Daddy Issues

“How was your Christmas?” my friend zoned guy friend asks me as we sip coffee. We’ve covered a lot of ground in our weird and recent friendship, from my faith to his mental illness to my dating history to his father’s death. We’re both a bit lonely, so we share. We talk it through.

“Not good, honestly. We spent some time at my Dad’s and…” I tell him a brief story, of reaching out, of offering neutral ground for the sake of peace, and of being accused and shamed and shut down. “I really tried. I’m not sure what else I can do at this point.”

He breaks eye contact, looks out the window. “Yeah, well, all girls have Daddy Issues.” And we’re talking about his mom now, and the girl he likes. I try to listen as he tells me all his woes. I try to not burn with embarrassment. I try not to apologize for being honest. I try not to cry. I’ve got Daddy Issues. Not that anything has happened, just I can’t get along with the Man in my life. I feel 2 inches tall.

And another safe relationship slams its door and catches my fingers.

*************************************************

I sit in my first solo apartment. My childhood “best friend” has dropped in from out of state and as we seek to connect, despite the vastly different directions our lives have headed, conversation turns to the day to day. After a brief awkward silence, she cheerily asks, “So, how’s your new job?”

“Not good, honestly… It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I’ll be able to stay. Basically, it’s like working for my Dad, and I didn’t move all the way here to work for my Dad.”

My oldest friend, who practically grew up in my home, who saw, who knew– she had to know–, chuckles, turns to her husband and says, “In case you hadn’t noticed, Cicada has Daddy Issues.”

Dismissed, explained away, I fall silent. I am one of a million girls who just has “Daddy Issues.” Yeah. That’s all it is. Just one more 20-something girl who couldn’t hack it.  

And another safe relationship slams shut its doors. But I’m faster this time, and jump back in time to save my fingers.

******************************************************

“So, how was your visit with your family?” 

I ignore the earnest interest and grit my teeth briefly, then smile, just hoping it reaches my eyes. I shrug. “It was fine.”

My fingers are safely tucked in my pockets. 

Fork

“Girls, come here for a minute.” Dad was using the “I’m about to teach you a lesson” voice. Saturn, Emerald, and I exchanged looks. Which of us is in trouble? Strength in numbers, we bravely took deep breaths, stood up straight and headed for the kitchen. Dad was squatting by the sink, compost bucket in hand. I was flooded with dread. Compost was my job, so I knew I was the one this time. I should have washed the bucket better. My 8 year old brain scrambled for options.

“Come over here, look at this.” Dad had a fork and was digging through the compost. Confused, we leaned in. “You girls like carob chips, right?” King of rhetorical questions, our dad. We all recognized a land-mine when we saw it. We nodded hesitantly. “There’s a carob chip in here. See it? I wonder if there’s any more.” He dug with the fork, tilted the bucket our direction, dug some more. “Carob chips are good, right? Fun? Does anyone want these now that they’re all mixed up in the compost?” We shook our heads adamantly. There wasn’t much in life nastier than the smell of the compost bucket. “The Renaissance Faire we went to last week, it was like the compost bucket. We had fun, right? But that little bit of fun was all mixed up with nasty, bad stuff. Wizards and magic, immodesty. You can find a little bit of good anywhere you go, like the compost bucket. Is it worth it, digging through all that nasty stuff to get just a couple of carob chips worth of good fun?” Another trio of head shaking. Another bit of innocent fun turned to rock in my stomach. I should have known better than to enjoy myself. I should have known it was wrong to have fun. I’d know better next time.

My dad was great at teaching memorable lessons. Two decades later and I remember that one clearly enough. But somewhere along the way I got a bit mixed up about the application. Wait, there’s a little bit of good to be found anywhere you go? That’s great news! There’s a carob chip nugget of awesome if you dig around a bit? This is worth a try. So I took a fork to those memories, pushed around the bits of nasty fear, guilt, dread and self-consciousness, and guess what? Dad was right. There are nuggets to be found: in my childhood, in terrifying “teaching you a lesson” moments, but even more in the adult world. I took a fork with me into the dark corners of the subcultures that fascinated me, into the messy lives of the kids who stole my heart and filled my life with beauty, into the stories of the nastiest addicts and most arrogant conservatives. Into the trash cans and gutters of my town, where I find the my greatest inspirations: discarded things.

That fork, that incredible fork that won’t let me wrinkle my nose and walk away from anything. That fork that my dad gave me, much to his own horror, along with an inadvertent commission to find the bits of good everywhere.

Dad asked me a question all those years ago that he meant as rhetorical, but with a bit of poking around I ended up in a different place than he: Is it worth it, digging through all that nasty stuff to get just a couple of nuggets of good? My answer: Every time.

King

It’s a casual afternoon around the house. We’re working on school, sure, but mostly just being together. Pleasant energy fills the room along with the sunlight through the kitchen window. I’m on the couch, so when the phone rings nearby I grab it. It’s school hours, a dangerous time for a non-adult to answer, but I’m not worried today, feeling safe. “Hello?”

It’s Dad. He’s yet again remodeling the Fly Shop near the State Park, where some of his labor is paid in trade for beautiful fly fishing equipment. But his long time love/hate relationship with the shop’s absent minded owner always leaves him dark and volatile. Busy and brusk, he snaps what he feels is enough information, which in usual style leaves me hoping against hope what he means will become obvious later: “I need to know _____ and it’s probably in the shop, in a stack of papers.” It’s pretty typical for us to be the perpetual business secretaries, since he works from home and we are at his disposal. I hang up the phone and rejoin the family chat, every intention of making the long trek to the shop soon, but with a conversation to finish.

Less than 5 minutes later, the phone rings and my stomach flops. I already know where this is heading. I chide myself for getting distracted. Still, I know on some level that I wouldn’t have had time to make the walk yet even if I’d left immediately.

“Hello?” I answer with dread.

“Did you find it?”

“Not yet.”

“Did you look where I told you?”

“I’m about to.” The age of experimenting with self assertion is upon me.

“You should have done it IMMEDIATELY. You do what I tell you!”

“I’m sorry, I was doing school with Mom. I didn’t know you needed it–”

“I DON’T CARE WHAT you were doing! You do what I tell you! (He shouts into the phone and my practiced fingers move to the volume control)  am the most important! If I say to do something it doesn’t matter who else says what else, you drop absolutely everything and serve me! (I remember these words distinctly– ‘serve,’ ‘most important,’ and especially this next:) am the HEAD of this household! I am your Father. I am your KING. Anything need is the most important thing in your life! My time is worth more than yours. My day is more valuable! If you don’t drop what you are doing to obey me you are a rebellious daughter!”

I understand the subtext, I note the intended Biblical references. I know he is summoning God to his side. This, more than the unfairness of his anger, makes me ill. I know he is wrong. I don’t know what to do about it. I am standing by the kitchen counter, phone in hand. I stare at the cabinets as he shouts, thinking about the color and texture of the paint, then at the fridge where my eyes linger on a note in my father’s all caps handwriting– shouting, always shouting– outlining exactly how something in his home is to be organized, reminding us to obey him when he’s gone. Mom and Saturn sit at the table, Emerald in the living room, watching. All eyes on my silence. All conversation, joy and light have gone. All eyes are on the phone, guarded eyes watching the Presence seep out of the phone and into us. All looking for a way to help, but finding none. All ready to move at a moment’s notice, poised to act and diffuse as soon as I am free to share. All glad they didn’t get to the phone first.

The haze of memory does not distort this fact: The yelling continues for thirty minutes.   It’s average length for a lecture, but unusually long for a phone call. We’re usually safe if he’s not home. Family members eventually shift around uncomfortably as I wander from room to room listening. I’ve already learned my “non-committal consonants” so I respond only with “mmm” and “hmm”. He doesn’t care, he’s not listening to me. He has something to say. At last I am released to hang up the phone and I am instantly assailed with Saturn’s horrified “What WAS that??” Teeth clench, whole body flushed in fury at the deep injustice, reeling from being denied a voice of defense against hurled accusations and feeling violated by untrue “truths,” I recount choice bits word for word. Their eyes get wider and wider. This is a new and shocking extreme. This is unprecedented. This, I feel and later confirm, is a turning point.

Mom echos my quotation: “King? Serve?” I nod. “And if it was so extremely important, why does he suddenly have 30 minutes to lecture me?” I cling to the one absolute argument I feel will affirm the broken logic of the King, avoiding any discussion of biblical roles. I’m never quite sure how right he is on those. But if he is so wrong elsewhere, maybe, just maybe, he’s wrong about God too. I hope.

The oldest, Saturn wants so much to protect me. “I’ll answer the phone next time and give him the information.” I shake my head. “No, then he’ll demand why I didn’t do it, and probably think I refused. That will make it worse. I’ll do it.”

Impotence. My primary state of existence. Impotence and fear, and over time, a highly developed sense of injustice.

Boots

~Younger than 10~

The house is darker tonight. The open country sky and my beloved stomping grounds, the Ozark woods, seem dark alleys and hiding places. Dad is gone later than usual– after dark– gone away to the far off and mysterious State Capitol, where he walks the halls fighting evil and defending the family. Without him, the liberals win. I’m young, but I understand. I know without him we will be taken away, because one look at our TV-less home, shelves full of books and Bibles, and they would say we were “neglected.” He has to go, he has a calling from God.

But tonight the house is too empty, our defender is gone, the World is pressing in to my safe spaces. I huddle under the blankets, eyes wide open, waiting.

Bright lights and the gravel make my heart stop. Is it DFS– The People Who Break Up Families–, is it The Social Workers??

The door opens and cowboy boots resonate against the hardwood floors. He laid those floors by hand, he built the whole house, one piece at a time, no debt and no help. Sure, purposeful, commanding steps– his boots on his floor. I would know those steps as surely as his face or his voice. My entire tiny body relaxes.

Dad is home.

I am safe.

~Teens~

I hear them.

On the walkway, on the porch, on the kitchen linoleum. The ache in my stomach starts. I try to keep reading– it’s school, I can’t get in trouble for this. I’m not being forgetful or irresponsible. I sit up straighter so it’s clear I’m studying not lounging. I face the book’s title toward the door. First impressions become fact, so I set the scene to be immediately readable.

I struggle to focus as everything in me instantly becomes polarized toward the sound of the boots. I instinctively track every step. I listen to doors, cabinets. I listen for boots to trip over something carelessly left on the floor– a sure trigger for an outburst. I picture each room just ahead of his footsteps– did I leave a project where he would need space? Did Mom leave out something (is an argument looming)? I can’t picture anything out of place.

The boots turn. They carry him closer. Back through the kitchen… toward the front door? Is he leaving? I experiment with relaxing. No. Closer, down the hall. I flush, heart racing in fear. My mind becomes near-death-experience focused, tunnel vision on a slideshow of my day. Did I leave my bike out again? Are the clothes on the line and it’s raining? Did I forget a chore or something he asked me to do? Those things are always priority. Did someone tattle about an argument? No. We all know better. There is nothing any of us can do to each other that’s so bad we would bring him into it.

I scramble to remember what I’ve done wrong, but I’m coming up blank. Which is bad. It’s always better to know, to anticipate, to prepare an apology or reason that cannot be mistaken as an excuse. To be caught by surprise means I was not self-aware enough, committing the ultimate sin of stupidity.

It’s a short hall, so the miles of mental snapshots I’ve viewed since the boots passed the door is, I’m sure, quite impressive. Hand on the knob now. My racing heart stops, face drains. Did I lock the door? A locked door is never allowed in his house, though we lock each other out during the day when we think he’s gone. To him, children should have nothing to hide and demanding privacy is a rebellious act of mistrust, a spit in the face. So a strange relief is felt when the door opens, the immediate fear having displaced the slightly more abstract.

I had done it. Something I didn’t know I wasn’t to do. I feel ashamed for not realizing it would be a problem, for not getting there faster, figuring it out. It seems I’ve done it intentionally, rebelliously, despite everything he’s done for us all. Despite how hard he works. Despite how much he puts up with. The lecture is never ending, the tone rising and falling in a lilting pattern I hear in my sleep most nights. Shrilly angry to patiently self-righteous to gruffly angry and back around. It continues, tracing an impressive story arch from my unknowing breach to my mother’s rebellious attitude to her family’s generational curse of feminism to my baby brother’s many failings to the time I was a toddler and pushed him away when he reached for me. I knew the path. The canyon had been carved. The words flowed through, still finding sharp corners in my mind to work on breaking down, washing away my thoughts and pounding onward.

At last he is done. I don’t know how he decides he’s said enough since I never understand what he chooses to include in each rant. But it’s over. As the boots stomp loudly down the hall, out the door, down the pathway, I focus on their recession and my fear fades as the footsteps do. The knot in my stomach takes longer to untangle. I stare blankly through the pages and replay every word.