I Am My Fathers’ Daughter
As a little kid, I was definitely a Daddy’s Girl. I fought to sit right next to him on the wide front seat of his banana yellow boat of a car and shoved my brother out to the window side anytime the three of us went somewhere. And I coveted the times that my father would take me somewhere without my brother.
Some of my fondest memories are of my dad taking me to and from the pool. When I was very little—still taking lessons at the Y—we would usually go to a little donut shop in the mall after swimming. Although he was essentially programming me to crave fatty, sugary rewards after a swim for the rest of my life (a tradition I still engage in a little too frequently today), I loved the sense of being the most important person in the world, perched as I was atop a stool at the counter while chowing down on a pink, strawberry frosted donut while my father sipped his coffee and listened to me prattle on about what we did that day at Gym ‘n Swim.
My relationship with my father changed, though, as I aged. I suspect that’s true for all women who start out as Daddy’s Little Girl. Relationships are complex, and my dad was probably the most inscrutable person I’ve ever known, so it’s no wonder that as I aged into cognition, I became aware that despite his obvious brilliant intelligence and charming demeanor, my father was a complex person who I would never fully know or understand.
Still, even as I entered high school, he dutifully ferried me to and from swim practice nearly every single day. The summer I trained with a high-powered club team was the year he officially became a bearded man; practice started at 5:15 in a neighboring town, about 20 minutes away. Add on time for breakfast and getting dressed, and we were both up by 4:30 every morning, grumbling in the dark. My dad couldn’t be bothered to shave that early, and so he became “Scruff Man,” my faithful, sleep-deprived taxi driver who would drive me to the only 50-meter pool in the area and snooze in the car while my coach shouted us up and down the pool for over two hours. After practice, we’d often stop at a convenience store and get junk food as a reward, and then he’d drop me off at my summer pool where I hung out at practice so I’d be eligible to compete in the meets. All this before 9am on a sunny summer morning. He often went to his summer job after that; money was always tight in our house, so summertime meant anything but the long vacation that many people think teachers get.
Even at 14 years of age, I was able to recognize that this driving me all over South Jersey for various swim practices was a sacrifice and act of love and devotion by my father. But he was also prone to fits of rage that would bubble up and shake the house, sending me and my brother scurrying for cover lest he direct his ire at us. My brother always caught way more of it than I did, but it was never pretty no matter the trigger or the recipient. Though he never raised a hand to any of us, his anger and disappointment left lasting internal scars that I still grapple with today. Dealing with this taught me that my father was a flawed individual, (aren’t we all?) but I know he was coping as best he could. And even though he was incapable of saying it out loud, I was aware that he loved me and was, at some level, very proud of me.
But it still would have been nice to hear.
Despite the bumps along the way, I can thank my father for lots of positive things, and one of his best legacies was instilling in me a love of art, culture, and language. My father was highly educated—an Ed.D.-holding high school biology teacher who’d spent some seven years in the seminary studying ancient biblical texts in their original languages. I always marveled at how he could—without hesitation—identify any foreign language someone might be speaking as we walked around in Philadelphia. I went on to major in German at Georgetown University in part because I was so enamored of my polyglot dad’s abilities and how that made him seem so sophisticated, worldly, and intelligent. I wanted to be sophisticated, worldly, and intelligent, too.
I can also thank him for instilling in me a drive and work ethic, a need for constant improvement, and a tendency to crusade for certain causes and issues. After my sister died, my father became heavily involved in lobbying for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. He met with lawmakers to convince them to back the bill, and I think he might have even testified before Congress. I remember being deeply impressed that he got to be so important, riding the train to Washington, D.C. to tell my family’s story to really, really big deal people.
But there can be a downside to every crusade; my father was consumed by this cause, wanting to help other parents in the unenviable position of dealing with a terminally ill child from suffering the career repercussions he had. He took to this cause with such zeal, it all but eclipsed everything else in his life. Including his surviving children.
I learned some other less-than-positive things from my father, and the one that I think I struggle with most is the inability to be content with my successes and my current situation. I’m constantly reaching and searching for more, to the detriment of my daily happiness, and I know this stems from never feeling enough of the approval I needed from my father. I simply can’t let myself be. “So I swam the English Channel? Big deal,” I sometimes think. “That was four years ago. What have you done lately?” I ask myself. “What’s the next thing?” It never ends as the inner demons of achievement grind away at me. I think my dad had a lot to do with putting them there in the first place. Thanks, Dad.
Still it’s clear: My father gave me many things, sacrificed for me, and made indelible and irremovable impressions on my psyche, soul, and personality.
I am my father’s daughter.
But there’s another father figure who’s had a substantial say in who I’ve become over the past decade. In 2001, two years after my father died of complications of Type I diabetes, my mother remarried. My step-father, Bill, couldn’t have been more different from my own father, and I appreciated that he approached his relationship with me—his 23-year-old step-daughter—from a vantage point of being my friend rather than trying to replace or fill-in for my own father. Bill respected that I’d had a dad and didn’t need a new one, and what’s more, I felt like he deeply respected me and my father. As a single parent, Bill knew well what raising a daughter is like, and I know he valued how my mom and dad had parented me.
The thing that sold me most on Bill, though, was how he doted on my mother in ways my dad never could. He was Prince Charming to her, and he praised her openly.
He did that for me, too.
Bill was so proud of me and my accomplishments—athletic and otherwise—and would brag to his clients about what big swim I had planned next and how “nuts” I was. He always told me I was crazy, but the word was tinged with profound admiration. He was awed by what I do and he wanted everyone else he came into contact with to be impressed, too.
Talk about a change of pace! I quickly got used to the fact that everyone in Bill’s life—including the young woman who made his Thursday afternoon sandwiches at Subway—knew all about me and my exploits. It’s nice to be feted like that.
In addition to finally getting some of that much-needed fatherly approval, Bill also gave me a renewed sense that life can be fun. He embraced every moment with gusto, and if the day wasn’t filled with laughter, good food, friends, and maybe a couple cocktails in the evening, then it was a lost day. My own father had a tenuous grip on joviality, but Bill was steeped in it, and I learned it’s OK to laugh and play. It’s OK to be openly and loudly appreciative of those around you. And it’s OK to be impressed by other people; it doesn’t mean you aren’t impressive yourself, it just means that you value and appreciate what they’ve achieved. A simple concept, really, but difficult to practice sometimes.
Last summer, Bill passed away suddenly while doing what he loved best: playing golf with a close friend. It was sudden, and we’ve been assured painless, but it’s been a shaking loss for everyone who knew him. For someone so full of life, love, and humor to suddenly be gone was unthinkable, and it certainly made me stop in my tracks and reevaluate my own life.
I zeroed in on what was least fun about my life: work. I realized that being on the corporate American treadmill of long, thankless days in a big company just wasn’t for me. Having seen how Bill was able to maintain a comfortable life as a CPA practicing from his home office on his own schedule gave me pause. He had left one of the top accounting firms in Philadelphia two decades before to care for my step-sister, and he managed to have a very nice life. He worked hard, but he called the shots. “Priorities straight,” I thought. I wondered if I could make it as a freelance writer or do something else that I’d find more rewarding and less stressful than helping line someone else’s pockets.
Not long after Bill died, as my introspection about my own career path deepened, an opportunity emerged to pursue what I like to do most: writing about swimming. Taking a cue from Bill, I seized the chance, and I’m glad I’ve done so. I’m making less money now, but I’m much happier. I do work I care about and that’s appreciated. I get positive feedback instead of constant criticism, and I feel like I’ve finally found my place in the world. I thank Bill for showing me there’s another way and that I don’t have to stay chained to the wrong desk if I don’t want to.
I may well be my father’s daughter through and through, but I am proud to also be my step-father’s daughter.
Happy Father’s Day to all the guys out there who are molding the women of tomorrow. You may never know how deeply you affect us, but please know that you do so, in everything single little thing you do. Don’t be afraid to push your daughters to achieve, but help them to succeed. And please don’t forget to praise them for their efforts, win or lose. Share yourself with them, warts and all; they’ll grow from it and someday they’ll thank you.