I read this quote today:
“If there is positive male experience in her early years, she is going to do much better.… That’s the power of a dad.” — Dr. Meg Meeker
It made me think about my relationship with my father and how it influenced me. So for Father’s Day, a collage of memories about my father. He died 11 years ago but his larger-than-life presence still holds sway in my life because fathers matter to daughters, even though he wasn’t a great father. Sometimes, in fact, he was a downright terrible father. When I was in my 20s, he used to kind of try to pimp me out – but this was when his alcoholism had begun to effect his mind. One time he gave my phone number to a man who worked for him – a creepy, revolting, nerdy gross-out of a cigar-smoking man – who was in his late 30s! – just because this freak had attended Harvard.
That was my father’s only filter.
Loser + BUT he attended Harvard = must be good enough for my daughter
This person actually called me. I remember picking up the phone and saying:”But…how did you get my phone number?” When he said, “Your dad gave it to me,” the palpable feeling of betrayal, disgust, and vulnerability I felt was off-the-charts. A father’s main role is to protect his daughter, not to pimp her out to the nearest Harvard graduate.
As his daughter, I always felt unprotected. I was unprotected. I was put in so many overtly dangerous situations, and constantly surrounded by so many of his lower companions that it is miraculous that nothing ever happened to me. My parents were close friends were this bizarre couple, Madge (a doormat) and John (abusive dictator). They had four children – four very fucked up children, and we had to hang out with them on the occasions that our parents socialized, aka when they drank. We would be left outside in the car in the dark, and the sister would start up her parent’s cars and turn on the headlights and pretend she was going to ram into us. This terrified me. Looking back, there was never any adult supervision – my father never came out to our rescue, and the idea of asking him to help us never once occurred to me. As a parent – this just blows. my. mind.
No wonder I was a weird child, a bed wetter, obsessively terrified of molecules.
I later discovered that the brother had raped this girl when she was 15. My mother told me when I was twenty-something, after he had gone to prison. We continued to socialize with this family. The doormat mom – who was also my sister’s godmother (can you believe it?) – never reported the rape to the police as far as I know. The rapist brother grew up to become an imprisoned convicted pedophile – just another in a long line of weirdos my parents knew. Another one of the brothers became a drug dealer and the family’s dysfunction skyrocketed while simultaneously they had become ostentatiously wealthy. I’m sure my parents knew something illegal was going on, there were trained Rottweilers in the yard, a Rolls Royce, ridiculous mansions, but my parents looked the other way. After Rufus went to prison I found a chest full of one hundred dollar bills in our guest room closet. When I asked my mom about it, she said she was “storing it for Rufus while he was ‘away’” and that it was his children’s “college fund.”
Side note: his sons ended up attending Exeter and then of course, Harvard. All paid for with drug money. I swear to God my kids are not going to go to Harvard if I have anything to do with it! Ha!
Anyway, when I was about 14 they were all at our house and we needed to go to the airport to pick someone up. I was allowed to go in the car with this convicted pedophile to the airport. Alone. (Okay, this was years before my mom knew about the rape and the pedophilia, but still – he was creepy and I sure wouldn’t let my 14-year-old daughter get into a car with him.)
He was high on cocaine, and speeding, and thankfully nothing happened – I was not raped or molested, and we didn’t have a car crash. As a mom though, I just think of all of this – a constellation of dysfunction, a Grand Canyon of potential harm that could come to a 14-year-old child – alone with a man who had raped his own sister, was high on cocaine, and would spend much of the rest of his life in prison for being a pedophile – yet my parents never once thought I might be in danger. I am hoping that my mother’s ditziness was simply a side effect of her alcoholism, but trying to figure that out – what part is the real person, what part is the alcoholism – is like trying to separate out the ingredients from cake batter after you’ve already mixed it. Impossible.
A few years later, Rufus the drug dealing brother (who was actually the most normal of all of them) was caught with a boat full of marijuana, convicted, and sent to Federal Prison for a lot of years, and the pedophile also went to prison. The other brother got sober, and the sister keeps trying to friend me on Facebook. No, thanks! The only “good” thing about this family is that because it was way more dysfunctional than ours, it made our family look normal in comparison – which was unusual for us.
When I was seventeen I had my first serious relationship. My parents never gave me any information or guidance to do with love or sex or any of that – maybe it was because they were alcoholics so they were used to communicating through what was unsaid, or through gossip or innuendo – but for whatever reason the only guidance my father ever gave me was to tell me, and I shit you not: “All men are dogs, and all women are bitches. Remember that, Kiddo, and you’ll be alright.”
That was it. Those crappy, seedy words of ‘wisdom’ were all I had to go on, and I knew they were nothing. So when my boyfriend and I hit the six-month mark, my father simply stopped speaking to him. He wouldn’t speak to him for a year (even though he ended up going to Harvard! Ha!). I don’t know – maybe that was his way of trying to protect me.
Things progressed, time passed, I grew up and started getting Jungian psychotherapy, my dad’s alcoholism worsened (as it does). I moved about as far away from home as possible – to Ireland, and things were immediately better. On the flight out I sat beside a man from Spain who marveled at me, a young woman, being rootless and brave enough to pack up her life and just move to a totally new country, far away from her family, just like that. He spent a long time explaining to me how he could never leave his home town, his parents and grandparents, all the people who knew him since he was a child, the places he knew. I spent a long time explaining to him that although I envied him his rootedness, I needed to flee what I knew in order to find myself.
I lived in Ireland for five years and met my husband. My father came to Dublin to celebrate our engagement, and we took him to a local pub. I knew my father adored my fiance, and was so-so-so happy we were getting married – but despite this, at the pub a man actually went up to my father and asked if he knew my phone number. This is as we are celebrating my engagement, mind you! I mean – how messed up is this: my father scribbles my phone number on a napkin and gave this drunk stranger my number! Right in front of my fiance!
The thing about my husband is he got it immediately, he understood that my alcoholic father was not in his right mind and was trying in a twisted way to test him, to see if he would run away or get pissed off or who knows what. But he didn’t. He just rolled his eyes and put his arm around me…protectively.
As I was growing up I felt terribly unprotected by my father, and had to find my way through my own vulnerabilities not with any wisdom or guidance that most people get from their parents, but just by feeling my way blindly through the dark. Learning as I went along.
When I was in college I was living at home with my parents during one summer and waiting tables to pay for my college tuition. I came home from work and as usual there were strangers gathered in the house – one of them was wearing a blue short-sleeved gas station mechanic’s shirt. I remember going into my bedroom and dumping out all of my tips from my apron onto my bed – about $120 in dollar bills – and then went to wash up. For some reason – a feeling I had – I returned suddenly to my bedroom to find the mechanic guy standing near my bed, just about to grab the money off of it. When he saw me, he left my room without saying anything. I don’t remember if I told my parents what he was about to do or not – but if I had, the chances of them asking him to leave (which he did) were 50/50, because I was not in a safe environment. We did not have locks on any of our doors, and our front door never even had a key, but worse: I was unprotected. A calamity waiting to happen.
I started having terrible nightmares about being chased by a dark force, and when I finally went to therapy and made the connection that my family was not a safe place for me to be, the dark force in my dreams became clearer until finally they became a man wearing a blue gas station mechanic’s shirt. I think, looking back, that the mechanic was a metaphor for a young girl not feeling protected by her father. Anyway after some excellent therapy I was finally able to confront the man in my dream – and chase him away.
So anyhoo, tonight our 11-year-old daughter went off to a slumber party. We have not really let our kids have many sleepovers, but this was at the house of a classmate of hers that she has known for years. Still, my husband – maybe because he’s from Ireland, I don’t know – is wary of sleepovers, of having his daughter out of the house where she is out of his reach to protect her. So he took her aside and gave her a long, fatherly lecture – it included what to do if there is a teen boy, someone’s cousin perhaps, who wants to crash in the room (call Daddy to come pick you up), what to do if she gets scared (call Daddy – doesn’t matter if it’s 1 AM or 4 AM, he said, “I will jump in my car and come get you, you just say the word,”), what to do in the event of a fire or other emergency, what to do if the movie they are watching is scary, what to do if other kids misbehave or get wild and do things like cross the street without an adult or play hide and seek out in the dark…he thought of everything.
He was being protective of his little girl. And my heart grew four sizes sitting there watching it.
Watching our daughter sit close beside her father and listen to him, watching as she pretended to roll her eyes at him when she knew all of it mattered, his attention and care for her matters, his words matter…I marveled at the cocoon of safety she is surrounded by, with a caring, present, kind, strong, non-alcoholic father who is fiercely, unapologetically protective of his daughters. I can see that not only does she understand that he is protective of her, she basks in that protectiveness. It fills her. That’s the power of a father.
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