My father died three years ago this month. The 18 months he spent with us, as we attempted to care for him as he suffered from Parkinson’s, COPD and Alzheimer’s, were the second worst time in my life. (The worst was the death of my first husband when I was 34, and I moved to Florida to be with him and my mother. Dad made that even harder by ordering me not to upset my mother when I cried over Tim; after all she’d lost her mother and her son-in-law within a month of each other, ignoring the fact that I’d lost my grandmother and my husband. So every night I closed my door, put a pillow over my head, pulled up the covers, and sobbed as silently as possible into my pillow). Dad was uncooperative, unwilling to work with us, and demanded everything be done his way on his schedule. In other words, he behaved the way he always had.
The very first morning, he ordered me to make him coffee. He didn’t ask. He said, “Make me coffee.”
Something deep inside warned me that if I gave in, the orders would never cease. I’d be an unpaid servant to a demanding old man. So I said, “I don’t want any coffee. Maybe later.”
In revenge he went into the living room and turned the TV volume, already loud, to a level that would have been typical at a heavy metal concert. Mind you he had a hearing aid. He just didn’t like wearing it. He then claimed it was broken. I changed the batteries and put them in for him. He turned the TV down only slightly. I turned it down to a level that wasn’t giving me the start of a major headache, the kind that requires three Tylenol with codeine to make it bearable.
And as soon as my mother-in-law, with whom we were living, walked through the door, he ran to tattle about how mean I had been to him, and she turned on me.
And that’s how it started, and pretty much how it went on.
Dad was not a bad man. He never hit me as a child. He provided well. He paid for my Catholic school education, my college and one year of grad school, so I emerged without crushing mountains of debt. He had simply been spoiled by the women in his life—his mother, my Mom, her mother who lived with us my entire life—and expected everyone to obey his wishes. And we did.
Unfortunately, I disappointed him by not being a clone of my mother, who was tall and thin, an Audrey Hepburn type, who was pretty and popular and smart and had led the enchanted life straight out of an Andy Hardy movie, I, on the other had was destined to be 5’3,” larger boned, bookish, shy, and not all that popular (I think the fact that I was in 6 schools before I graduated from 8th grade might have had something to do with that). His criticisms were meant to be helpful, I am certain, but oh, how they hurt.
The week before he died, he called me a whore. I don’t know why, and he wasn’t able to explain it—and his dementia wasn’t that far advanced, according to the doctors. I ran inside the house, called the Alzheimer’s Association and talked with a social worker. I told her what had been going on—the criticisms about everything from my weight and my refusal to watch sports with him because I hate sports to this latest comment. She asked me a lot of questions which seemed utterly irrelevant to me about my past interactions with Dad, and told me gently that Dad, whether he intended it or not, had been guilty of emotional abuse my entire life.
I wanted to deny it, but I knew it was true.
Careful the things you sayWhen I was a child, I danced. I loved to move my body to music, even if the music was only playing in my head. There still exists some old home movies of my naked three-year-old self doing the hula in the bathtub, which Dad used to threaten to show any boy I liked. Dancing was as natural to me as breathing, and I didn’t’ care if other people watched.
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
“Children Will Listen” by [http://www.allthelyrics.com/...
Stephen Sondheim ] from -Into the Woods-
When I was 4, my parents took me to the pediatrician to find out why I kept turning my ankles. I wore down my shoes on the outside heel, and my ankles had a tendency to just roll out from under on the outside. (Later I would learn that one leg was ¾ of an inch shorter than the other, and I had a scoliosis in my lower back; I was born that way) The doctor prescribed cookies for my shoes and a small additional build-up on the outside heel to compensate. He advised dance class for my weak ankles—ballet would strengthen them he said. So I began taking ballet and tap. I loved ballet from the first—the ballerinas floating effortlessly over the floor like fairies, the sweeping music, the whole experience. I wanted to be a ballerina so desperately it hurt. Of course, what we now know is that ballet as it was taught back in the Fifties, with its emphasis on perfect turnout and putting children en pointe as early as eight , actually made my ankles worse by hyper-extending the ligaments.
I didn’t care about the cookies or the fact that I had to wear oxford. I went to Catholic school; we all wore oxfords. I just kept dancing to everything from Elvis on the radio (it is possible to do a tour jete to “Blue Suede Shoes) to Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra to my parents’ Big Band albums. I loved it all. Every time we moved, we found a new dance school for me, and I spent one afternoon a week pretending I was Maria Tallchief or Margot Fonteyn.
I wasn’t good. You learn whether you are any good pretty early on because you don’t make it en pointe. I was the wrong body type for ballet, too big-boned , and I just didn’t have the talent. That didn’t stop me from loving the feel of ballet, however. You don’t have to be great at something to enjoy doing it.
But all through this time, Dad was concerned about the way I walked, the way I looked. Unlike mom, who had a boyish body with the flattest ass on the planet, I was destined to be a Marilyn Monroe type, curvy, with breasts and hips and a round ass. Of course, as a child, I only had a very definite butt. I was an active kid. I swam and biked and danced, all of which build up leg muscles and the butt. To Dad, the fact that I had a butt meant I wasn’t standing up straight—or it wouldn’t stick out like that.
He constantly reminded me to stand up straight, shoulders back, derriere tucked under, walking right. He said it in front of my friends and when we went out, and Dad, who had a magnificent baritone, had a very carrying voice. Coupled with his obvious disappointment that I wasn’t built like Mom and wasn’t going to be model slim and tall, I began to feel like there was something wrong with me, with how I looked.
I stopped dancing. By age 10, I was sure I was fat and wouldn’t wear anything shorter than my knees, even shorts. I had internalized already the meme of “she’s got such a pretty face; too bad she’s not thinner” that I would overhear Dad saying to Mom. I started comparing myself to taller thinner girls. I was the shortest kid in my class, and a lot of girls, by 6th grade, were already approaching 5’5” and were destined to be leggy and slim. I stuck at 5 feet. For years, reaching my final height of 5’3” at age 12, and it was pretty apparent that my body was gonna be more like Elizabeth Taylor’s, whom Dad considered a little plump, than either Hepburn’s, Audrey or Katherine.
I was self-conscious. I hated having to get up in front of the class to give a report. I hated having to walk across a stage for any reason, even though I loved acting (I could forget my obvious imperfection when acting; however because I was magically someone else, someone better).
High school was even worse. At 14, I was 5’3” and weighed 119 pounds, a healthy weight even in those days. But I felt fat. My best friend was an inch taller than I and weighed 104. Dad adored her, praising her for being so cute, so pretty, when she came over. I wanted to be like her. So that summer Mom got me diet pills from the doctor to help me lose weight. I’ll never understand why anyone in his or her right mind would want to amphetamines because they made me dreadfully ill and nauseated constantly. I felt like ants were crawling over my skin. I couldn’t sleep. And at the end of six weeks, I’d lost all of 5 pounds, no more than I would have had I just gone on a diet.
This was the Sixties, the era of Twiggy, of micro-minis, of Carnaby Street and short straight dresses worn by very tall, very thin models. The dancers on -Shindig- and –Hullabaloo- were all tall and boyish in their go-go- boots and skimpy dresses. I was short and round. It was not a good time to be curvy. I wore a girdle to make my round butt look smaller. I never wore a mini-skirt or anything more than two inches above my knees. The Sixties did not swing for me.
In college, I wasn’t wildly popular with the guys, but I did learn not to hate my curves. I got paid to pose for a sculpture class (clothed in leotard and tights; this class took place at a seminary). I remember looking at one of the sculptures, which looked more like the body of Bond Girl from the Connery era and asked, “That isn’t me, is it?”
The priest-to-be said, “It’s as close as I can come.”
It was the first time I realized that those curves I’d despised so long might actually be…not ugly.
I joined science fiction fandom in the 70s. I did costumes. And I ended up posing for cover reference for several artists. I was even immortalized by the late Kelly Freas on the cover of one of the worst books ever written –Spawn-, one of the few books published by Laser, Harlequin’s attempt to do sf/fantasy. I learned that my body type was actually desirable for cover work and illos because while I was curvy, my 38Cs were sag-free.
And nobody laughed or jeered when I walked across a stage.
Mind you, at the same time that I was finally gaining some confidence, I was having major problems with my ankles and my back. This is when I learned about the shorter leg and the scoliosis and the hyper-extended ligaments for the first time. I suspect my parents knew, but I doubt Dad paid any attention—he normally didn’t unless I was winning academic prizes. I had taped ankles much of the time, and I had to have physical therapy for my back, the result of the scoliosis aggravated by a fall down a flight of concrete steps to a concrete floor in high school (Dad didn’t remember that incident at all, even though I had to wear a back brace—think Victorian corset where the boning is over an inch wide and has no give at all—for four months).I suddenly realized that the reason my walk wasn’t a ballerina’s glide was physical, rather than my fault.
I know how trivial this will sound to some of you. But it wasn’t trivial. It sent me into therapy because I couldn’t figure out what was so wrong about me that my father preferred my best friend to me. That I wasn’t good enough. Four years of Honor Roll in high school and Dean’s List and a Phi Beta Kappa key and graduating magna cum laude and a fellowship from an Ivy League college—still weren’t enough for. I still got comments about my weight. And just before he walked me down the aisle at my first wedding, he told me to stand up straight and tuck my butt in. He didn’t tell me I looked beautiful. When I moved in with them in Florida after my first husband’s death, he refused to give me a house key, and demanded that I call home if I were going to be alter than eleven. When I pointed out that if I had a key, no one would have to stay up to let me in, he told me he didn’t want me coming in so late that the neighbors would think I was floozy. And the day we arrived at his house after my mother died (we drove all night), the first words out of his mouth were “You’ve gained weight.”
I simply wasn’t good enough.
I went into therapy again while living with him and Mom. I told the therapist that nothing would ever be enough. I had sold short stories to some prestigious sf anthologies and magazines. I was published in English and German. My stories had been singled out for praise when the anthologies were reviewed.
His response? “When are you going to sell a book?”
I told my shrink that if I did sell a book, it would most likely be a paperback, and Dad would ask why it wasn’t hardcover. If I went hardcover, he’d ask why I was getting such a small advance. Hell, if I made the bestseller list, he’d want to know why my book wasn’t number one.
And the shrink said, “Fuck him.”
Dad didn’t intend to hurt me, but he did. He was more interested in turning me into his idea of the Perfect Daughter than he was in loving the imperfect daughter he got as a result of the genetic draw. He gave me everything materially but withheld the praise and pride I needed most. His criticism was meant to make me better, make me look better, but all I learned was that I was ungraceful and fat and not as pretty as my best friend.
I was lucky. I had two men who loved me, and my second husband reminds me of Johnny Castle in one of my favorite movies, -Dirty Dancing-. Oh, he doesn’t look like Patrick Swayze though he’s damned good dancer. No. He acted like him. When Dad started going after me when we’d visit, my husband would give him that look and tell Dad not to be mean to be mean,. He never actually said, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” but he made the same point.
Here’s the truly off thing. All those years I internalized being fat and clumsy? It wasn’t true. When Dad moved into the new house with us, I went through four boxes of photos (he wasn’t in the least interested in any photos that didn’t have Mom in them or him). There were a lot of shots of me as a child. And I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t skinny, but I was a normal, healthy weight. My only defect was a tendency to have one slightly bowed leg, the result of those hyper extended ligaments which made that ankle tend to roll over. I had spent years hating myself for absolutely no reason.
When Dad was alive, I tried to talk with him about this. He refused. He told me to get over, because it didn’t matter; it had all happened years ago and he had nothing to apologize for. (He did apologize for the “whore” comment after he said it.) I was very, very angry. But he was old and frail and unable to change. Instead I concentrated on making his last months bearable. I went on Netflix and ordered every version of Sherlock Holmes they had. I got the first three -Star Wars- films (4 through 6; 1-2 would only have confused him and were too serious)and we watched them together. When Obama won, we ate Brie and pate and drank champagne. I did the best I could In his eyes, it probably wasn’t enough, because I couldn’t give him what he really wanted: my mother there beside him.
After he died, I was still angry for months. But in December of that year, I willed myself to let go of the anger, to let it flow out of me and ground itself safely in the earth. I still feel the hurt. I still want to ask him why I couldn’t be good enough, but I know that even if we meet in an afterlife, if there is one, he most likely won’t be able to tell me. He’ll tell me to let it go—because, really, he never realized how much he was hurting me, even while he was doing it.
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen