A Father’s Love

My first clear memory in life is of me standing in the doorway of my childhood home and watching my mother being beaten by my father. I have no memory of anything leading up to this moment nor of what transpired immediately afterwards. My father would eventually leave us, and so begins the rest of my life. One may wonder what type of effect this has had on me. In truth, I don’t know. I don’t feel much of anything towards it—no anger, no sorrow, no resentment. There’s a strange air of inevitability in what I witnessed—not unlike the feeling one gets when caught by a red light during one’s morning commute. I think that on some level, if there is anything to be felt, it’s gratitude. These incidents commence a chain of events which eventually led me to be the man I am today. It’s because of this minuscule trace of gratitude that I am faced with a lifetime of guilt. Guilt, because it was my mother who paid the price and sacrificed her safety (and so much more over my life) to ensure I had the access to the opportunities which have brought me to my current circumstances. Mom, of you’re reading this—I’m sorry.

Around the age of 5, and soon after my father was gone, my mother met the man who would eventually become my step father. She would take extreme care not to bring him around my younger brother and I until she was sure about him. He would only come around after our bedtime. We weren’t sleeping though. We would wait up in anticipation and attempt to identify the mysterious voice emanating from the front of the house—the voice of a man. “Is that daddy?”, we would speculate. We knew it wasn’t. We could see a faceless figure standing in the living room—which was directly visible through the crack in our bedroom door. Tall, always standing, and always in a full suit. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was seeing the man who would go on to play a huge role in my life. Al Holiday taught me how to tie a tie, shake a person’s hand, shave, drive…everything. He would be the reason I chose my alma mater—Tuskegee University. Al was big on HBCUs. At the time, Tuskegee offered the top HBCU Aerospace Engineering (my original major) program and it probably still does today. He hounded me for months about applying. I had already been accepted to Virginia Tech with an ROTC scholarship so it seemed silly to me to consider his proposition. He was so adamant about it that he took it upon himself to print out the application himself and hand it to me—telling me to consider it. I recall staring at the application and smirking. Our printer was almost out of ink and so the application was barely legible. After additional research and thought I came to admire the rich history surrounding Tuskegee and ultimately chose it over Virginia. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made.

Al was always supportive and nurturing of whatever talent my brother and I possessed. In elementary school I began drawing sketches. In hindsight, I was okay but certainly nothing to write home about. This didn’t stop Al from encouraging me to apply to special art institutions, or tasking me to sketch up a logo for a local business. On some level, I knew that he knew my drawings wouldn’t be anything great but I appreciated his support anyway. And I think that was his point. I remember when I was about 10, I had been quite upset about something—to the point of crying. Al had come over just in time to see me finish crying. My mother had a portrait of a woman that hang on the wall just above our television. He sat next to me and asked me if I could draw the portrait for him. I remember expressing to him that portraits were not my strong suit. He insisted I give it a try. I did. I don’t remember what I was upset about.

I’ve always loved the idea of earning my own money. Al recognized this and instituted an allowance for my brother and I. It wasn’t much, just $2 a week for each of us. But we had to keep up grades, keep our room clean, cut the grass, rake the leaves—standard stuff. He was strict with enforcement. If we weren’t handling business, there would be no $2. Sometimes, my brother and I would fight. Sometimes it was my fault, sometimes it wasn’t. Regardless of the case—fighting equals no allowance.

I recall a time I was with Al when he was running an errand. I don’t remember particulars but we were in a place where all of the adults seemed important. All of them in suits and seemingly in a rush. I must have been 11 or 12 at the time. I remember walking around with him and imagining I was his business partner. Whenever he’d run into someone he knew (which was often—Al knew a lot of people) I’d wait patiently for him to introduce me so I could demonstrate my amazing hand-shaking abilities. Sure enough, he did introduce me…as his son. The pride I felt when he would do that swelled within me like helium filling a party balloon. I wanted to make him proud in everything that I did.

Everyone’s childhood has a soundtrack—music that colors your past and creates a nostalgic anchor to that time in your life. My childhood was no different. One album in particular stands out—“New World Order” by Curtis Mayfield. Al would play this album on repeat when I was a kid. He’d play it in the car, at his house, at our house—everywhere. At the time, I only really heard melodies. Its themes and messages were beyond me. I can’t really say why Al was so fond of that particular album, but I like to think that, given my understanding of the album’s lyrics today, it gave him hope. The album itself is optimistic, with tracks entitled “I Believe In You”, “Back To Living Again” and “Oh So Beautiful”. This was also a comeback album for Curtis Mayfield—the first new music he recorded since being paralyzed in 1990. You’d be hard pressed not to find some hope and inspiration in that context.

I received my first job at the age of 15. I told Al that I wanted to work through the summer. He said he knew of a job opening within the County Parks & Recreation department. The job was a concession worker at a local park. Not exactly a glamorous job, but it would be a job. I don’t recall applying for anything. Al simply told me to be ready on a particular day for an interview and I was instructed to wear a suit. Late May rolled around and I walk out of the house with an all black suit, white collared shirt and a tie I “borrowed” from Al. I borrowed all my ties from Al. He said he’d give me a ride to the job interview, but I’d be responsible for getting myself to and from work. We arrived at a nondescript building and I begin to sweat. I don’t know if it was nerves or the fact that I was wearing an all black suit during an unusually hot spring day in Michigan. Al walks with me inside and for some reason unknown to me at the time, knew exactly where to go for my interview. Once in the waiting room Al is greeted by several people (as is always the case) and I was called in for my interview directly. I recall seeing Al as I turn the corner—a look of reassurance on his face helps me relax.

I don’t recall anything from the interview at all other than the man conducting it would be my supervisor at the park. When everything is complete, I’m shown back to the waiting room where Al is sitting patiently with a packet of paperwork I needed to fill out. I remember being slightly confused as to why he held the paperwork but shrugged it off. As we were leaving we took the staircase and a woman spotted Al on the way out. She rushed to the stairwell to speak to him (this happens a lot).

Halfway through summer, as I was walking through the park with my supervisor he randomly asked me about Al—about how he was doing. I told him Al was fine and asked him how he had come to know Al. He laughed and said “Everyone knows who the county commissioner is!”. I knew at the time that Al was the County Commissioner, I just didn’t put the pieces together. Then it dawned on my naive 15-year-old mind: I didn’t land this job, Al got it for me. He knew where the interview was because he set it up. In fact, I would learn later on the interview itself wasn’t necessary. He made me go through the motions of the interview process as training for later in life. I view this as one of the most important experiences of my life. Al exercised his influence to get me a job, but by not knowing this, he was able to teach me a valuable lesson about seeking, preparing for, and obtaining employment.

It’s Mother’s Day 2007. It’s also the day I graduate from Tuskegee University. Hours after the ceremony, I get changed from my slacks and collared shirt to some jeans and….a collared shirt. My phone rings and it’s Al on the other side. In true Al Holiday form he had more to say over the phone than he did when I saw him earlier before and after the ceremony. He says how proud he is of me and that I’m “…the type of son every man wants.”. We chat for a few minutes about what he has going on and I solicit some advice about my drive up to Washington, DC in the next few days. “Take your time.” he says—“DC ain’t going nowhere”.

Over the next few months as I begin my first job I share all my firsts with him—trying to impress him. I talk of my corporate credit card, my TDY trips to Arizona and New Jersey. I tell him about how I get to work on cool stuff but that I could never actually talk to him about it because it’s classified. He finds these things humorous but I know he’s proud nonetheless. I was beginning my life as an independent adult—living and working in the DC area. I was making new friends, establishing new relationships and trying to find my own way in the world. We didn’t talk as much as I would have liked and only saw each other occasionally—mostly if he was in DC for some reason or if I made it back to Michigan (which was even more rare).

Fast forward to 2013—I hadn’t been married a full week. My mother delivers the news that Al had died from a stroke. I lay there in bed crying into my pillow as my wife rubs my back. She knows me well enough to know that I’m not interested in her condolences, being “cheered up”, or anything like that. She knows that I just need time. I needed time to think about the moments mentioned here and many many more that weren’t. I needed time to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to live the rest of my life without him. I needed time to accept that my biological father was still on the periphery of my life but now the man who raised me was gone forever. I needed time to ponder my own readiness for fatherhood without him as a guide.

I think of Al when I listen to Curtis Mayfield. Or maybe I listen to Curtis Mayfield when I think of Al. I think of him when I’m confused and also when I’m confident. I want to share so many things with him—so many accomplishments. I want him to meet my son, Judah—who was born a year after his death. I often dream of being able to talk to him again and share these things. When I awake, I’m overcome with grief and sorrow. Most of all, I just want to thank him. I can’t imagine the person I would be if it weren’t for him. And I can’t imagine being happier living any other life. Each day is my best day, even when it’s a bad day, because each day is a new day—or as Al would say: “Everyday is a Holiday”.

By Johnny Austin

Johnny is an experienced engineering leader with an interest in everything from user experience to distributed systems architecture. He is an active member of the open source community, contributing to projects such as Node.js. As Technology Director at iStrategyLabs, Johnny has led the development of various projects for clients such as Facebook, Kroger, Volkswagen and more. He serves as an IT advisory board member for the National Academy Foundation and as a technology advisor for Black Girls Code. Currently, Johnny is helping grow and lead the engineering team as Senior Engineering Manager at Social Tables in Washington, DC