Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lessons From Zeph

Three things always populated my mind in regards to my father when I was a young boy. Foremost was his scent. Not surprising, as experts in the matter say smells are key in creating memories.  I spent a lot of time in my younger years in a small rural town called Forest, MS. Most of the men I knew, uncles, older cousins, and gentlemen my mother dated, all had these rougher edges to them. Most wore dirty overalls or oil stained coveralls or blue jeans with tattered work boots. They'd spent time riding horses, hunting animals, fixing cars, tending to farms, working in lumber mills, or chicken plants. All had these hard and callused hands, worn faces and reddened eyes. These men clearly did a lot of hard physical labor in their day-to-day lives. Whenever I'd embrace these men for hugs, they often smelled of sweat, or motor oil, or wood, or animals, or Budweiser. It wasn't sourness from bad body odor, but something different. My father though, he never smelled like this.

My father always smelled like Zest soap and fancy colognes with names I didn't know how to pronounce. He wore shirts with smooth fabric, shoes made of fine and shiny leather, and tasteful gold jewelry. (I assure you, despite how it sounds, my father DID NOT dress like a pimp.)  His hands and skin were smooth and clean, yet his grip was stronger than any man I knew.  My father was a thoughtful dresser, and before I, or even he, realized it, this was the first thing he'd ever teach me. Without knowing or trying, he taught me to care about one's presentation to the world. More importantly, his scent taught me the juxtaposition of men.

The second thing I thought about was my father's height. Like every other person in my life, as a young kid I had to physically look up to meet my father's eyes. But even still I knew he had to be considered a tall man in the general sense. Around all my uncles, cousins, and aunts, my father physically towered over them as well. The thing that really made me obsess with my father's height were these delusions that one day I'd be as tall as he was. I knew my father loved basketball, so most of my fantasies involved growing up and being tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, my father's favorite basketball team. Or at least be as tall as my older brother "Lil Zeph", who seemed, in my mind, to be my father's favorite. Along with the advantage of living in Flint, and seeing our father more often, I assumed being an outstanding basketball player is what cemented Zeph's (my older brother) status as the favorite son. It was because of this I wanted to be tall more than I wanted to be anything else in the world. I'm 5'10"... on a good day. These words can't express the bitterness I felt typing them.

Lastly, I always "missed" my father growing up. That was the thing I thought of the most. How much I missed him. I had barely stepped into consciousness when my mother left my father. I don't say they "split up" because that wouldn't be fair to my mother. She did in fact leave him. Under the ruse of a promised trip to McDonald's was how she got me to be okay with getting in the car. We did go to McDonald's... it just so happened to be all the way in Mississippi. Later my younger brother was born and we'd spend summers in Flint. I remember spending time with my Aunt Estell or with her neighbors a few doors away who were like surrogate parents, Fonzo and Cat, or my father's mother who also lived further down the same street. My father would come and pick us up from one of these places, and I can't recall what we'd always do, but I do remember feeling that however much time it was I'd spend with him, it never felt like it was enough. I spent more time missing my father than time actually spent with my father.

In my father's defense, living almost 1,000 miles apart didn't make it easy on him. That also meant for a long time, I didn't really know my father. A large part of the image of my father was being shaped by my mother who rightly didn't always have the kindest words about him. I also got scattered opinions from aunts, uncles, and cousins. The basic consensus was my father was a "ladies man" and from what I could surmise it was true. I didn't know how babies were made at the time, but I knew you had to make a woman "like you" to get a baby. I knew I had brothers and sisters, via my father from different mothers than my own, so I knew my father didn't have a problem getting women to "like him."

Not hard to see why as youthful photos of my father reveal an almost implausibly handsome young man, almost always with a beautiful woman on his arm. Watching my father interact with people, I learned to understand what women liked about him. He was an incredibly charming man that could talk with anyone. That charm coupled with his good looks probably got my father into a lot more trouble than he bargained for. He's a man and a man will typically be as faithful as the options available to him. "I didn't care what he did, to be honest," my mother once confessed, "I just couldn't get his ass to at least come home." More than anything, she'd always described my father as selfish.

Today, the man my mother lamented isn't the man my father is, or has been for several years. The "Zeph", she fell in love with all those years ago has been replaced with someone far more patient and thoughtful. The jealous, quick tempered, selfish, single-minded "ladies man" that was described to me, isn't the man I know today. The man I know today is a man who's insight and knowledge on all things in life I've learned to lean on. I often joke that my father has lived long enough to see so many things and frankly, make so many mistakes, he has the "cheat codes to life." A lot of the pitfalls I'd surely sink into, were I left to my own devices, he easily helps me navigate.

My father taught me that if shit gets heavy enough, it's okay to cry. "You're a human son, and as such, you have feelings and emotions. Despite what the world will tell you, those things aren't exclusive to women." My father taught me to always be respectful of others. "Trust people and hold them accountable by their actions and their character, be forgiving but don't be stupid." He taught me to be mindful of the fact that every story has two sides, to always listen to both, and to be fair. Even at the risk of not being on my side, my father is always fair. "Son, I'd be doing you a disservice as a father if I didn't tell you the truth", is a line I regularly hear when he's delivering advice opposite of what I was hoping to get. More than anything, he taught me that life isn't about the good times. Primarily life is a test of how we handle the bad times. "Any jackass can sail a ship in calm waters, but I want you to learn how to stay calm and steer your way through storms." 

When I was about 15, I was getting ready for what was going to be my first date-date. I was living with my father at the time, and I came to him seeking advice. He helped me pick out an outfit, let me use some of his cologne and taught where to apply it, (which I forgot and my brother Zeph would later reteach me) give me a few bucks, and give me some "pointers". "Be yourself son. It's enough, trust me." In short, the date was a total disaster. I came home dejected and upset. My father asked how it went and I explained the gory details. My father sighed, shook his head, and agreed that I fucked it up. "Paris, you aren't going to have trouble with women. You're my son and you got "it". Your brother Zeph has "it", you just haven't learned to tap into it yet. And "it" will be helpful with life in general, not just with women. Trust me son, you'll be fine." He was right. 

Besides that "infamous Jones Charm", throughout the years my father passed something more valuable than all the other things he's taught me; the lesson of evolution. Any real and healthy human should evolve into someone better. The man I am at 21, shouldn't be the man I am at 30, and he shouldn't be the man I am at 60. Self-admitted, my father didn't really change for a very long time, but my father's slower evolution came right as I needed it. Since I've been 18, coincidentally when I became a father myself, the counsel and comfort my father has given me has been worth more than anything material he could have given me as a child. If I were to compare my life to the game of basketball, my father wasn't Michael Jordan or LeBron James. For me, Zephniah Jones Jr. has proven to be more like Robert Horry. Someone that may not have been doing much in the first three quarters, but when crunch time comes around, he was always someone you'd want on your team because he's hitting a game winning three pointer. And remember, Robert Horry has more championship rings than Jordan, and in the end, isn't that what matters the most?

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