by Anita Finlay
My father used to say “You will master everything you take into your hand.” A brilliant but deeply troubled man with a male-dominated world view, his words were praise indeed. No matter how limited his imagination of what women could achieve, he believed in me. Yet it took many years for me take this as a compliment rather than pressure not to fail. As I grew to have more faith in myself, often through mechanical means – ten self-help books and a bucket of therapy later – his words resonated.
Growing up, earning my father’s approval was a near impossible task; the rules forever shifting with his erratic moods. Still, I was daddy’s little sunshine and we bonded over old westerns, stories about his native Hungary and my education. Dad was very involved in my schooling, curious of every detail. He was never shy about adding his two cents to whatever “those teachers of mine” were serving up. I was shocked the first time I discovered he didn’t know everything. Arguing with his viewpoint was a terrifying undertaking, however. He ended one such altercation with the words “You are no longer my daughter. Get out of my vicinity.”
It was not until I crawled onto his lap to apologize that normal life resumed. I did it to keep the peace, to let him remain the boss, even when I knew I was right. At nine years old, I knew the truth. But, of course, I apologized anyway.
At ten, I learned about fractions – the only mathematical concept Dad could never quite grasp. I argued with him for two hours about how one half times one half equals one fourth. I was relentless despite the ever-present risk of him exploding. Well, he had tried to train me to write with my right hand instead of my left. That didn’t take either.
I cannot remember how I convinced him about the fractions but, at last, he capitulated. Living with my father was like being on the Oxford debating team.
My dad was a perplexing mix of outrageous humor, worldly knowledge and bullying, with a proverb for every day of the week. I still hear the echo of his words:
“A rich girl can do what she likes. A poor girl has only her honor.”
“Drugs make you a walking dead.”
“Walk fast down the street and make a mean face.”
Well, growing up in New York City, that one was useful, actually.
He bristled at my outspokenness, but I think my father secretly liked that I stood up for myself. Perhaps it reassured him that I would be able to make my way in a world he had always found unfair. I don’t recommend raising a daughter this way, but however unintentionally, he taught me to fight for myself and my ideas, if only not to be crushed under the weight of his overbearing pronouncements.
I learned I was going to have to work to get and sustain credibility in a society where men are considered more trustworthy in a suit; where the male voice has more gravitas. So I got some gravitas of my own.
Like grass growing up through the concrete, what I used to call my innate ‘joy engine’ propelled me to question, to fight back, and to fight the idea of living small – or smaller than a man. But I was slow to translate my defiant nature into real terms outside the home. A late bloomer, living a life that embraced risk took considerable time, trial and error. I guess it is only fitting that my favorite proverb of my dad’s was, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
I no longer wear a mean face, having learned to welcome the world and the people in it far more than he ever did.
In honor of Father’s Day, this poem is for him…and for fathers and daughters everywhere…
Paper Planes and Paprikash
He makes the paper airplanes
as the orange light floats through the panes.
Perfect at all angles, an aerodynamic wonder,
the gift is placed in my tender hands.
My aim unsure, I fire one at his stomach.
His belly jerks, bobbing and reeling with …
peels of laughter.
I am relieved.
We try again.
We do better.
Clear across the room we sail
Me next to him, he assists in the launch.
It is a good thing.
The joy never ends, the privilege unbelievable.
Paper airplanes with Daddy.
Long talks with Daddy.
Racing through the city on his errands
My feet flying out behind
Holding tight to the gloved hand, struggling to keep pace
His staccato walk so confident, strong as steel.
If I persevere and keep up
milk shakes at Schrafft’s after the show
the biggest treat of all.
Chess with the grand master.
It is an honor.
Who could be prouder at this moment
sitting on the arm of his big armed armchair
telling the world to Daddy?
crisis comes to pass
and moments pinch my nose
when I know there are no limits
it is beyond reason
everything I would give
nothing I wouldn’t hand over for one more day
one more proverb
one more bear hug and belly laugh
the worldly wisdom that came along with every tale told
in tongues far beyond me.
A mere moment with him
to be seen by the big eyes enormous behind bifocals
one more moment to tell him a tale
the tale of my life
progress, success and stumbles.
The aim still unsure
still needing him to steady my hands with the sound of his voice
once more to hold tight and say
the words only his little sunshine
could say to such a father.
You are my anchor
and yet every word I write is insufficient.
In this moment there are no words.
Just let me look at you
and you can read it in my eyes
through our loss and pain
all our differences
through cruelty and rage
through every dark tunnel see it in my eyes
All the moments we never got to finish
all the growing I never got to share
see me big and safe and strong.
Let me steady your hands with the sound of my voice
and make peace with all your tortured memories
and you can talk me calm with
“Just do your best, and that is all.”
Standing in my kitchen now
cooking the smell of your favorite dish
bringing me back to the days when there was breath left in you
I taste the peppers
hypnotized by the color of the sauce
feel myself back and back in time.
Sitting at the table
I look up and you are here at last
one more moment to let you read my journey in my eyes
read the love in my smile
read my victory as I thrive in the world you had forsaken.
We share the meal
a moment’s worry since it is your favorite
but for no reason.
Your nod tells me everything I need to know.
It is enough.
I look once more for a goodbye
and for once not a word is exchanged
big eyes fill with enormous tears
and at last the wound is healed
and at once
it is time to be free.
I stand from the table
Chicken Paprikash into the Tupperware
dishcloth triple folded on its little rack
dishes away and candles out
close the drawers and close the door.
But I still remember the proper method
how the paper folds first this way then that
how to give check mate in three moves
how to mix a proper pipe tobacco
how much sour cream to put in the mix
and I hope he’d be pleased
at how I live
and give my best
and that is all.
My dad and I had a prickly relationship at times too. And he could be demanding as hell, but like you, Ani, I knew he was proud of me. I treasured that.
As I went to school and learned that my father is not always right, and got to argue with him, he started regarding me as his enemy from that on. I used to have a great relationship with him I could talk everything over with him, but as I grew older and my horizon widened I can no longer talk to him intimately. It is very bad for us that he cannot tolerate others views. It caused problems in my identity too. I want to reconcile with him, but i don’t want to give up my own individulal either. On the other hand I can’t relate to those in society who had a balanced life. and in Hungary as you may know we don’t celebrate Father’s Day, but it is such a great thing to read your memos.
Thanks so much for your comment. I had to find a special balance with my father because the message was always that I could be big, as long as I was never as big or bigger than him. He passed away when I was relatively young so I will never know how our disaagreements would have played out in later years. I will say that sometimes, he could surprise me. Just when I thought he would shut me down in some way, he would say, “well, you’re a college lady now, you can choose your own friends.” He definitely had his moments.
Glad you stopped by!
My dad lectured me the same way as your father did you, but I think it was a bit his ambition for me to realize his own dreams. I would like to find a balance too, and I don’t want to be on bad terms with him before he passes away. I admire you that you could let him be the boss and could apologize for something that you hadn’t committed. I haven’t managed to do that so far. but i hope I will be so humble one day to do that.
Well, I apologized as a child. By the time I was a teenager, I stood my ground with him. It was the best thing I could have done because I won his respect. Humility is always a good thing, but sometimes one needs to draw a line in the sand — and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive!
Thanks for commenting…
no, it isn’t. I just need to learn to be an actor and stop being a reactor which is very hard.
Wow! I cried reading this. Very powerful and very poignant. What an amazing tribute to your father.
Wonderful. I’m sure he is looking down at you and VERY PROUD!
Joy Engine – the gift is in your artistry how you take bruises and boons and turn them into written words of silk which resonate for all us daughters and women. You have such a profound gift and even your papa himself couldn’t disagree with that!
Thank you for sharing this story with us, Anita. Your writing is beautiful as always. As others have said upthread, I am sure your father would be very proud of the amazing woman you have beome.
My father was definitely a perfectionist. Nothing I ever did was good enough for him. But as I grew up, I learned to pat myself on the back, so to speak, and say “well done” when I accomplished something.
My father passed away when I was in my late 30’s. At the time of his death, I had not seen him for 27 years. There was no reconciliation for us while he was here on earth, but I have come to peace with him now in my heart and mind. Not an easy process, but a necessary one, I think.
Happy Father’s Day to everyone.
Why do the typos show up only after I hit “post comment” ? 🙂
So good to see you here! While my father and I were always close, he made life at home painful, particularly for my mom and sister. It took a long time to make peace with his memory. Like you, I learned to be kind to myself, but I still have to remind myself at times to do it — a common ailment. It is good to find everything possible to celebrate, even with bittersweet memories.
Happy Father’s Day to all! 🙂
Ani -My father was dead and my mother’s brother, my Uncle Ray moved in to help my mother. This was a long time ago, in the 30’s and 40’s and looking back I’m reminded of how great he was. He was the first “feminist” in my life in a time before women strove for equality.
He encouraged me to be and do things that were interesting to me. So I learned a whole range of things boys get to know, like fixing cars and building and growing things. Later on with a home and children of my own, I repaired our house, did the plumbing and electrical work – we all shared the work and play – nothing was gender specific or enforced.
The greatest gift he gave me was teaching me by example and books that no male was superior to a female and that I was a human being, not property.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful story…I am also in favor of a unisex upbringing. This way we are encouraging children to follow their instinctive inclinations, not stereotypes.
Ani, I loved that you included your relationships with your father and mother in “Dirty Words on Clean Skin.” It really gave me a greater understanding of your view and response toward the increasing sexism and cruelty we began witnessing during 2008. I never thought I would witness our society going backwards in the attitude of women. I enjoyed your post and Happy Father’s Day. I dearly loved my Father.
Thanks, WLM. I loved mine very much, too. Despite his cruel moments. Of the many things he taught me, one of the more unfortunate were the methods by which and the reasons why a man would undercut a woman. I had no idea that information would later prove useful in my writing. It would be an understatement to say that it is a lesson I wish I had not learned, or at least, not learned from him.
He also taught me to take the measure of a person’s character and that humor could save me in the darkest moments. That proved very valuable, too!
you are richer now to have learn that lesson. when I feel down I always blame my upbringing for it, but when I am OK, I am greatful that I know more about this world, and I know that hardship is what makes you a better person. and the more you endure the stronger and successful you become. and even in my darkest moments it was my father who could encourage me, because he experienced the same and never failed.
Thanks, Katalin. My experiences also taught me the value of gratitude for a kindness, for a friend, for my forward progress. While I would not wish my childhood on anyone for a number of reasons, I was able to take the best of what I learned and grow from it. And now, hopefully, feed others with that knowledge.
yes, you do, and ensure others like you that they are not alone.
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In Praise of Difficult Dads | Anita Finlay | Author | Actor | Blogger | Speaker | Host
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