My first father was a black man on television who wore bright, argyle sweaters.
In the absence of a real father, I had a cast of characters that were at times hilarious, pitiful, perfect, kind and wise.
My first father was a black man on television who wore bright, argyle sweaters. He lived in New York or Chicago, I can’t remember which. He was incredibly intelligent, and had a knockout wife. I am talking about Bill Cosby. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Theo Huckstable. I liked the way Theo dressed, I liked that he was confident with women, and that even though he didn’t make very good grades, he still felt good about himself, and he had good-looking, black sisters who were older and younger and who always gave him encouragement and advice about life. There was safe male-female tension in the family.
I liked that Bill Cosby had money, too, tons of cash and certain philosophies about saving and spending that gave the family a sense of security which turned his knockout wife on and had her singing slow, sultry blues melodies to him from the bed while he brushed his teeth in the master bathroom. Bill Cosby never panicked about small things, he never got worked up about broken windows or cereal on the floor, and if he did get worked up, it was more like a comedy routine than a drunken rampage. He also laughed at himself, which was endearing, and I would sit in front of the little black and white television in my room and live vicariously through the made-up life of the Huckstables, who had celebrity guests coming through the house every few episodes to play the trombone or tap dance.
My mom was great, don’t get me wrong, but the only guests we ever had at our house were from the singles group at church and none of them ever whipped out a trombone to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” or tap-danced in the living room or recited a piece of epic prose about the underground railroad on which “our people” had traversed from oppression and slavery to freedom. Our guests, rather, ate meatballs on paper plates and talked bitterly about their ex-husbands or how much money the pastor made.
I also liked the fact that, on The Cosby Show , there was never any serious conflict. When Theo graduated from college, for example, the conflict simply involved the family only having ten tickets to the graduation ceremony, and Bill wanted to invite the whole neighborhood. All the ladies kept looking at him and shaking their heads, because Bill Cosby’s love for his family was always causing him to make a mess of things. They would shake their heads and laugh, and he would make a funny face, and Theo would throw his hands up, look at the ceiling and roll his eyes while exclaiming, “Gosh, Dad!” … and I would roll over backwards on the floor and look up at the ceiling, sigh and say under my breath, “Black people have it perfect.”
White people had interesting fathers, too, but nothing to make a sitcom about. When I was growing up my friend Jim had a father, and I learned from this that a real father doesn’t have jazz singers over to perform in the living room before dinner, and that real families with fathers don’t lip-sync Motown tunes or give speeches at college graduations. Rather, real fathers, at least at Jim’s house, clean guns while watching television, weed-eat the lawn with one hand while holding a beer in the other, and squeeze their wife’s butt in the kitchen while she is cooking dinner. And because of Jim’s father, and because I watched The Cosby Show with the devotion of a Muslim, I came to believe a man was supposed to be around the house to arm and disarm weapons, make sexual advances on the matriarch, perform long and colorful ad-libs with children about why they should clean their room and, above all, always face the camera, even if the entire family has to sit on one side of the table during dinner.
And this is precisely how I intended to run my family.
All my life I have been fascinated by stuff that isn’t there. I’d be lying to you if I said I read books early. I didn’t start reading till I was in college, but I knew about fairies and dragons and trolls from hearing about them at reading time when the librarian at my elementary school crossed her long legs and sat silently until we sat silently. Then she’d wrap her lips around the simple words of a children’s book, holding her palm against the crease of the page, turning the book toward us to display the watercolor pictures—a small troll in a big coat who lived under a bridge, his eye ever-alert for travelers on the road. There was a book with pictures of a boy riding a dragon through the clouds, smoke and fire coming from the creature’s nostrils, the boy leaning in as the dragon ascended over a picturesque village. And I remember wondering what it would be like to own a dragon, to lay across the monster’s spine, inching toward it’s neck as the beast jolted into flight, thrusting through the milky pretext for heaven that glows over Houston, up and above the weather where my dragon and I could watch lightning fight itself into exhaustion.
I bring this up because in writing some thoughts about a father, or not having a father, I feel as though I am writing about a troll under a bridge or a dragon. Because, for me a father is nothing more than a character in a fairy tale. And I know fathers are not like dragons in that fathers actually exist, but I don’t remember feeling that a father existed for me. I know they are real people. I have seen them on television, and sliding their arms around their women in grocery stores, and I have seen them in the malls and in the coffee shops, but these were characters in other people’s stories, and I never stopped to question why one of these characters wasn’t living in our house. I don’t say this out of self-pity, because in a way I don’t miss having a father any more than I miss having a dragon. But in another way, I find myself wondering about this open wound I feel.
What I mean by this is that by design, within the laws of nature, a man and a woman join and make kids, and at least you would assume the father is supposed to stick around and teach his kids to carve a turkey at Thanksgiving or whatever it is a father teaches a kid. But, that never happened to me, and it may have never happened to you, either.
It makes you wonder if just having a dad around—just his being there reading the morning paper and smoking cigars at poker with his friends and having him read you a story at night—you were supposed to understand something, some idea God in heaven wanted to offer as a gift. Lately, I have been very curious about what that something is, and whether or not a person could understand it even if his father took off.
Donald Miller is a writer, campus ministry leader, and speaker. He is the author of Blue Like Jazz , Searching for God Knows What, Through Painted Deserts . Excerpt taken from To Own a Dragon by Donald Miller and John MacMurray and used by permission of NavPress. To purchase To Own a Dragon , visit your local bookstore or www.navpress.com.