to tell personal stories to their young kids. If you think you aren’t a storyteller, don’t worry—your kids are an easy audience. They love their dad and want to hear about him. Even if you’ve been quarantined all day together, kids need that reassurance that dad is there for them as they enter that dark and sometimes scary place called dreamland.
Michael Addis is a filmmaker, showrunner and writer of the new book, Who’s Your Daddy? Bedtime Stories I Tell My Kids, But Maybe Shouldn’t.