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 in the front yard. I have no memory of anything leading up to this moment nor of what transpired immediately afterward. My dad 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 being 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 commenced 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 endure a lifetime of guilt. Guilt, because it was my mother who paid the price and sacrificed her safety and well-being (and so much more over my life) to ensure I had access to the opportunities which have brought me to my current circumstances. Mom, if 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 stepfather. 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. He was 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 that 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 a 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 and hand it to me – telling me to consider it. I recall staring at the form 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 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, it was okay, but certainly, nothing to write home about; however, this didn’t stop Al from encouraging me to apply to art institutions or asking me to sketch up a logo for a local business. On some level, I knew that he was aware that 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 hung on the wall just above our television. He sat next to me and asked me if I could draw the picture for him. I remember expressing to him that portraits were not my strong suit, but he insisted I give it a try. I did. I don’t recall 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 our grades high, 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, and sometimes it wasn’t. Regardless of the case – fighting equaled no allowance.
I recall a time when I was with Al when he was running an errand. I don’t remember the particulars, but we were in a place where all of the adults seemed important. They were all 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 patiently wait 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 heard only melodies. Its themes and messages were beyond me. I can’t 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. It includes tracks such as “I Believe in You,” “Back to Living Again,” and “Oh so Beautiful.” The album was also a comeback album for 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 had 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 and Recreation Department. The job was that of a concession worker at a local park, not exactly a glamorous job, but a job nonetheless. I don’t recall applying for anything. Al 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 tie I had “borrowed” from Al. I borrowed all my links 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 began 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 was 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 Al (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 that at the time, Al was the county commissioner; I just didn’t put the pieces together. Then, it dawned on my fresh, 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 that 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 valuable 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 got changed from my slacks and collared shirt into some jeans and… 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 tells me 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 in the next few days, 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 about my corporate credit card and 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 way in the world. We didn’t talk as much as I would have liked and we 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 rarer).This was mostly due to him and my mother having been divorced for a while at this point.
Fast forward to 2013 – I hadn’t been married a full week. My mom delivers the news that Al had died from a stroke, and I lay there in bed crying into my pillow as my new 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 knew that I just needed time. I needed time to think about the moments mentioned here and many more, which 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 in the periphery of my life, but now, the man who raised me was gone forever. I needed time to ponder my 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 sometimes dream of being able to talk to him again and share these things. When I awaken, 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: “Every day is a Holiday.”.