After neglecting the countless photographs mom would sneak into my dorm room every time you both came to visit me at college, I’ve finally conceded to her silent pleas and put up pictures of you, her, and Elizabeth in my bedroom. The neglect was not done with malice, it’s just that the stilted family portraits she positioned on my cluttered desk and nightstand failed to present the father, mother, and sister that I preferred to remember. My chubby twelve-year-old figure didn’t do much to convince me, either.
The pictures now posted around my room are indicative of the family I love—the family that raised me. Taped onto the wall is one from this summer of Elizabeth smiling earnestly across the dinner table. Two photos above there’s you, sitting at the green iron-wrought table on our back deck with mom’s arms wrapped lovingly around your neck and a humble grin on her face. Framed, dispersed on the bookshelves is a photo of my one-year-old smile on mom’s lap and one of Molly howling at the beach with a tennis ball at her feet and her golden fur clumped with lake water. On my bedside table, squared in a simple red frame, is a photograph of you and I. I must be three years old; I can tell by my long blond bangs and the fact that you’re still willing to carry me. My stubby index finger is pointing lazily at something outside the frame, and you’ve matched my pompous expression with one of sincere delight. In this photograph, you’re listening, genuinely listening to me. I can tell by your eyes, kind and sheepish, and the way your shoulders are sloped down. You look comfortable, you look happy.
Do you remember when I was four, and I’d run to the door every night at six o’clock when you came home? I would crash into you, my socks slipping like puppy paws on the hardwood floor. Your arms were always ready to envelop me, even though it sometimes felt like I’d caught you by surprise. I’m not sure when that ritual stopped; maybe it was when your train started arriving home later and later, or maybe it was around the time I started calling you ‘Dad,’instead of ‘Daddy.’Somewhere between you taking me to CVS on weekday nights to buy tubes of lip gloss, and me denouncing all the Barbie Dolls you fed to my greedy little fingers, the extra ‘dy’became a symbol of the childhood I was vehemently rejecting. I miss that, calling you daddy. Maybe not the name, but what came with it. It makes me feel more like your daughter, more like the girl who had no one to share her life with but you.
You were gone on the weekdays, so weekends were ours. On Saturdays I would wake up and sit on one of the big green couches in our playroom, watching cartoons and waiting until ten o’clock, when you’d shuffle down the stairs with Molly close behind. You’d go to the kitchen and cook us breakfast; homemade chocolate chip pancakes or scrambled eggs doused in parmesan cheese.
Sometimes Elizabeth and I would get impatient, beg mom to let us wake you but she was relentless—refused to let us break the sanctity of the hours that came before ten. She, the only one who truly understood how dedicated you have always been to providing for our family, the only one who knew you well enough to appreciate how precious you’ve always held simple pleasures like sleeping in on a weekend. She’d offer to cook for us, probably in an effort to ease your load, but we weren’t so easily swayed. There was a lightness to your breakfasts. You made the pancakes thick and fluffy, but not filling and there was never a dry or flavorless flake in your scrambled eggs. It was all a product of your patience, your willingness to whisk the ingredients together with a fork instead of an electric beater that made such foods so soft to the taste.
Once fed, you’d urge Elizabeth and I to get dressed. You never liked to see us so young and lethargic, wasting the crisp fall breeze or thick summer air. Some days we had soccer games or play practice, ice-skating lessons or birthday parties, and some days we had nothing to do but spend time with you, gardening or running errands, jumping in fresh-raked leaf piles or coercing you into taking us to Toys R Us.
You would take me on trips to town and we’d walk through shops in the idyllic market square Howard Van Doren Shaw designed for our luxurious suburb. You’d lead the way and I’d scuttle behind, grasping your large fingers with my tired hands, patiently awaiting the inevitable bag of gummy worms and sour candies that would conclude our outing. One day, when I must have been five or six years old, we stopped in a store I had seen but never entered called “Emporium Luggage”—probably so you could buy a purse or suitcase, another gift to spoil mom with. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that this would’ve been where we first saw the painting. Such an item seems better suited for a store full of decorative knick-knacks or a gallery, or that pawn shop across the street from Starbucks. But Emporium Luggage is where I remember seeing it: a section of William Holbrooks’‘Dancing Bears.’A wide black frame carried four bears; two of them lazing in the background beneath the shade of a tree and the other two dancing in the sunshine before them. You told me the dancing bears were us: held the pose of the bear on the right until I caught on and matched you, emulating the bear on the left.
A couple weeks later, on a night when you got home late from work and I was already in bed listening to mom read from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, you appeared in my room with a rectangular package covered in thick brown paper. I ripped apart the wrapping to find the dancing bears, our dancing bears, and glanced back up to see you poised the same way you were the first time we saw it. I like to think we did this as a bedtime ritual from then on—surely some nights, at least. The picture still hangs in my room, left of my bed. I’d bring it out here to California, but I fear that removing it from its stoic position might break the magic spell it cast on us when we first saw it at the store. That painting belongs to both of us, to our house and to our family.
Familial relationships are interesting: within the context of unconditional love, they are simultaneously the most intense and the most obligational. Genetics allow us to assume we should care for one another—blood triumphing over compatibility. There is an expectation that one will love their mother, their father, sisters and brothers, sure, because we are gifted with these people. We are born into the world and placed in their hands, and all we can do is hope their fingertips will hold strong enough to keep us up, but not so strong that they squeeze into our tender infant skulls. A parent who has cared is hard to deny, even if they aren’t as present as they’d like to be or as articulate about their love as we sometimes need.
In reviewing our relationship, there are certain things I can’t ignore. There were things you missed, like elementary school recitals and gymnasium Halloween parties, college tours and move-in day, but there was never a time when your absences felt deliberate: you would have been there if you could have been there. I hear horror stories from my peers, stories I deem dramatic and exaggerated of parents with well-paying jobs who worked long hours and missed presentations and didn’t know their child’s favorite color or food or other trivial things. But to typecast you like that would be too easy, and far too arrogant.
Your love wasn’t measured in family dinners or school-sponsored events. Instead, it could be found in nights spent decorating big cardboard boxes to look like a piece of bazooka bubblegum or a pack of baseball cards, because you and mom couldn’t stand the sheen of store-bought Halloween costumes. It was in the evenings you’d take me to the ice skating rink and teach me how to slap-shot a puck into the net, bike rides through neighborhoods during the final hours of summer’s unhurried twilight. Your absence made moments shared all the more valuable.
But it would be foolish to say your absence has had no impact. I became very possessive over you, my dad, especially in the moments that I was forced to share. Days when we’d go swimming at the club and some kid I’d never seen before would ask us to join in a game of catch. When you’d let someone else latch their skinny fingers around your neck and manatee dive around the pool. Much like you, I am prone to stay quiet in times of upset and work to adjust my attitude instead of the situation, which is why I can remember being six at the pool and feeling a lump in my throat. The same lump I feel now when I’m considering whether or not to ask my roommate to fix the dent she made on the side of my car. It’s as if the words are sitting there, bundled up in a sweet little package and they just can’t make it through my mouth and off my tongue. I’d hold the lump there, unsure of what to say or how to say it or whether or not it was even worth explaining why I wanted you to play with only Elizabeth and I on those precious pool-filled afternoons. You were my dad, and I hated the way you laughed with other kids as if you were theirs, too.
My jealousy, as it so often does, cultivated into a lack of faith altogether. As I grew from a child to a teenager and my mind became more and more wrought by hormones and doubt, I began to lack the confidence necessary to compensate for the feelings you didn’t express and the time you couldn’t spare.
My freshman year of high school was a hard one. There was the initial reevaluation of my identity. My wardrobe shifted from ripped jeans and t-shirts to tighter clothes: velour Juicy Couture zip-ups and cheap silk dresses that made me look like a cased sausage. I went to football games and wore blue and gold on spirit days, tried out for field hockey and didn’t make the team—did the things I thought would make me feel more accepted and well-liked by my peers but, as it so often goes, I was wrong. I was unhappy. I was confused about where I fit in. The only thing that remained consistent about me was the fact that I wasn’t doing my homework, failing to turn in massive assignments with no excuse and no effort to explain.
I’m often reminded of the reassurance a family holds—that each member will love you no matter what you do or how thoroughly you crumble. I think this idealistic view holds true for the mere fact that no matter how much I misbehaved or how shamed I felt, my family still went to bed and woke up with me. After a night of fighting, Elizabeth would still rely on me to wake her up before school. Mom would still have breakfast on the table. But you, you’d be on your way work in the city by six am and gone until after the sun sank below the horizon. When I woke up, I had no way to know whether or not you’d forgiven me, and Freshman year of high school those mornings seemed to come in waves.
I was depressed and you just didn’t get it. No one did, I think, not even me. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone how I felt, and we were all, myself included, too disappointed in my academic and overall performance to take any of it seriously. Mom only realized when she saw the skin beneath my thickly stacked bracelets: the blood-stained lines I’d impressed with a razor in the shower. She told you, but we never talked about it. I think we were neither interested in facing the fact that I was self-mutilating, nor loaded with the appropriate words to discuss what it all meant. We didn’t talk about it, but you and mom did find someone to talk about it with me. Someone outside the family. Someone more qualified to listen to me talk about how I felt.
When I started seeing a therapist is when I started to withdraw from you and mom. I needed to assert my independence, to escape from your embrace and figure out who I was and how I wanted to spend my time. Mom would respond with a tighter grasp and angry resistance. I’d yell, and she’d just yell louder. I’d cry and she’d tell me to stop. But you weren’t there to see all of that. You came home from work, informed by mom’s report, and I welcomed you at the door except unlike when I was four, there was no hug, no excitement. The anticipation was the only thing that remained, but it was pitted in my stomach, much darker and heavier than it had been all those years ago.
You never yelled. You’d sit there, still dressed in your suit, and speak to me with the same conviction I assume you used when speaking to a client. Slow and logical, you spoke like a lawyer to me instead of like a father. Safe to say, you’re good at your job. You knew every way of making me feel guilty, every word necessary to get the response you needed. You were never angry, just disappointed. Because I just didn’t “get it”, whether I was sneaking out of the house or ditching class, ignoring my homework or smuggling handles of Smirnoff into my closet. There was always something I just didn’t get—something that separated the two of us, emphasized the maturity I lacked. Something that stopped us from being friends and kept us bound to the roles of parent and child. You just wanted me to grow up, to stop acting so stupid and realize why my behavior was stopping me from gaining the autonomy I felt I deserved. I think you were tired of raising sixteen year old girls—first Elizabeth, then me two years later. Tired of having the same conversations over and over again, tired of your words slipping out of my mind as quickly as they’d entered.
I never let up. The more you guys pointed out my flaws and chastised my behavior the more I withdrew. Mom thought my friends were bad influences and tried to limit my access and whether I liked it or not, the two of you were stronger as a united front. So I’d lie about where I was going and who I was going there with and one of you would catch me. You’d ground me for weeks at a time, confiscate my phone or ban me from the computer, I’d complete my punishment and the cycle would continue, all of us dedicated to our respective roles of authoritative parent and rebellious child. One weekend, when mom and Elizabeth flew out to West Virginia for cousin Jack’s graduation, we were left home alone. Sixteen and selfish, the thought of spending the quality time that you and I hadn’t enjoyed in years was traded for a train ride to Evanston with plastic water bottles full of vodka and three of my friends. Parental supervision sliced in half, it was the most opportune moment for me to indulge in the excitement that came with underage drinking. I told you I was going to see a movie—which I did, or at least tried to do. My friend vomited about five minutes into the previews.
Vomit is a difficult thing to hide. Sure enough, someone told security and sure enough, security knew exactly what we were doing. They called the police. My vomiting friend went to the hospital and the other two ran out the backdoor of the theatre bathroom. I was arrested; underage drinking, public intoxication, whatever else they could slap on to the police report. They called you ten minutes before I was supposed to arrive home for curfew and you drove the thirty minutes to come pick me up.
In the car on the way home I don’t remember much. All I know is that I cried and you stayed quiet. Through my tears, you let me fill in the blanks and realize what I’d done wrong without feeding me the answers. I don’t know why that instance of me screwing up and getting caught was so different from all the others. Maybe because mom wasn’t there, because you were in charge and we were both a little scared of what she would’ve done if she had found out what we’d both let happen. Maybe you realized how ineffective my punishments had been. But you gave me the benefit of the doubt, made us into a team and I think that was around the time I started realizing the ways in which we could resolve our roles as a warring parent and child and maybe reach some sort of friendship.
I finished my junior year of high school a week later and the year after that, things went a bit differently. You and mom were more lenient, probably because there wasn’t much trouble I could reasonably get into beyond a police record. I was more honest—more willing to connect with both of you. I was done lying about what I was doing and you were done telling me who I could and couldn’t spend time with. I was the youngest, the last one to leave home and none of us wanted to waste our last year together.
That year, you made a point of keeping up with me. Weekends now crowded by babysitting jobs and plans with friends, we made time during the week to see each other. We both had demanding schedules, mine more social than business-oriented, so our appointments were not regular. Much like in childhood, though, this irregularity made the time we spent together all the more valuable. It was intentional, sought after on both ends. We’d go to dinner at the Lantern, my favorite restaurant in town when I was younger, and order the same things we always did: a burger for you, chicken fingers for me, onion rings to share. We’d invite each other into our lives: you’d tell me about your overwhelming work schedule, delusional clients or difficult attorneys you had to work with, and I’d tell you about my friends and whatever petty thing was distracting me at the time. We’d talk about the kind of person you were at my age and the kind of person I would become. We took the time to get to know each other and found ways to keep each other going. I remember one night, after I’d turned in all thirteen of my college applications and started receiving acceptance letters from the safety schools I dreaded attending, I expressed my anxiety over being rejected from every school I liked. I told you I’d be happy just getting into one school I wanted to go to and you told me that rather than no choices, my problem would be too many choices. So confident in my qualifications, you asserted that I’d get accepted to not just one, but several of my dream schools and sure enough, you were right.
You were the only one to have such confidence in me. Unlike everyone else who’d made sure to instill their realistic albeit cynical expectations—teachers, peers, tutors and counselors—you indulged in the optimism that I had vowed to abstain from. You didn’t need an impressive resume or stellar grades to convince you of my potential; just being your daughter seemed to be enough.
When I think of that year, I am taken back to moments in my childhood. A feeling starts to grow in my gut and rise up through my chest; it’s the same feeling that came when I’d see the note you left in my desk during parent-teacher walk throughs in elementary school, or when we’d win father-daughter relay races at swim club events. Almost like helium caught in my lungs, it is the sensation that comes when I feel most like your daughter.
Since graduating high school, that feeling has become less and less present. I had spent the entire year hell-bent on distance. I wanted to explore new places outside the droll average of the Midwest. It wasn’t until I actually got there—flew the five hours between O’Hare and LAX—that I realized how far I had gone. So many miles spanned between Claremont, California and Lake Forest, Illinois that the weekends home my friends enjoyed, the home-cooked meals and sweet parental hugs, were never as available for me.
It was important to me to be so uncomfortable and so alone. In these four years and the years that will surely follow, I’ve learned a lot about who I am and how to grow into the person I’d like to be. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, I needed to learn how to assimilate myself to a new place. But it took me until now to realize what I gave up in achieving such independence: in a sense, I feel capable and ready to take on the world, but in gaining such confidence it feels like I’ve sacrificed the precious beauty that comes with childhood. Even worse is the realization that no matter how sad I get at the irreversibility of time, every second still ticks and the memories just get more and more crowded.
I don’t call as much as I should. I don’t call, and I don’t video chat. I don’t write or email or send you guys pictures, and I definitely don’t visit home as much as you and I would like. I’m not good at maintaining long-distance relationships, too busy with schoolwork and housework and lazy afternoons filled with soft grass and good books. I’m sorry if my total lack of communication has ever made you feel like you aren’t on my mind, because that impression is so far from reality. I see you everywhere I go, in every dog’s panting breath and every flower garden, every baseball clip and briefcase. Last spring break, after driving for four hours in the bland and barren desert, I asked my exhausted friends to backtrack half an hour just so we could go to a diner I’d heard you mention once: Peggy Sue’s, with the life-size dinosaurs and 50’s motif. I see you everywhere, so often, these things will always be ingrained with memories of you.
I’m sure there will be times when I need your advice, your reassurance or just your calming presence, and you’ll be there, ready with a shoulder for my head to fall on. I just fear that it won’t be the same: that I’ll never feel the intrinsic, physical weightlessness that comes with feeling like your daughter. In learning to be independent, it seems I’ve forgotten how let myself be naïve and vulnerable. Time alone has been wonderful for me, but it’s time I learn how to be your daughter again.
This year, I read a story by Anne Lamott about her deceased father. Her writing is beautiful, full of imagery and understated wisdom. One line that struck me was on the fifth page, when she says, “It’s so different having a living father who loves you, even someone complex and imperfect…there are setbacks and heartbreak, but you’re still the apple of someone’s eye.”I think that with this notion that I need to relearn how to be your daughter, it’s important to remember that to you, I never stopped knowing how. Similar to your unwavering presence in my life, it would be foolish to think I don’t maintain such a place in yours. You are, always will be, my father and I, always will be, your daughter.