Dad was a very simple, kind and gentle person. But deep within, he was a man of steel. He loved his family. He provided for his children. He taught by example. On this Father's Day, I remember my Dad with great affection and love.
Nettles Talbert, 1894-1971: I don't know much about Dad's early life. His parents were Louis and Isabella Talbert. I never met them or saw a photo of them. From what was told to me, Dad was from a large family that lived on the Talbert Plantation in Mississippi. At some point, the family left the Talbert Plantation. Most of the members went north never to be heard of again. My dad, with his brother Sam and sister Addie, came south and settled in the country somewhere near the town of Clinton, La.
Dad met and married a lady from Clinton. They settled in Kenner, near New Orleans. To that union was born a daughter, Beatrice Evelyn. The marriage didn't last. Dad returned to Clinton, where he met and married my mother, Florence (Mom was previously married and had two sons). From the union of Nettles and Florence came five children Melvin, LouBella, Samuel, Irvin and Myrtis. Dad and Mom were sharecroppers on a farm about seven miles southeast of Clinton, where I grew up. Mom finished seventh grade. Dad never finished first grade. Dad could not read or write. His signature on any legal document was an "X".
Though uneducated, Dad was a very smart man. He managed to do just about anything. He was a barber. He played a guitar, which he taught me to play--a skill that proved very helpful in my early youth leadership in the church. Dad had a strong desire for all his children to be educated. He would often say, "Boy, don't be like me. I want you to be better than me." I often wonder what my Dad might have accomplished if he been granted access to an education.
When I was 9, my dad taught me to plow. To this day, I can still visualize that first row. It was higher than others because I had the plow too deep. With a little help from Dad, the next rows were just fine. When I was 12, Dad taught me to drive our Model-A Ford. He allowed me to drive him from place to place in the country and in town. One day, he stopped to get gasoline. When he drove up to the pump, a young white boy, my age, was attending the pump. My dad said, "Boss, will you fill up my car?" By the time the gas tank was filled and Dad had paid the bill, I was seething with anger. As soon as Dad entered the main highway and we were on our way home, I snapped at Dad. I said, "Daddy, why did you call him boss?" There was silence. When I glanced at my dad, I saw tears running down his cheeks. He quietly said, "Son, one day you will understand." He was right. I certainly do understand.
When I was in about sixth grade, I taught Dad to write (sign) his name. That was a painstaking experience. It took him what appeared to be "forever" to write his name. I wrote his name on a sheet of paper and gave him the pencil to write what he saw on the sheet of paper. It took days to get the task accomplished. But when he finally learned to sign his name, there was such joy on his face. From that time forward, signing his signature on legal documents was a labor of love, very slowly, letter by letter.
In 1946, my grandmother, Louise (Mom's mother), died unexpectedly. That left my grandfather, James, alone to care for himself on his farm. Grandpa James couldn't cook, wash or care for any of the home chores. Plus, he was still running his farm. So Mom had to shuttle back and forth about a mile away to cook food and try to take care of her father. Shortly thereafter, Grandpa invited Dad and Mom to move to the George farm, take over the farm and care for him. So Dad and Mom left sharecropper farming to settle with Grandpa. Caring for Grandpa was an exchange for farming the George farm without cost. When Grandpa James died in 1951, Dad and Mom purchased the old George farm, where Dad lived for the remainder of his life.
Dad taught me some principles that served me well throughout my life:
- Your word is your bond. Simply put, it meant, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." For me, that translates to trust. That's still important for me today. My word is my bond. If I tell you I will do something, you can count on it being done.
- Never look down when speaking to another person. Always look that person straight in the eyes. For me, that translates to "acknowledging the humanity in the other person." Also, it became for me a matter of self-defense. It's difficult for another person to attack me by surprise if I maintain eye contact with that person.
- Never waste your time or the time of another person. Start and end meetings on time. That trait has served me well. People who know me soon discover that I value time. It is a sign of disrespect for other persons if a meeting or gathering is scheduled to start at a certain time, but it begins much later, and it goes on too long. There is a saying that for some African Americans, there is such a thing as CP (colored people) time. Not so for me. I start meetings and gatherings on time and end them on time. Another person's time is just as important as mine.
Nettles (left) and Florence George Talbert were sharecroppers near Clinton, La. A UMNS photo courtesy of Bishop Melvin G. Talbert.
- Respect your parents and your elders. Before Hillary Clinton wrote her book "It Takes A Village to Raise a Child," I knew what she meant. During times when I would get a little rowdy, all an adult had to say was, "Boy, I know your Dad." I knew what I had to do, or face the consequences.
- Dad taught his children the value of money. He never had much, but he used what he had wisely. Though Dad could not read or write, he had the ability to count money. For example, he would take me to the cotton gin with him. After the unseeded cotton was baled, it would weigh about 500 pounds, more or less. When the dealer would announce the price per pound, Dad would say, "Figure that out for me, son." When I would give him the answer, he would say, "That's right." I don't know how he did it, but he had his own way of counting money. Dad involved the whole family in financial decisions. We knew how much money was available for use by the family. As such, we knew how much we could expect for Christmas and other festival occasions. Yet, we were taught to share what we had with others and the church. We were taught to give offerings to the church.
- Dad and Mom had religious rituals for the family. Always, there was grace before meals, three times a day. Every night there were prayers before going to bed. We went to Sunday school every Sunday. And we attended worship the first and third Sundays each month at our home church, and attended churches of other communions on Sundays when our church did not have worship. Attending worship continues to be for me a high priority, even though I'm no longer required to be there. It's simply in my DNA.
The legacy of my Dad lives on in me. And I would like to believe that some of Dad's legacy lives on in the lives of people that I have had the privilege getting to know, serve and love over the years.
*Talbert is a retired bishop of The United Methodist Church.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].
Originally published June 18, 2010.