My father was nearly 26 when I was born. The first of four daughters, I would train him in what it meant to be a dad. I was the guinea pig. And I quickly showed my parents that they would have little to no control over what their darling little girls would be.
My mother will tell you that when I was about two and still (for a few months) the only child, she was rather surprised to realize that her children would not be little malleable personalities that she could mold into whatever she wanted them to be. They would be who they were, and she might not be able to do much about it.
My father puts it differently. “You’ve been independent since you were two damned years old,” he tells me. But there’s always a twinkle in his eye when he says it.
My dad is big: six feet four inches, and every ounce of 240 pounds. He could scare you as soon as look at you, and my sisters and I joke about the look we would get if we didn’t have our best table manners on display at dinner. My father inherited The Look from his father, who was not big at all. The Look is well understood in my extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Many of us have inherited it, including me. I don’t have any children to give it to, but I’ve been known to give it to coworkers and friends. But I still hate getting it from Dad. Takes me right back to being eight years old.
My father never went to college, a choice he has regretted for decades. But I thought he was the smartest man in the world, and sometimes I still do. He has a natural curiosity, a passion for “getting it,” and a knack for quickly processing things. He might not have book knowledge, analyses of literature or philosophy, but there’s never a conversation between us in which he can’t hold his own. We talk about a lot of things: business, politics, current events, family history, present drama. We can talk for an hour and a half.
He’s stubborn and difficult sometimes, but when it comes to academic things, he’s never afraid to say, “Hey, I don’t know this. What do you know?”
When I was a little girl, there was nothing he couldn’t answer for me (unless he chose the answer “Go ask your mother”). When I was out of the house and my little sister was in fourth grade, I called one night and Dad was studying with her for a test. This was something he had never done with us older girls; he’d always been working.
On the phone, Dad seemed aggravated, and I could hear my little sister laughing in the background.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Your sister has a test tomorrow and I’m trying to study with her–” (cackles from what sounded like a place lower than where he was standing… was she on the kitchen floor?) “–but she won’t focus!”
“Where is she?”
“Oh, she’s on the floor,” he replied with a mock-casual tone, clearly irritated with my sister’s youthful giddiness.
“Let me talk to her.”
“Hello?” she giggled.
“Hey shorty. I hear you laughing and Dad seems annoyed.”
A sigh. “I have a test tomorrow in social studies. It’s about fields and streams and exploring and settlements and stuff, but Daddy keeps going on and on about maps.”
“You should know it!” Dad yelled from somewhere sounding like the family room.
“Dad! That was last week!” my sister yelled back.
Aha. “Put him back on the phone,” I told her.
“She’s impossible!” he huffed. “She studied this last week! She should understand how it goes together with this week’s lessons!” Not only had Dad not studied with his older daughters; he’d lost what little patience he had as he’d gotten older.
“Dad, kids don’t learn like that.”
“She just did it last week!”
“I know, Dad, but she’s young. They don’t care about last week. They care about this week. It doesn’t all come together until later.”
He sort of growled. My sister laughed again in the background.
“She’s killin’ me,” he said. But there was laughter in his voice.
My mother and I don’t have a close relationship. My independence and self-possessed nature– my non-malleability– was never something she could get her head around. Many times between my 18th and 25th birthdays, my father would call me and start his first sentence with, “Your mother…”
Any time my father started a sentence with “your mother,” I knew he was running interference for her. He wanted to smooth the way and get me to understand and respect something from her perspective. He also wanted me to call her and make whatever was going on go away, even if she was in the wrong. Yet as I have gotten older, he’s also called me and asked me to explain certain things about my mother to him.
“I give up. What the hell is wrong with your mother?” he’ll say.
My father is a pretty stoic guy. Being as big as he is, and as Irish as he is, it’s almost a requirement. He can be gruff and abrupt. He can bark. His whole expression can change in a second from something relaxed to something that looks like it’s going to shoot lasers out of its eyes. One of his friends and former employees used to call him The Man of A Thousand Faces.
I have inherited this trait, as well. I make lots of faces that get me into trouble. But incongruously, I don’t show much emotion. Very few people have ever seen me cry. I’m sensitive, but no one sees that. “She’s a rock,” people say.
Guess who I got that from.
This leads me to be able to understand my father a little better, perhaps, than most people do. Maybe even better than my sisters. When he lost his job to “corporate downsizing” nine years ago, I happened to be home for a visit. He told all of us how everything was fine and my sister’s upcoming wedding was already paid for and he would find another job. But I knew, as the oldest daughter, the one who had inherited his stubbornness and stoicism mixed with tenderness and sensitivity, the first one to inherit his work ethic and sense of self, that it was killing him. He was 51 at the time. He had moved his family from city to city and state to state for that job, finally working his way back to where we were from, finally “home,” back with family and old friends, where he’d meant to retire. He had no degree and no experience outside of what he’d been doing (on call 24 hours a day) for 28 years. I knew he was worried about getting another job. When I heard him on the phone, telling his parents that the way he’d supported his family for decades was disappearing, I died for him.
His friends and former co-workers created a position for him in a rival company. He took a major pay cut, but he had a job. He worked for two years in that position until the company told him they had a job for him in Florida. His choice was to take that job and move just as he and my mother had planned to settle in where they’d been raised and be around for their aging parents… or lose his job again.
They moved. Twenty-four hours later, they were called home because my grandfather was dying.
Everything that was stewing in my father got very powerful, very quickly. It built into a head of steam that led to a confrontation a few nights later with one of my older cousins over something stupid that nearly led to a fistfight.
We have never spoken of that night, as my grandfather lay dying in his bed in the house and the rest of the family sat in the backyard, digesting a cookout.
It was Father’s Day, 2004.
My dad thought he would lose his father that night, and have to leave his siblings to care for his unwell mother, after he had lost his job, and his whole plan for being there as his parents aged and his children had children.
What he showed was anger. What he had was guilt, and a broken heart.
Later, he called my cousin out from the house. I heard it. He used his eldest nephew’s nickname – the one that only my father (and I) call him. And I knew everything was going to be alright. Dad had realized how wrong he was. I’m sure he was ashamed, and he has a lot of Irish pride, but I know he apologized. He recognized the man his nephew had become, and he had confronted within himself what had really caused that time-stopping standoff in the yard.
As Dad has gotten older, he’s acknowledged that the next generation has gotten older, too. He realizes that his daughters are women now, and that they each deserve respect for what they’ve accomplished, what they know, and who they are. He treats us as the women we’ve become instead of the little girls we used to be.
Most of the time, at least.
He is never happier than when he has all four of his girls together. He admires his daughters. Which makes me love him even more.
As it turns out, my father did have some control over who I would become. I got my college education, in large part, because he did not. He is not perfect, and having inherited much of my personality from him, neither am I. I have his wit. I have his work ethic. I have his bad back and his dirty looks. I have his curiosity and his impatience. I have his stubborn pride and his tender heart. And I could not be prouder, or more grateful, to be his daughter.