Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…Philippians 2:5.
We recently received the 2015 Community Garden of the Year Award for The Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden, YAY!!! But after jumping up and down and screaming excitedly I thought about how much work was done on that garden in one short year and that made me think about Daddy. Not just because he would have been so pleased and so proud, but most significantly because he would not have been surprised…not by the vision, not by the design and certainly not by the excellency of hard work done joyously by his seven grandsons. And, if someone looking at the 38 beds built or the 40 tons of soil and gravel poured or the solor powered drip irrigation system installed or the thousands of seeds sown had commented “That’s a lot of hard work done well” Daddy would have given one of his predictable responses whenever someone complimented his family “Tell me something I DON’T know!”
Daddy was a strategic thinker and while I doubt many people would immediately think of him when reflecting on the admonition in Philippians I think it applies. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. I think a goodly portion of the mind of God was focused strategically, what with being omnipotent and knowing the end from the beginning and everything- and I definitely saw that “looking beyond the moment” in Daddy. He strategically looked into a future space he would not physically occupy and designed the lived environment he shared with Mommy and their children to help engineer a very specific and planned outcome. So he wasn’t at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens last week to beam with pride when we received the award, he won’t be at the party Saturday for the 5th birthday of his eldest great-grandson, David Washington Penn, V and he won’t be there Sunday when four generations of us gather at the home he and Mommy shared to have our family dinner after Sunday School and church together as we’ve done for 35+ years. But again, he wouldn’t be surprised.
As we embark upon yet another round of presential debates and political commentary that includes tons of dogma about family values and Christian values and the necessity of standing firm and unyielding against systems of white supremacy, I decided to reprint the observations I gave at Daddy’s homegoing service last year. His strategic approach, while laden with imperfections still illustrates the significant impact of moving beyond even brilliant criticism to functionality in the service of one’s family and one’s beliefs.
Daddy was a hard man but he was also an exemplar of how to survive and surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He was born poor and black in America in 1923…and according to the archives at the Tuskegee Institute from the year of his birth until 1950, the year he married, over 250 black people were lynched in this country. So yeah, Daddy was a hard man and he was a very conscious race man. He was complex with many interconnected and constantly moving, seemingly contradictory parts but he wasn’t complicated; and while he was often difficult it wasn’t because he was hard to understand. His core hypothesis and underlying premises were always crystal clear. There were just a few basic things to remember in dealing with W.L. Penn.
The Hypothesis: He believed in Holiness, the Oneness of the Godhead, baptism in Jesus’ name and the necessity of the Holy Ghost. Ergo, er’body living in his house, er’body visiting his house and er’body near his house or his household had to operate within the supporting premises of those confines.
1) Excellence: if it wasn’t about excellence it wasn’t about Jesus and was therefore unacceptable. But excellence wasn’t an issue of competition or comparative analysis, it was an issue of personal best. To coexist peaceably with Daddy we, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had to bring our best-and he loved us dearly. You can deduce what that meant for anyone and everyone else.
2) Effort: You had to bring your “A” game to Daddy…you didn’t have to be THE best, but you had to do YOUR best. When I was 7 years old I told him I couldn’t do math because I didn’t like it. He got my little pink suitcase, began packing it and said “In this family we have a motto, produce or get out”. Not a parenting technique recommended today, but the man was nothing if not clear!
3) Extravagance: Daddy and I both delighted in his willingness to give me anything I wanted (with the notable exceptions of a dog and a horse), but more than the willingness to give, long before Consumer Reports, he was a research shopper-anything he bought us, whether books of poetry, fresh produce or new pots and pans, it was the best, “top of the line doc!” But he was also extravagant with his time. He was always present…when he wasn’t at work he was with his family. When we were growing up he wasn’t involved with friends or fraternities, politics or positions (spiritual or secular)…he was involved with us and all the minutia of us.
4) No Excuses-Ever: This was the one thing I think a lot of people never quite understood about Daddy. He brooked no excuses-ever. You could provide an explanation, or even a well reasoned argument. He and I argued often and intensely. The man wasn’t a bully, when it came to withering commentary he could dish it AND take it; but don’t bring an excuse. When he was wrong, he could admit it, something I deeply admired and appreciated, especially as a child. He didn’t mind kneeling by my bed and saying “Princess, Daddy’s sorry…will you kiss me goodnight?” All us girls put Daddy on punishment more than once! But because he made no excuses for himself he tolerated none from others. And that was especially true for men.
Daddy had massive gender issues and was an unapologetic advocate of patriarchy and as a consequence he held any manifestation of male weakness, willfulness, a refusal to step up and handle responsibilities, whining, crying, navel gazing-all of that- as beyond contempt and compassion. He wasn’t just a hard man, he was a strong man with a strong back and a strong work ethic and he truly believed strong men were essential to continued cultural integrity and the development and protection of strong families, strong communities, strong churches and a strong country.
Daddy had lots of visions he brought to fulfillment through the implementation of his hypothesis and premises. He worked like a Jamaican slave on a sugar plantation and expected no less from his children. There was no “sleeping in” at Mildred and Washington’s -Everybody was required to be up and dressed by 7:30 am every day, unless you were sick-and they refused to “claim sickness.” If one of us was sick, Daddy would come and kneel by our bed and pray, and his prayers were loud, specific and quite lengthy. Daddy was neither an Elder nor a Deacon in our church, but he conducted himself as the “Chief Priest” in our home. Should the sickness seem dire enough he and Mommy would pray and then ever-so-carefully cut a baby aspirin in half, and if you were very, very lucky (a term we were not allowed to use because “We don’t believe in luck, we believe in Jesus!”) and were sufficiently nauseous you got a ¼ cup of 7-Up afterwards. But Daddy prayed about everything. He prayed over his pay checks and he prayed when paying bills. He put his hands on the dashboard and prayed before he drove us anywhere. He prayed before we had exams, or choir concerts or orchestra performances. While my mother read the Bible aloud to us nightly, it was Daddy who prayed-incessantly. And when he wasn’t praying he was singing hymns, usually at the top of his lungs, especially when working in the yard which was painfully embarrassing.
But he was not one of those sweet, long-suffering Christians. He was an Old Testament, “Vox clamantis in deserto”, a “Cry loud, spare not”, kind of Christian and he remained perpetually vigilant about the dangers of white supremacy and racism. He viewed the Scriptures through that lens, especially 1 Peter 5:8, Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. No doubt due to the crushing disappointments he saw his parents experience, he saw white supremacy as that roaring lion. So for him the safety and ongoing existence of his family, both on this plane and the next, depended upon not just mercy and grace, but upon standards which must be met. His non-negotiable standard of excellence was exemplified by his constant admonition to Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. Ephesians 6:11. He never accepted anything less than excellence and if we dared bring him anything less the consequences were swift and severe because he really believed 1 John 4:4, Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. Washington or “the Klingon” as we called him behind his back, indulged us and he always had our backs against anyone and everyone-but he absolutely refused to pamper us. Every day at dinner he’d ask, “How was school?” If one of us was dumb enough to answer “Okay”, he’d bark “Quantify that!” When he gave us our summer reading lists and said no television during the day, he meant it. Long before Ronald Regan quipped “Trust but verify” Daddy would often arrive home unannounced, in the middle of the day, and place his hand on the top of the TV- God Himself would have to help you if it that set was warm!
In elementary school he walked us in the first day and told the teacher, in front of everyone: “This is my child. He/she has been instructed to call me if there are any problems. If they call, I will come immediately and when I get here you better be right!” He believed the way you started a thing determined how it would end. “You can’t drive a crooked nail straight!” Yeah, further embarrassment, but I loved knowing Daddy was just a phone call away. And when I went to Wellesley College he called me every day, 7 days a week, for the entire 4 years I was there. He put the X in extreme! When Daddy first met CMadison, my future husband, they talked for over an hour and bonded for a lifetime. At our wedding in 1976, he told him, “She’s yours. Whatever problems you have, work it out-she has no home here.” Daddy continued to call, but he always asked to speak to CMadison first. He respected the sanctity of our marriage and CMadison’s role in it.
When we had our twins, his first grandchildren, he and Mommy began a tradition that continues to this day. Every Sunday they host all their children, their children’s spouses and all their children’s children for dinner after church. If any of us were not on time at Sunday School with our kids Daddy would call, “Somebody sick at your house? You have car trouble?” If any of our children were not excelling in anything, Daddy and Mommy would call us over for “a talk”-and those talks were neither pleasant nor sympathetic. They expected the standard of excellence they worked so hard to establish to be continued, and while he and Mommy knew they couldn’t make us do anything, they absolutely refused to be silent in the absence of excellence.
Daddy’s children and grandchildren have been blessed beyond measure by his wisdom, support, unrelenting love, unquestioned devotion and constant presence in our lives. Daddy believed in being a shepherd to his family, not for a season but for generations. He has been an Abraham to his tribe (even when we didn’t want to be led) and he used his rod and his staff to guide us spiritually, intellectually and physically. I could offer many examples, but this one deeply personal experience perfectly illuminates what kind of father he was and how he prepared me to step out in the world confident and unafraid.
My parents were very sturdy and athletic. We had family bike rides-he was always out in front!; foot races- he would “spot us” 5 minutes, run backwards and then lap us!; and massive sled rides-they would fly down the treacherous hills at Glenwood Park, Mommy lying on top of Daddy’s back as he maneuvered our Flexible Flyer through the trees, with her screaming all the way to the bottom! But my favorite things were family picnics because I loved swings. Daddy would push me so high the chains of the swing would be parallel to the ground and then, without thinking or giving a word of warning, I would leap into the air-knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would catch me; and he always did. He and I loved the thrill of it. He made it easy for me to be fearless!