In Praise of Difficult Dads

16 Jun 2013

My father used to say “You will master everything you take into your hand.”  A formidable but troubled man with a male-dominated world view and more wartime suffering than he could let go of, his words were praise indeed.  No matter how limited his imagination of what women could achieve, he believed in me.  It took many years for me take his declaration 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 curious about every detail of my schooling, and 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 wasn’t 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 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.  Then I remembered he had tried to train me to write with my right hand instead of my left.  That didn’t take either.

I can’t 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.  He 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.”

Growing up in New York City, that last bit of advice was useful, actually.

While he bristled at my outspokenness, I think Dad liked that I stood up for myself.  Perhaps it reassured him that I would be able to make my way in a world he knew to be 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 still 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.  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 father’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, I wrote this poem 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?

Days pass
years pass
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 moment with him
to be seen by the 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

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 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 love
and give my best

and that is all.




  1. maggie conner Says: July 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Thank you Anita for a lovely testament, I think it generally applies to many fathers of that generation. My Dad was a veteran of the Army Air Corps WWII..If he had his own set of memories, he never spoke of them. He always seemed very much in the Now and planning for the future, which may have been his way of keeping memories at bay. He was shot down, escaped the enemy and was rescued, only to fly many more missions, more than that, I will never know..

    I am grateful that you evoke such memories of the same happiness I felt when my father held my hand and we seemed to rush down the streets. I still remember the day we raced up the stairs of the Statue of Liberty.. That feeling of safety and security is something I still miss, my adult children miss him too.
    As long as Papa/Grandpa was around, you would always be safe, and rescued if necessary, even if the need to be rescued was self inflicted..

    When I think of that generation, the word ‘Honor’ always comes to mind. Thanks for the memories.

  2. Maggie,

    Thank you so much for your lovely comment, and for sharing something of your memories of your dad with me. I always feel awkward about sharing something personal because it is not that I think my past is all the fascinating, but hope that others will feel as you did and reminisce about their own precious moments.

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