Becoming More Than Dad

Pop taught me how to play catch and swing a bat. Soon after, he signed me up for little league, and then signed himself up to manage my team. Teammates called him Coach Richard, but to my sister and I he was always Pop. That was how our mother referred to him in the beginning of their relationship, after learning Pop was the nickname Richard was given during his days as an air traffic controller. She meant it as a term of endearment; my sister and I meant it as a title. Pop was our way of calling Richard dad without actually using the word.

Dad is what we called our father, who picked us up for weekend visits from time to time. He was the one who would occasionally come to the little league games I played in, the same ones Pop was coaching. There was one game in particular. Dad didn't like a call made on the field and started heckling the umpire from the stands, which resulted in his dismissal from the ballpark. Back in the dugout, my teammates started talking about the "crazy guy in the stands." I told them he was my dad so they wouldn't say anything negative in my presence. They were confused, and to be honest, so was I.

The man who felt more like a dad wasn't in the stands, he was in the dugout, coaching all of us. My teammates didn't say anything about my dad for the rest of the game, nor did they ask me any questions. Because even to them, my dad was the coach. They would ask me for inside information about the starting lineup by saying things like, "Tell your dad to let me bat cleanup." I never corrected them because, frankly, I thought dad was a fitting title for the man I called Pop.

I became so overwhelmed with this feeling I decided to broach the subject with my mother. I had no problem calling my father dad in his presence, but I told her at home, I wanted to stop calling Richard, Pop. I felt dad was a more fitting title for him. She told me to ask Richard what he thought. He was in the bathroom at that moment, sitting on what he called his throne, so I asked him through the door. "Pop, I want to start calling you dad. Is that okay with you?" He didn't hesitate. "Sure," he said.

I didn't hesitate either, and wasted no time in using that word to address him. I found every excuse I could to call Richard dad. The first few days were an adjustment. There were times where I absent-mindedly called him Pop only to quickly start over. "Pop. I mean, dad," I would say. I noticed Richard never bothered correcting me, which should've been a sign that he was indifferent at best to being called dad. This went on for a week. Then, one day, as he was washing dishes and I was walking into the kitchen, he called an audible.

"Jozen," he said. "You know you can just call me Pop."

His tone was less of a suggestion and more of a demand. It knocked the wind out of me. Usually when Richard said something I didn't like, I was inclined to talk back. This time, I had no words. Instead, I just put my head down and stood there in the kitchen, and then quietly said, "Oh, okay."

"You have your dad, and—" He paused, turned off the water, then turned around to face me. "I don't know, I just know Pop is fine, so just call me Pop."

Like any good son would, I did as I was told, but I felt miffed by his request. I didn't understand why he wouldn't want to be called dad when he was assuming all these dad-like responsibilities. Didn't he want the title I was giving to him? There was also a feeling of embarrassment that I got caught. Richard's request thwarted a grand plan I had in mind for my family.

On some level, calling Richard dad was never about him so much as it was about me. I wanted to feel some sense of normalcy when I came home. The word dad made me feel like a void in my home was being filled. Yes, I had a dad, but not in the house and I wanted to replicate the families I saw most on television, like the Huxtables from The Cosby Show and the Bundys from Married With Children.

Of course, being like the Huxtables was out of the question. My folks weren't doctors or lawyers or even college graduates. I didn't have a bunch of siblings; it was just my sister and I. This made our family more like Al and Peggy and Kelly and Bud.

I always found it funny that the working title for the Married With Children pilot was "Not The Cosbys." That was us in a nutshell. Ironically, my mom forbade me from watching Married With Children. This was largely due to the show's vulgar content, but I think if she'd paid attention like I did, she would have understood why I was into the show.

First, there were the numbers: We were a family of four and so were the Bundys. They had a nice house—a marker of success—but the running joke throughout show's 11 seasons was how broke they were. I lived in a nice house, but Richard, an independent contractor, and my mom, a waitress, never failed to remind my sister and I we were living check to check. Peggy and Al, too, never seemed to get along on the show; the kids a constant source of their frustration. My mom and Richard fought a lot, and my sister and I were always arguing with each other or getting yelled at. Still, the Bundys were a unit. They had that "Whoaaa Bundy" chant, and though we didn't have some call to arms, everyone knew my family as a team. The Bundy's family love – tough, unconventional but also undeniable – looked familiar.

Richard was my version of Al, so why couldn't I replicate what I saw on Married With Children; because the man I was told to call dad lived somewhere else?

For every sitcom I loved about nuclear families, there were equally as important shows about blended families. I watched The Brady Bunch and Step By Step (which many considered to be the 90s version of the Bradys). Though their homes were often a little too happy for me to relate, whenever there was an episode in which the children realized the importance of the stepparents in their lives, it stuck. I was especially interested in any story that involved a stepfather or father figure being recognized as someone more than just a stepdad. These days, I watch Modern Family religiously, and while many folks were eager to see Mitchell and Cameron finally tie the knot, I'm still waiting and hoping the writers of the show delve into the possibility of Manny calling his stepdad Dad instead of his first name, Jay.

This is one of the reasons I bought into The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will always got along with his Aunt Viv, but he never needed her to be his mother. Meanwhile, Will's relationship with Uncle Phil was often confounded by the fact that Will didn't have his dad in his life, and he wanted one—badly. Will never called Uncle Phil dad, but those of us who grew up in situations similar to Will's knew what that relationship was.

Richard, much like Uncle Phil for Will, had rules for me. I knew if I brought home bad grades, I'd get two ass whoopings. My dad would get his licks in when I saw him that weekend. But Richard would get his licks in too, and bench me in the process. I understand there were circumstances that allowed Richard to be more active in my life than my dad. I also know that in deciding to be with my mother, Richard was signing up to be a parent to my sister and I. But he didn't have to go the lengths that he did—becoming my little league coach, dragging me with him to the construction sites where he worked, passing on all his Calvin and Hobbes collections to me after he was done reading them.

For a child, dealing with the dynamics of their blended family is fine until questions from outsiders start pouring in. When teachers or other kids start asking why you're calling the man they see at all your games or recitals by his first name or, simply, why you're not calling him dad, answers get convoluted to the point where you don't even think you're making sense. So as much as I felt like Richard deserved to be called dad just as much as my biological father, the other reason I wanted to call him dad was it just became exhausting to tell people the reason I referred to him as Pop.

My father was nothing like Will's dad. He was as active as a divorced parent could be. It's not an indictment on him when I say this, but him not living under the same roof as me made me feel abnormal. Children of divorced families will tell you the silver lining of their circumstances was having things like two birthdays. But even I knew there was nothing normal about two birthdays, just like I knew it wasn't normal to have a Pop and a dad.

I wanted normal, and I went searching for it in a word like dad.

As an adult, it's easier for me to discuss my dad and the man I called Pop. But I also have experience. I don't have any kids of my own, and I have never been married, but in 2001 I found myself in a serious relationship with a woman who had a child. I was 20 and a sophomore in college. She was a 28-year-old lawyer and out of my league.

Her daughter was seven years old. Young, but that was around the same age Richard started coming into my life, so I knew she was old enough to acquire memories of me, which is why her mother was very careful about introducing us. We waited a month before making that move, but it wasn't long before I was leaving class to pick my girlfriend's daughter up from school or watching her until her mother came home from work.

At this time, Richard was long gone (my mom separated from him while I was still in high school) but I was thinking about him a lot when all of this was happening. It all started making sense.

Much like myself growing up, this girl had a father in her life who she saw fairly often, and though I was a constant presence during the time her mother and I were together, I understood I would never be her dad. Still, I treated her and her mother like a family, despite knowing I was ill prepared to have one of my own. My love for both of them was strong, but I realized something that has stayed with me ever since: dad, as a word, is heavy as an anvil. No one is more aware of that than the man who cares for children who aren't his literal flesh and blood.

My mother is happily married to someone else now. I recognize him as my stepdad. And I will call him to wish him a happy Father's Day because for as long as he's been in my family's life, he has manned up and he deserves to be acknowledged.

My father, too, is still an active part of my life. We talk nearly every Sunday and as I've gotten older, I've felt our relationship grow into a friendship amongst men. I plan to call him and wish him well on Father's Day.

As for the man who coached my little league teams, I call him Richard now. We don't talk much anymore, but that's okay. We both have new families, new lives, and live on opposite coasts. The last time we talked, about a year ago, he apologized for how tough he disciplined me when I acted up. I told him not to worry about it, and reminded him of all the times he would congratulate me when I did well. I thanked him for all the hours he spent sitting at the kitchen table as I sometimes struggled to finish homework. We laughed about how he would give me more spending money than an 8-year-old needed before dropping me off at the Boys & Girls Club. "You would give me $10," I said, laughing. "And the vending machine only took $1 bills."

The only thing I didn't bring up was that time I wanted to call him dad. But I didn't need to. I understood why. Our relationship meant more than the word itself.

Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem and creator of the blog, Until I Get Married. You can follow him on Twitter @jozenc.

[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]