Although he is fairly short, bald and quiet, he is my hero, as a toddler. His only daughter, I run into his arms when he comes home from work, in the evenings, late, after dinner. He swoops me up, twirls me around and tells me, confidentially, “I have a surprise for you.” As I squeal with joy, he reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a piece of candy. It is for me, just me, not something I have to share with anyone else. And it could be a diamond ring, for that matter, that’s how valuable it is to me.
When the ice cream truck comes around, in the summer time, it's my dad that gives me the money to buy something: he gives me a whole dime, which is a lot in those days. I feel extraordinarily rich! I am. I run to get my treat.
Once, as we are leaving in the car to travel across country on a holiday, my dad turns left on a red light. When we are stopped by a cop, my dad politely and sweetly replies that we had been sitting at the light for ten whole minutes and since it is so early in the morning, there are no other cars to change the light. The cop lets us go.
When the neighborhood gathers on our front porch, it's my dad who entertains us--he tells us stories and rolls his belly like a Greek belly dancer. His flexibility is simply amazing and we all oogle and "ahhhhh." Do it again, we say.
My mom doesn’t encourage our time, together; I think she may be jealous in some sense and it feels as if my closeness with him encourages her alienation toward me. I can’t win.
At the tender age of five, I am excitedly telling a story to my two older brothers and my parents, at dinner time. I have milk in my mouth and at a funny point in the story, I accidentally spit the milk out, in three perfect circles in a straight line. I marvel at the circles and the straightness; my dad is major pissed and I am yelled at. I think: It's only milk.
I love to hang upside down in the pink-clothed overstuffed living room chair, my toes hanging over the top; it is my favorite chair and the one that when my mother tells my father I am bad, during the day, that my father comes home to discipline me in. He stands there; slowly, seductively pulling his belt out from his pant belt loops. He takes his belt in his hands and hits me with it, but not before I run around the chair, first, avoiding his angry belt. I think: He is doing this for my mom and she's not even watching.
My dad doesn’t really drink, only sometimes at dinner time. As a diabetic, he is sensitive to the sugar in alcohol and easily becomes red-faced, seductive in his words and then sentimental to the point of acting as victim. One evening, during dinner (I am probably around 10 or so) he asks me (using my middle name that my family and neighbors use), “Suli, why don’t you love me?” It appalls and greatly embarrasses me. I am speechless. I think: Do I love him?
Meanwhile, I grow older, taller and gawky. My dad is afraid to touch me, hug me, or even talk to me. I feel lonely and rejected. My dad loses his father to the flu when he is around 5 and spends part of his childhood with his two sisters in an orphanage. My dad doesn't really know how to be a dad. My mom doesn’t help, as she doesn’t know what to do, either. (Not that it matters; her father wanted a firstborn son and treated her as such.) I spend my high school years without a dad, pretty much. And I think that I can survive that way. I think that I am rough and tough and all of that stuff (like Popeye the Sailor). I'm not. I come home from school, sit forlornly on a stair leading to the basement where the cleaning lady is ironing clothes. She tells me, “You are much too young to be depressed.” As in: what do you have to be depressed about, you are a child of a middle-income family living in a town home in the suburbs. You’re just spoiled. I still remember her saying that, as if it were today. And yet it didn’t dent my deep black hole of yearning and loneliness that follows me like a clinging leach throughout the years. It never lets in any light.
Once, I run away from home. I go to my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment (before she marries my brother). I feel safe there, unlike the way I feel with my parents. My brother calls my parents to let them know where I am. An hour later, my parents walk to come pick me up (it is only a couple of miles away) and we three walk home, together, my father asking me to forgive him for what he says, earlier, and how he treats me. I’ll never forget my reply, “I don’t know.” It sticks in my heart like a blooming cactus.
Or the time my dad arrives to pick me up after a meeting with other kids to go to Israel; it is raining and one of the cute guys in the group (Yale, a sexy name back then) offers me a ride home. On a subconscious decision, as I see my dad’s car sitting at the curb waiting for me, I ignore it and take the offer for a ride with the cute guy. My dad never knew what happened. I only know that if my daughter had ever done something like that, I would have gone nuts with worry. Thankfully, my dad never mentions it. I don't think his hurt ego can take the answer. Another thorn left in my heart.
My dad doesn’t acknowledge who I am. Just the opposite: The fact that I want to write for hours on a sunny day, enrages him. “Get out and play, like the other kids!” he roars in my face, after barging into my bedroom. It is the one time I stand my ground and lock my bedroom door, after he leaves. At least if I can’t be protective about my own body, my writing is something that I am always protective about.
One evening, I can’t remember what the event is, my dad watches me dance on a dance floor, in a public place. He is impressed and tells my mom, “I didn’t know she could dance like that.” Of course he never tells me to my face.
When I am in high school or even older, my dad does tell me to my face, “You have legs like your mother: thick.” I don’t think he means it as a compliment.
When my father appears absent from the house, I put on my Beatles’ record—and play it loudly. My mom doesn’t say anything...as usual, she is innocent. Suddenly my dad appears in the living room in an absolute rage; he tears the needle across my record, scratching it permanently and yells at me to "turn the goddamn thing off!” I stand there, after he flies back into the basement, shook-up and wondering why my mom doesn’t mention that he is there, the whole time.
My mom says that dad has to help me with my new pink bedroom curtains. Dad explains what I need to do and I don’t understand; when I tell him that, he gets angry with me and I cry. My crying only makes him angrier and I don’t know what to do. I stand there in my own bedroom, feeling as if I am completely alone and on my own in the world. Nowhere feels safe.
In my twenties, I get married and move far away, across the country. It takes sixteen hours to come visit us and one time when my mom and dad come to visit, my father tells us that we are living in the most beautiful state in the country. It makes me feel closer to him than I have in many years.
In my thirties I begin saying, “I love you,” before we hang the phone up. Eventually, he echoes that sentiment back to me. I divulge things that I had kept secret, like the fact that my husband and I were involved in primal therapy. Dad appears interested and in fact, we talk about it at length. We see new sides of one another. We even become friends.
My favorite image of him is a photo of him from high school: he is at the beach standing on the sand in his bathing trunks (actually looks rather sexy, too), all muscled-out, with my perfectly curvy mom on his shoulders, waving. He reminds me of Clark Kent—looks like him too, only he’s already bald. Sweet smile on his face captures the width of his heart.
I learn to accept my dad for who he is and in return he sees me with more clarity, more love than I imagine or would have asked for. He dies one week after meeting his newest grandchild and only girl. He stays alive to meet her, this is clear. Every day of my pregnancy, he wants to know if I am ready, yet. At four months, we travel with her to meet the families back home. My dad holds her and asks if I will turn her into a model, perfect, beautiful baby that she is. I tell him, “No.” A week later, he dies in his sleep.
His spirit lingers awhile, maybe ten years or so; I feel his protection and love from afar, from another world. Or at least from another plane. I can smell his garlic-coffee-scented breath, that I never liked. Finally, it riles me, makes me feel uncomfortable and I let him know that he can leave, now. He has stayed with me/around me long enough and it’s time for him to leave. As a grown woman, I know that I can steer my own destiny capably and confidently. I quietly tell him goodbye. The cycle completes and all is forgiven. My heart is set free.