In elementary school, administration hosted a before-school breakfast for fathers and daughters to attend: Dads & Donuts. Although I imagine all of the little girls in attendance appreciate the time their fathers spent with them that morning, my appreciation is rooted much deeper. I cannot create more memories with my father. He won’t be at my graduation from Howard U, just as he wasn’t at my high school, middle school, or 4th grade graduations. He won’t walk me down the aisle or, before then, have the pleasure of a young man asking him for my hand. Dads & Donuts was in 4th grade. My dad died later that school year.
The following is a short story I wrote in 12th grade. You’ll notice the infamous “Dads & Donuts” event is a key setting in it. To say the short story is loosely based on my life would be dishonest. It is my story. My thoughts. My initial experience with change.
I’ve decided not to make any new edits in order to maintain its integrity.
Cori sat on the second pew of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, wearing the new dress Ma had picked up for her just the night before, a white one with fluffy ruffles, because Ma said the family didn’t wear black to funerals. The aunts were late, and Cori was looking around, wondering when they’d arrive since it was clear the service wouldn’t be starting on time. Cori had just barely had time to twist her thick stockings around the right way before she left home since she thought they were in such a hurry. She didn’t want to hold anyone up. Everyone was already so upset. Sitting in the church, she looked up at Ma’s soft, hurt expression and nudged at Ma’s leg with her own to ask when she would go ahead and give everyone the OK, but Ma told her they all could wait. No use in starting any more trouble. Besides, “he ain’t going nowhere.” She wished they could.
Cori had hated walking to and from school by herself, but ever since her brother Aaron graduated to the middle school for that September, he went all the way across town and got to take the school bus without her. She’d complained to Ma and her father enough that finally her father began walking with her every morning before heading to work and would be waiting outside the school entrance the moment the dismissal bell rang.
“She’s just so new to it still. Remember, we didn’t want them to be true latchkey kids like we were. Give it a few weeks, she’ll adjust fine,” she’d heard him talking to Ma upstairs while she’d been waiting downstairs one morning.
“Adjust?” Ma didn’t sound too convinced, “How’s she supposed to adjust if you keep going with her?”
“Well I can’t send her out alone now. She still needs me.”
“She needs something. We’re not always gonna be here with them, Cain. At some point we have to teach them to be independent and function without us. So… let’s start now. The school’s just down the street. She can walk alone.”
Cori didn’t walk alone that day. She was met by her father only a few seconds behind schedule and together they headed down Brooklawn Drive. Her book bag over his shoulder. Her hand in his.
“What are we gonna have for dinner, Daddy?”
“Dinner? You haven’t even made it to lunch yet, Babygirl.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s Wednesday, and you know they always give us the chalkboard pizza on Wednesdays and I just can’t eat that. I can’t. That means we have to have something really good for dinner or else I’ll starve to deaf.”
“Starve to death?” at just 8 years old, Cori’s meager attempts at speaking how he did had to be the cutest thing to him. “Why didn’t you have Ma pack you a lunch since we know it’s Wednesday and they serve the chalkboard pizza on Wednesdays?” He was always teasing her.
“Do you know I asked her to buy me a Lunchable the other day? Yeah, I did! And do you know what she said?”
“What did she say?”
“She says to me, ‘if you want a boxed lunch, you make yourself a turkey sandwich and wrap it up just the way you want it.’ Do you believe that?” Cori and her father had both believed it.
That day seemed like forever ago now.
Sitting in the pew, Cori fiddled at the ruffles on her dress, clearly uninterested in the show going on around her, but not visibly upset. When the ushers came to her family’s pew and offered her a box of tissues, she declined. “You tryna say there’s something in my nose?” she joked at him, but the usher was in no position to joke back.
“Oh yeah. Sorry.”
Once it finally started, the service seemed so long like it would never end. Sister So-and-so sang a selection and Brother What’s-his-face read a scripture and, even though her father had explained to her years ago that it was “just a church thing,” she didn’t get why she had to call these people that when they weren’t even related. Cori tried not to pay much attention to the service, occasionally pretending she needed to use the restroom so she could walk past the still open casket. As peacefully as he slept, her father sure looked sharp. The funeral home people had dressed him in a navy blue suit Ma had given them from his closet. They’d had the jacket steamed really nicely and left the pants pleated just how her father always liked them. It was the same suit he’d worn to the Second Grade Dads & Donuts at her school, and he’d looked just as nice then. Maybe even nicer.
All the fathers had come dressed up that day, looking nicer than when they dressed only for work because today they had to match their little girls. Most of them were sitting around like dads eating donuts while the music committee’s great choices played. Cori had been on the music committee, and knew there was a special song coming up. I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. Just as soon as Cori heard the song begin to play, her father, who had already been dancing in that cool-dad kind of way, swung around in front of her and took her hand. She felt the air under her skirt as they twirled around the gymnasium bringing jealousy to all the other 2nd grade girls.
Cori’s father couldn’t make the other girls jealous of her anymore.
The morning things changed, Cori had been waiting patiently by the door with her book bag next to her as usual when her father finally came down the steps. “Ready to go, Daddy?” she’d asked him, but his answer hadn’t been the same.
“I’m going to have to miss this morning, Babygirl. Daddy’s got to be up the turnpike in the next 40 minutes.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Nope. No kidding here. If we leave right this second I can drive you, but I can’t walk.”
“That’s fine,” Cori smiled, “but I get to pick what’s on the radio.”
“You got it. Don’t forget to grab your hat.”
“Cori, don’t hold up your father,” Cori’s mother interjected from the kitchen, “You can walk to school just fine.”
So she did, after locking eyes with her father and deciding they wouldn’t put up a fight. “See you at 3 o’clock,” he’d assured her. Three o’clock.
Cori walked to school that morning without her father. She carried her own book bag. No one blocked her from the street. No one held her hand. She was just like the other 3rd grade girls, she thought, walking to school by themselves because their older brothers got to take the bus and their fathers had to get to work. That afternoon she waited for him. She hadn’t been waiting long when she noticed Ma’s van parked pretty close to the entrance. A school administrator was at the van with Ma, and Cori knew something was wrong.
“Hey, Ma. What’s going on?” she’d asked.
“Nothing, Honey, just get in the car.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll just wait here for Daddy. Besides, what are you doing home from work so early?”
“Cori, please. Get in the car.”
The crack she heard in Ma’s voice made Cori notice even more the look on hers and the administrator’s faces. Cori had rarely ever known Ma to be soft. Except when she would sneak downstairs past her bedtime to find Ma and her father in the theater watching movies. One night Cori had been positive Ma had seen her, but Ma must’ve been so at ease that she didn’t even say anything. That was the softness Cori remembered when she looked up at Ma’s face in the parking lot. But today she didn’t look just soft. She looked hurt. Cori had better get in the car.
They didn’t tell her right away about the accident. It wouldn’t have mattered much what they had to say anyway. Everything was already all wrong. Ma shouldn’t have been there. Her father was supposed to be there. He needed to walk her home from school.
Sitting on the pew of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Cori didn’t realize she was not at all just like the other 3rd grade girls. When the service was over, the limo that had brought her here would take her back home. She’d have dinner, except tonight, Ma had explained, friends and family were going to join with them so they’d be eating in the dining room instead of the kitchen. That night, she’d sing herself to sleep the way she always did, because it had been forever since anyone read to her or tucked her in. That would be fine for Cori though because she’d gotten used to it. But in the morning, she’d be waiting downstairs with her book bag next to her as usual but her father would never come because from now on she had to walk to school alone.
In memory of my father and admiration for my mother.
– Jade M Ernest