Jasmyn Morris (JM): People come to StoryCorps for lots of reasons, but one of the most common is sitting down to record an interview that honors a loved one.
So on this week’s episode, and in anticipation of Father’s Day, we’re bringing you stories of people celebrating their dads.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR; I’m Jasmyn Morris.
We start things off with one dad’s creative approach to parenting, all in the spirit of honesty.
Bernie Feldstein (BF): So we had in our family an amnesty day.
Vickie Feldstein (VF): I didn’t think I needed amnesty day.
BF: No, but your brother sure did. So you can say anything and it would be no retribution of any kind. No condemnation or discussion.
JM: That’s Bernie Feldstein speaking with his daughter Vickie. But Amnesty Day—the one day of the year where the Feldstein kids could confess anything to their parents without being punished for it—was created with someone else in mind.
Growing up in Massachusetts in the 60’s, Vickie’s brother Michael was the troublemaker. At StoryCorps, he also sat down with his dad to talk about their unique family tradition.
BF: Was there anything that’s so egregious that you really wouldn’t even bring that up?
MF: One of the ones that I don’t think I ever told you was there were crab apples that were pretty big in our backyard. And so we would take them and throw them as far as we could into the neighbor’s backyard. They had this glass porch and I hit one of these windows perfectly and all 20 windows fell to the ground and smashed. And we just ran.
BF: Wait a minute. This is a new one. I’m not sure that there’s a, uh, statute of limitations on this?
MF: Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Amnesty day ended when I was 15.
And then the time I was probably about 8 or 9; we used to keep matches in the bathroom. And so, I thought it was kinda cool lighting toilet paper on fire in the toilet and I had a fire going. It was up like a foot, foot and a half. It was going pretty good and I flushed it, no problem. And I looked and the toilet seat was burned, so I remember running downstairs and getting the watercolors and then trying to watercolor paint the toilet seat.
BF: When I was a little bit older than that, I had some firecrackers. I lived in an apartment in the Bronx with my folks. And I got scared and I dropped it and it dropped on the dining room table and it burned a hole in it. And I painted it to match and it didn’t match well, so I did exactly the same thing.
Three days later, my father looks at me and he goes, ”Okay, what is it?” You haven’t been eating right. You don’t look right. You can’t smile. Something’s up.” So I showed it to him. He said, ”Do you think the world’s going to come to an end because there’s a hole in a kitchen table? What’s the matter with you?”
Once I let it out, it was like a great burden was lifted. I think this is the genesis, really, of amnesty day. I remembered what it was like to carry around guilt for having done something wrong and be hiding it. But I just wanted you to feel that you could share anything with me and that you’d find support for life.
JM: That’s the Feldstein family for StoryCorps in Newton, Massachusetts back in 2011.
For our next story we head to Southern California, where George Caywood and his wife raised their four daughters.
At StoryCorps, George sat down with his eldest, Gina, to talk about his joyful and sometimes challenging journey as a father.
Gina Caywood (GNC): Dad, one of the most difficult times in my childhood, I think was one of your most difficult times in your life, and that is when you went through a major depression. Can you tell me about what that was like?
George Caywood (GC): Well, if you’ve ever been walking down the street maybe at night, and a huge dog charges you growling and barking, you know that… that moment of utter panic and fear it was like that twenty-four hours a day.
GNC: Our bedrooms shared a common wall and I could hear at, you know, five in the morning, you crying just terrified to go to work and to take on another day.
GC: Do you remember the poem you wrote me?
GNC: I do.
GC: Yes. Will my dad ever stop crying?
GNC: Yes it’s, can I have my dad back?
GC: When I was going through it, I knew that there was this darkness that I’d been chasing off all my life, and I knew if I was going to be genuinely happy, which I wanted to be, I was going to have to face all that darkness.
GNC: And yet, it’s amazing you were such a wonderful loving father to us.
GC: Certainly, it’s the thing I worked at hardest in my life. Even though I made a lot of mistakes with you and your three sisters, um, you have not breathed a breath Gina, you and your sisters, when you weren’t the most important thing in my life.
I remember when you were born, looking at you, saying, ”I have no idea how to be your father.” So my goal was, I wanted to be positive with you. I knew I was going to have to say, “No,” sometimes, but I wanted that to be against thousands of “Yeses”, in the hopes that you would grow up as positive as you actually are.
GNC: Sometimes when you did say no, I could bat my eyelashes at you and get you to change your mind.
GC: It still works. Each of the four girls had their own technique, yours was those brown eyes.
GNC: Please Dad?
GC: Well, see, I’m melting on the spot.
GNC: You know, I think one of the things that my sisters and I have always felt is that you, um, are a great, great man. And I hope that somehow this interview today brings you the honor that I think you deserve.
GC: I wouldn’t trade this every accolade in the whole world. You know, I love you honey.
GNC: I love you, too.
JM: George Caywood with his daughter Gina in Los Angeles.
Our next story comes from two unlikely college roommates. In 1996, Wil Smith had just enrolled as a Freshman at Bowdoin College.
At 27, not only was Wil the oldest member of his class, but he was also raising the youngest; his infant daughter, Olivia.
Wil Smith (WS): I wasn’t planning on having you as my roommate. I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you they wouldn’t let me come to college. So, I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone.
And, I got a job at Staples, cleaning at night. And I had to take you in with me at work sometimes and hide you in the closet. [Laughs] I think I lost something like 27 pounds just from stress, and not eating, because I didn’t have enough for both of us.
My basketball teammates were my first babysitters. I just remember coming from class and there were four giant guys and then there was this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room.
Olivia Smith (OS): [laughs] Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class? Or just having me in general?
WS: I felt a little awkward but never embarrassed. There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you, and see you sleeping, and then go back to my studies.
And my graduation day from Bowdoin is a day I’ll never forget. You know, all of my classmates, they stood up and gave me the only standing ovation.
OS: I remember walking up with you and having my head in your shoulder. [Laughs]
WS: Yeah, the, uh, dean called both of our names as he presented us with the diploma.
OS: So, technically I already graduated from college.
WS: Nice try. [Laughs] The degree only has my name on it. So you still got to go.
OS: (Laughs) I really admire your strength and I love you.
WS: I draw my strength from you. I always have and I still do.
JM: That’s Wil Smith with his daughter, Olivia, for StoryCorps in 2012. They recorded this conversation shortly after Wil was diagnosed with cancer. He died three years later, at the age of 46.
Earlier this year, Wil and Olivia’s story was included in our newest season of animated shorts, honoring some of the very best dads in the StoryCorps archive. The short is called Double Major and you can see it on our website, www.storycorps.org
More father’s day stories after this short break. Stay with us.
JM: Next, how one man changed the lives of three brothers, and how they then changed the course of his.
Leo, Nick, and Steven are triplets from Virginia who have been blind since birth. Growing up, their single mom had a hard time caring for them. But when they were 10 years old, they met a man named Ollie Cantos who was also blind, and he quickly became their mentor.
In 2014, the four of them sat down for StoryCorps. Ollie begins the conversation.
Ollie Cantos (OC): I had a lot of trouble growing up because I didn’t have any friends really. I was made fun of a lot. There would be people who would put their hands in front of my face and say, ”How many fingers am I holding up?”
Leo Cantos (LC): Same thing.
OC: Same thing with you guys, right?
OC: So, what were things like growing up?
LA: Well, every day was like wake up, go to school, come back home, and then you stay there for the rest of the day. There were certain things that I wish I could do like go out and play in the snow like everyone else; ’cause I’ve heard kids through the window–we could hear that they were having fun. The only thing I remember when I was seven, we went to McDonald’s, and we went to the park. We rarely went outside.
Nick Cantos (NC): It was getting so bad that I wanted to die. But it was one of the decisions I’m glad I did not make because I would have missed out on everything.
OC: Do you remember that night when I first arrived?
NA: Oh yeah, I do. Because I…I certainly didn’t know that there were other blind people except me and my brothers.
OC: You didn’t believe me that I’m really blind. So, I’m like, ”Well yeah, here’s my cane.” And then you left and came back with a book, and you put my hand on it, and it was the Bible. You couldn’t believe that I actually read Braille.
NA: It just made me feel like I had a person that I could trust because I didn’t trust anyone.
OC: I took you guys individually to learn how to use your canes better, and we’d just go to the corner store, and I remember, Leo, one day the store clerk, she said, ”Is that your son?” And, you know, before I could answer, you put your arm around me, and you said, ”Yeah, it’ my dad.” And I said, ”Do you know what that means?” You said, ”Well, you take us places, you protect us, you help us with our homework. Sounds like a dad to me.”
Whenever I hear you call me “Dad,” it’s the highest compliment to me. You three used to be in the same situation that I was, and to see you come out of that and to be the way you guys are now, it’s impossible to describe how grateful I am that I get to be your dad.
JM: That’s Ollie Cantos in Arlington, Virginia with Leo, Nick, and Steven, who were 14 years old at the time of their interview. In 2018, Ollie formally adopted the brothers, who are now attending college and, like their dad, have also started mentoring young people.
Our final story comes from two familiar voices you heard on our last episode—Albert Sykes and his nine-year-old son Aidan. They first came to StoryCorps in 2015.
Aidan Sykes (AS): So Dad, why do you take me to protests so much?
Albert Sykes (AbS): [Laughs] I think I take you for a bunch of reasons. One is that I want you to see what it looks like when people come together, but also that you understand that it’s not just about people that are familiar to you but it’s about everybody. Did you know the work that Martin Luther King was doing was for everybody and it wasn’t just for Black people?
AS: Yes, I understand that.
JM: Now a teenager, Aidan continues to seek advice from the man he admires most. So he and his dad sat down for another StoryCorps conversation, soon after George Floyd was killed by a Minnesota police officer.
AS: What do you think about the protests that are happening now?
AbS: I hate that they’re necessary but I also appreciate that we’re living in a world that we borrowed to be able to give back to the folks who come behind us. And your responsibility when you borrow something is to give it back in the same condition. But if you can give it back in better condition, that’s the goal.
So the protests that you were just at on Saturday in Jackson, when you looked around, how did you take that in?
AS: Oh, I was happy ‘cause I saw a lot of young people like me out there–people of all ages and all colors and all shapes and all sizes–and I was like, at least we got some back up.
AbS: What’s been the hardest part of dealing with all of this for you?
AS: The hardest part is knowing that could have been me and Breonna Taylor could have been my mother.
AbS: Next month you turn 15. You’re growing up, getting so tall and getting hair on your face, and just your presence, some places, people don’t see the child in you. They don’t see the innocence in you. Even though you’re not a threat, you’re still perceived as a threat.
But when I look at you, not only do I see somebody who looks just like me; I see a beautiful kid coming into understanding himself. I see somebody who makes me proud, up and down.
AS: Being Black… it’s one of the best things and one of the most beautiful things you could ever be but it’s like you always have a target on your back.
AbS: Yeah, I want you to always understand that you was born with everything it takes for you to survive in this world, so keep the wind pushing you forward and you keep the sun shining on your face.
I mean, we have talks about how much you mean to me and things that I have learned from you are how to love endlessly and I tell people, like, that’s my hero.
AS: Knowing that I’m your hero is one of the best things I could ever hear. And the most important lesson I’ve learned from you is, when you want something, keep fighting for it. Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t and, no matter who or what gets in your way, keep going.
JM: That’s Aidan Sykes and his father Albert, who recorded their first interview in 2015 when StoryCorps was in Jackson, Mississippi. They recorded with us again, 5 years later, using StoryCorps Connect.
To find out how to record your own interview (even while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic), visit www.storycorps.org.
This episode of the StoryCorps podcast was produced by Sylvie Lubow and Jud Esty-Kendall. Edited by me, Jasmyn Morris. Our Technical Director is Jarrett Floyd, who also wrote and produced our theme song. Our fact checker is Natsumi Ajisaka.
Special thanks to Facilitators Vanessa Gonzalez-Block, Danielle Andersen, Daniel Sitts, Sophia Simon-Ortiz, Michael Garofalo and Piya Kochar, as well as producers Von Diaz and Katie Simon.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening and Happy Father’s Day.