A few months ago, in the midst of Covid19 crisis, my father died in a care facility where he’d been for a couple of years. Though I live several states away, I was the last in my family to see him in person weeks before his death because of new quarantine restrictions that, coincidentally, went to effect the final day of my visit. You may expect a tender story of a gruff dad and errant daughter gazing one final time into each other’s eyes before a redemptive goodbye. But his style near the end was consistent with what had come before. Though his speech and body were ravaged by Parkinson’s, he pointed first to me and then to the door. He was tired and wanted to be alone.
Part of the mythology in my family is that I was the only one of my parents’ three kids that my dad took care of as a baby. My parents were so achingly young that by the time I came along, the last of three, my mother was still only 20, Dad just a few years older. Mom used to say she’d barely changed a diaper on me, that it was my father, newly out of the Air Force, who’d gotten up with me at night. I only know that he was a mountainous presence that gave shape to my most primitive reality, a giant with warm hands. Looking at photos of him from that time, I am struck by this benign slender young man with a shy crooked smile. I am maybe two years old, a tottering, excessive mop of blond curls, holding onto his leg as if it were a tree in an earthquake.
My father was sweet and merciless, and authoritarian in his anti-authoritarianism to the very end. He was confident that he knew best, and constitutionally impatient with groupthink, flights of fancy, or with what, by his personal reckoning, were merely arbitrary or ad hoc edicts. When I was learning to drive, he told me that traffic signs in parking lots were “mere suggestions,” but railed at me if I dropped my guard for a single second while maneuvering in them: “Don’t you know that most accidents happen in parking lots?!” It was a buzz of confusion until I figured out that, for him, there was a world of difference between doing things because there were good reasons and blindly following orders. It was a lesson that engulfed me so completely that, in a few years, it carried me far away from his carefully ordered kingdom.
Whether or not my father could have predicted it, and whether or not he liked it, it is partly because of him that I became a feminist, a philosopher, a social critic, and a liberal professor with a heart that bleeds buckets every day. For example, though he bore some of the predictable stains of having been a dirt poor white boy in a cauldron of small town racism, his explicit lesson to me about race was that people shouldn’t be rewarded or disadvantaged because of accidents of birth. For him, this wasn’t about compassion, or even morality at all. Rather, it simply didn’t make sense to him that it should be otherwise. And there were implications for sexism too. Though my father was still a young man throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, the hippie era liberation movements passed him by. Still, my sister and I were treated remarkably similar to my older brother. We were assigned the same chores and held to most of the same standards, not because of any feel good Free-To-Be-You-And-Me wisdom, but because all three of us kids, boy and girls, had similarly functioning brains, arms and legs.
With pragmatic reason as my father’s religion, he had no patience for speculation or fundamentalism, despite the fact that he grew up in a Latter Day Saints household —a Mormon offshoot, they of Joseph Smith and golden plates. In fact, one of my favorite conversational gambits over the years was to ask my dad what he thought about Noah’s ark. To him, the fact that a grown ass adult might actually believe such preposterousness was utterly baffling, and he seemed never to tire of detailing its absurdities. I also have an early childhood memory of him pointing to pictures in an illustrated children’s Bible and explaining how goofy it was to believe in a hoofed red devil, or in lions that lay down with lambs. Thanks to my father, I never once dreamt of gauzy-winged angels or fire and brimstone, even as several in my college circle of gay and lesbian friends were losing sleep over the prospect of going to hell.
But if my father made me fearless in some ways, he made me anxious in others. He was frequently, erratically angry, in precisely those ways that feminism teaches us to name and condemn. He carried the bitterness of a hardscrabble childhood and the memories of a violent, neglectful father around as if they were precious boulders: overwhelming in their burden but somehow still necessary to him. Though he mellowed in many ways over the years, he never seemed to entirely lay down his fury and resentment. Memories of abuses from his boyhood — and there were many — could be easily coaxed to the surface even as, in his mid 70s, he lived out what he knew to be his last years. If it seems I am being indelicate or disrespectful here, let me be perfectly clear: I speak the factual truth about my father because he, more than anyone I have ever known, refused to slip under the anesthesia of cloying sentimentality. Reality, past or present, is what we have to work with and reality is what we must face, not idle speculation or unicorn-filled wish lists.
Perhaps because hard-nosed realism is the core of who he was, his occasional flights of feeling leap to the front of my memory: the four-dollar Hallmark birthday cards selected for their very particular, ornate “dear daughter” messages, and the way he would turn up the volume on the car radio, ever so slightly, when Bette Midler sang “The Rose.” I remember too the heart-shaped birthday cake he made me for my 16th-birthday, several years after my mother had moved out and on. Ever practical, instead of spreading the room temperature tub of frosting across the cake’s uneven surface, he microwaved it and poured it on. The result was, for some reason, grayish pink globs that slid down the sides of the heart like congealed gravy. He presented it half-sheepish, half-proud, and I am happy to say that, despite my general adolescent sullenness, I accepted it gracefully. This was not a cake for Disney movies or the Brady bunch, but it was good enough for me.