Dawn, Merilou and I went to lunch the other day. We are of different ethnic backgrounds, political inclinations and varied marital statuses. But we are all, finally, grown up versions of the women our dads spent their lives making sure we’d be.
Daddy’s girls. Except Dawn lost her dad to Cancer, Merilou to Leukemia and I lost mine to heart disease.
This time, after all the initial celebration of seeing each other was finished, Dawn leaned forward and asked Merilou, “How is your mom?”
I held my breath. Here was the question that all of us who have survived the loss of a father ask ourselves every day.
“She’s just sad now,” was the reply. “This month is their anniversary, and his birthday month. All of the drama of the loss seems to have worn off, and now she is just plain sad.”
We were quiet. And then Dawn spoke, “On what would have been their fiftieth wedding anniversary, my mom found a note from my dad, stuck on the back of the refrigerator in the basement. It was to tell her how to dispose of appliances because he knew it would break down, after he’d died. He attached an article that told her how and why to get energy efficient appliances to replace your broken ones.”
We gasped. We know what that can feel like, to remain in the embrace of a father years after he has passed.
“She’s been finding notes like that everywhere, you know. Here’s how to start the lawnmower. Here’s where I keep this or that.”
Merilou entered the conversation with, “My dad told me, before he went into surgery, that he hoped he’d see the grandchildren again.”
She never talks about this, the things her dad was hoping for before he passed. She talks about getting used to life without his guidance, but never this.
“I said I hope you do, too.”
And then I thought this: Everything I know about being a woman, I learned from my father.
Let me say that my mother is a remarkable woman. She is super smart, generous, funny, and creative. But, mothering can only go so far. For the rest, I had my father.
The first Feminist I ever knew, my father, felt it was especially important for his daughters to know how to do things for ourselves. Speak up for ourselves. Work and play and live for ourselves. And so in his spare time he taught us things, relentlessly. He told his daughters. “Listen, this isn’t going to be easy for you, being a girl, and a black girl on top of it. People are going to underestimate you. They will think that you can’t do and won’t try. They’re going to think you can’t and you have to show them that it’s not true. Because it’s not.”
Our mother never thought to tell us that, probably because she never had the perspective that men gather from being out in the world when women aren’t around. She never heard the way women are talked about and over and disrespected when women aren’t there because when she’s there…well, there’s a woman in the room.
He also taught me to go on and feel my feelings, because somebody has to. On the day my first boyfriend broke up with me because I wanted to go away to college instead of stay in Wisconsin, it was my dad who slept in the chair in my room- worried that my broken heart would slay us both.
My mother remained in their room, waiting for the verdict that I would, indeed, live. My father taught me that I would live- because he was the softie of the two. It’s a big part of my womanhood, today. I will live.
My dad cried real tears when he dropped me off at college; he and my mother stayed for two weeks after the semester started, and when it was time for their rented van to pull off my dad could barely contain himself. My super smart, generous, funny, and creative mother stood off from us, rolling her eyes, and checking her watch muttering, “These sentimental fools. We’ll never make Pennsylvania by sunset….”
My dad and I stood there in a parking garage on campus, sniffling and trying to think of something important to say. There were no words.
But he started talking anyway, “If you love something, set it free…”
“Don’t.” I told him. “You’re not setting me free. I’m coming home, Christmas time.”
“Well. The first night is mine. Don’t come there thinking you’re going to set down your bags and go see your friends. Not before we have some pie.”
And we did. In fact, we had pie on every Wednesday we were in the same town from then on. I forget how it became pie between us, or what we talked about on those “dates”. But I haven’t forgotten his willingness to let me cry, or his willingness to let me go. Great tools for womanhood.
And still, our fathers won’t see their grandchildren anymore. But they will live – through their daughters. All of the conversations with our fathers will return to us in the right places and at the right time while we live.
Merilou has pledged to make someday today and will run the Chicago Marathon next month in memory of her father for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Donate to her goal of raising money to find treatment and a cure here: http://pages.teamintraining.org/wi/chicago13/meriloug