My father has gone by many names, each describing its own history and purpose. Each reminds me of a certain part of our relationship. His children most often call him Daddy or Dad, alternating based on what we sought to gain from him. He has been Pat to my mother from back when they were high school sweethearts and called Chief by her friends in the civilian world even after Chief had retired from the Navy. All of these names—these ways of defining or identifying—report personal recollections of pain and joyfulness in their record keeping. I uncovered two of his birth records while my brother and I helped him and my mother move into their new home in Virginia. The names printed on both documents were identical and marked with “m” for male. They both placed him at a hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, though one showed a Patrick Francis born on May 16th. The other—the 17th. My parents explained that this most likely occurred because Jamaican birth recording doesn’t happen immediately but instead is accounted for by the parents once they decide to register. I began to think about how documents, much like photography, mark a place in time that offers a certain legitimacy or attempt at proving the identities claimed by us or claimed for us. He has always been the type to make a name for himself, and after his 25 years at sea came to an end, a new life as Mr. MoDean or Mo would begin.
In 2004, in the corner of an often disparaged shopping center down the street from the municipal buildings and Section-8 housing properties, our family of five converged to bring my father’s culinary vision to life. MoDean’s Caribbean was his first ever restaurant venture, a small family-owned shop that would grow into a fine dining bar and lounge inspired by his life in Jamaica as a young boy. He took over the lease of a former Chinese restaurant that had closed shop in downtown Norfolk—a 35 to 40 minute car ride on the highway from our home in Virginia Beach. I can remember the thick layers of grease coating the kitchen hood from the previous tenants and conversations about how strict naval captains were when it came to cleanliness aboard the ships that he led. Cleanliness, executed by my father, wasn’t solely about making things nice, but vying for the value of that which had been overlooked. The restaurant, from the perspective of passersby, was hidden, offering itself as a hideout as much as it was a hangout.
The theatre of the neighborhood defined a certain regularity to who came in and out of MoDean’s. Folks starring in roles as enterprising professionals of color outlined the street. They stepped out in tucked dress-shirts and loafers that had been broken in by previous owners, then rediscovered at the local Salvation Army. They went into their respective workplaces aspirationally patterned off of George and Louise Jefferson. Some women paraded streets in Chinese slippers with goosenecks. There were men resisting leather belts who made recurring, coded exchanges in parking lots. Parking lots and barbershops were living rooms. Their performances looked like dancing to me—the kind which I had not been taught straightaway. MoDean’s established itself as the place where this cast of characters took breaks from their ritual orbits until MoDean’s restaurant became a ritual in and of itself.
Knots would develop in my throat as early as 8AM in anticipation of the weekday lunch rush from twelve to two. First one in the throat, then another in my stomach. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it aside from the line that would wind down the street from the soup kitchen where my grandmother volunteered as a part of her congregational work. No matter where you are, hungry faces can all start to look the same. As popularity and word spread, my father’s estate of names added an additional room to make space for Mo. They called him Mo when they came looking for dutch pot staples such as oxtail, goat or fried whiting. Mo was the kind of owner that served extra gravy whenever asked and knew how much revenue had been made by how heavy the black garbage bag was when carried to the trash house at the end of the night.
To be named, called, or called on can be a painful, unfaithful means of record keeping. I think a lot about what it means to be called a man or to be called black or both. To contend with expectations that existed prior to having an understanding of a word and how it came to be defined. How did my father come to understand himself as a black man, an immigrant, a businessman, a father? Does naming add to or take away from our sense of being, purpose or belonging?
Xx DeVonn Francis