Valentine’s Day is approaching, so I did what any logical, educated, level-headed, single woman would do: I took an online quiz that in three questions assessed the ultimate reason my romantic relationships of the past have failed: I love too deeply. Well we all know how and where to look backwards, don’t we? What did we learn about love and relationships growing up, and what was my relationship with my father like?
My dad wasn’t a great man in terms of material success—he never had a monument named after him; never saved thousands of starving children; didn’t build a house from the ground up so that our family would forever have a station of legacy. He worried a lot, compared his losses to ours (his kids) and was always in a hurry to get to one place or another—even if that was the gas station to fill up with no pending appointment to follow. Sometimes his sadness and guilt over not being the perfect father kept him up all night, sitting on the couch, smoking cigarettes until one of us happened to wake up and to catch him dozing off with a lit smoke in his hand. Wherever we lived, we had traces of carpet burns.
He treated me like a son most of the time—a son with a strict curfew—a son who he was suspicious of, and in that suspicion would request my paycheck stub to calculate where my paychecks in high school were going. He was afraid I’d do drugs, get hooked, get pregnant—and in that fear he was critical of my movement between friends, and in the walks I’d take by myself. That attention, wrapped by accusation, was his way of protecting me—the daughter he believed was his brilliant intellectual equal—a star that could shine maybe even a bit brighter than he did.
My father was the man you’d find behind a group of people, leading the joke—leading the story. He was rhythmic with every sweep of his being. His voice—even his gait–had a cadence. He knew people very well—knew how to speak to them—to comfort them, or even how to scare them. The look in his eyes could tell you all that you needed to know—whether it was his disapproval, his praise or what direction you needed to look in order to find what you were looking for. I didn’t hear “I love you” a lot when I was growing up – but I knew that if he used Yiddish to speak to me—if he said, “baby” at the end of a sentence—if I looked at him square in the eye—he loved me more than he could ever express in words. “I love you” could be purchased in a greeting card down at the local Walgreens. Instead, he used action to translate that love.
Ways a father can love his daughter:
- If she calls you to say hello, but mentions that she’s not feeling well, or feels tired—insist (by yelling) that she needs to come home to you immediately. Yell into the phone—if there’s someone else in the background while you’re on the call, yell at them too. Announce that your daughter isn’t feeling well, and it’s imperative that she come home—because at home, she’ll instantly feel better. Someone will likely be around to make her a sandwich and worst case scenario—if there’s no sandwich maker in the house, you can order a pizza.
- If your daughter is over at your house, and she happens to oversleep (she mentioned the day prior that she had a big exam in Algebra), yell at her to wake her up faster. That way she’s likely to get up faster, and will be better prepared for her exam, having that extra time to get ready, having been frightened out of slumber. You wouldn’t want her to miss her appointment.
- If she’s writing a story for English class and wants to read it aloud to you, listen to her. Tell her she’s onto something, encourage her–but also offer ways she can make her story even richer – make a studio appointment out of it, even though you may never have exceled in English, or even completed an English course in the two years you attended community college. Everything that surrounds us has rhythm. Show her what rhythm means outside of dancing at weddings and parties–communicative rhythm.
- If your daughter tells you she’s seeing a boy, but says she’d rather not bring him upstairs for a meet n’ greet—that she’ll just jog out to the car when he gets there, look at her like she’s murdered your beloved wife and say, “No. He’ll come to the door.”
- If your daughter travels out of state to see a new boyfriend, and you pick her up from the airport, hold her if she’s in hysterics after leaving her true love behind. Even if you don’t normally hug each other, show physical displays of affection, and/or you think this guy’s truly a grease ball – hold her. Even if it pleases you that she won’t marry this guy, living broke and pregnant in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, getting fat off of Greek pastries and doing nothing with her life because she fell in love with the grease ball – hold her like you are sorry that her heart hurts. All you have to say as you’re holding her in her heartbreak is, “I know [what heartache feels like], baby. It’s going to be okay.” Then ask her if she wants to get a sandwich.
- If your daughter missed the application deadline to attend the local university, because she got caught up in applying for a college no one in the house could afford to pay for, take charge. Insist (by yelling) for her to stop crying, and to drive to the college to tell Admissions that they have to accept her. Make an appeal. Tell her not to take it sitting down, and to fight – because she’s deserving, and that fucking brilliant.
- If her apartment building burns down, and she (nor you) have the money to replace even a fraction of the furniture or other belongings she lost – find a cheap piece of furniture someone cast aside at a dumpster. Take a saw and some spray paint to “customize” it for her. That way she’ll have atleast one piece of furniture she can set the TV on – like she has whenever she comes over to your apartment.
- On Valentine’s Day, if she calls to say she doesn’t have a date that year, comfort her. Tell her not to beat herself up, that you’ve got a box of chocolate covered cherries waiting for her at your home. When she gets there and discovers a few chocolates have been eaten from the box, don’t beat yourself up. Explain that you couldn’t resist, because they were so delicious – that the two of you can share and enjoy them together.
- If you are dying, and your daughter insists that you’ll enjoy watching the flat screen TV she spent way too much money on (and financed at a high interest rate)—accept that gift from her without a lecture or a frown.
- If the home health care nurse comes to visit your house to tell your family that your blood pressure is dangerously slow, and your daughter, sitting on the couch watching the nurse take your blood pressure, looks frightened – look at her. Be brave, and look into her eyes to say without saying that everything will be okay and that you aren’t afraid. When the nurse leaves, tell her that if you are cremated, you’d really rather not have your ashes spread in Galveston, Texas, where so many people piss in the water.
With some years of distance from my father’s death, I think about what I have now as a single woman picking at online quizzes and electronic Magic 8 balls for insight. I have memories of a father who was imperfect, who yelled to make a point or paced the kitchen to problem solve. No, he didn’t say “I love you” very much – but he’d be insulted if you implied you thought otherwise. He visits me in dreams from time to time, the sound of his loud voice echoing even after I wake up. I think about the drama, the ways I loved him and how, with his many idiosyncrasies, he showed me that he loved me even more. It’s true that I love too deeply—but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Loving others was one of the actions he so valued – he taught me how to love and it’s payoff. And with every sandwich we shared, every misunderstanding, every story that ended in a drug binge, brothel getaway-by-gunshot or a fist fight, I knew he was the brightest color in my life—the color you might walk past and stop against in a museum—or the color you might stare into watching the sun set—one that captivates and comforts you.
I buried his urn of ashes in an old Jewish cemetery, beside our other family members that he so loved. I caught a bit of criticism and rejection at first (“How could a Conservative Jew be cremated like those of us burned alive in the Holocaust?”). Sure I cried over the ridicule—cried as I wrote up the specs for his headstone. I wasn’t taking any of this sitting down—he wouldn’t have wanted me too. Under a shaded tree, his companion stone stands with an empty space for my mother’s when her time comes. That way, he’d lay next to my mom (no place he’d rather be) and no one would ever piss on his remains at the beach.