Can you be a Daddy’s Girl by default? No one ever called me a daddy’s girl. I was not best friends with my mom either. Afterthought at best, and more accurately, an accident, that is what I was to my parents who in their 40s had an unplanned and unwanted fifth child. Me. A daughter after four sons and a nine year gap after the last son.
Rather obviously I would say, “No, I wasn’t that close to my mom but I didn’t default to Daddy’s girl.” And that is why I thought for the longest time that I wasn’t close to, or much like, my Dad.
Half my life ago, when I was in my late twenties my dad died. He had an inoperable brain tumor of the type that farmers who used insecticides in the 1950s often developed. He also had lung cancer from chain-smoking cigarettes. He was 71. Born in 1915, he grew up expecting to do great things beyond the little farming community not so far from the lake that still bears our family name. The Great Depression hit before he became an adult. Still he tried for far more than what the family tradition said he would be, a farmer, and maybe a minister. He ended up being a farmer, but not for lack of trying to be something else.
He first saw the big bad world on excursions from the very rural countryside of Indiana to Chicago to deliver bootleg liquor as a kid runner. He was the equivalent of today’s kid on the corner selling crack I suppose. His stories of his youth were riveting for a little kid like me to hear. My favorite was the time he told the city people with guns in the big black car where the old abandoned farmstead they were hunting for was. They stopped and asked him about finding the over-grown lane as he was walking along an old gravel country road. He found out at supper that John Dillinger robbed the Warsaw Bank earlier in the day. Or the stories of how his route for delivery of bootleg liquor included a stop for Billie Sunday whenever he was at Winona Lake. They were great stories and these were the tame ones.
He told me about the original land of the area, swamps that once existed on the spots where there were now housing developments, and how when he was a kid you could go there and hear the ghostly cries of unwanted newborns given to the murky depths, because for a hundred years of our local history, that is where girls who were in pregnant got rid of their unwanted babies. I didn’t doubt him. No one digs around in swamps. A lake might give up its secrets, but not a swamp.
Smart and a bit rebellious, he wanted to attend college and study history, but that was impossible. My grandfather had lost several of the farms he owned and worked and there was no way any money would be put into college. Dad wanted to pitch in the Big Leagues, but threw out his elbow too many times on his way to the Minors. He tried boxing, but he had a glass jaw.
As I age, I find that I know more and more of who he was because I find myself looking out at the world through eyes that see things very much like he did. None of my brothers had any interest in attending college. At least one of them turned down an athletic scholarship. I always just knew I would attend some sort of college. He was and I am analytical, look to cultural for behavioral clues, believe that patriotism is participation, love the complexity of living systems.
- Dad loved ancient history, I became an anthropologist.
- Dad lobbied in DC with his Farmer’s Union colleagues; I went to DC many times to work with CodePink, and other groups for peace, equality, and justice.
- He was a story-teller; I am a writer.
- He was a sad and angry man; I suffer from depression.
- He volunteered as a fireman and was active with the conservation board; I have had many public service volunteer roles.
I realize now, almost 30 years after his death, that I am more like my father than any of my siblings are or were. I so wish I had been able to know him after I came to know who I really am. My daughter was born 5 years after his passing. He never knew that I married a professor. He never knew that I “took in” every word he ever said in my presence even though we never “talked.” His retelling of Leviticus as dietary ecology for the North African desert, his talking about the books of the Bible, his discussions about how there is a need for hedgerows and crop rotation, and his tales of community reaction to the plagues of influenza when he was a kid; these all informed my view of the world more than he could ever know. But maybe he knew a bit of our similarity. He talked because he knew I listened.
My father gave me so much of the information from which I built my world view. I miss him. But have more than memories. I now know he tried to instill the best of himself in me through the sharing of his stories, perspectives, and dreams. I think he succeeded.
Note: I go into much more detail about the complexities of growing up in a family riddled with mis- and lack of communication in the book I am writing about medical child abuse. In this post I have patched, abbreviated, and pieced together bits from a chapter about my dad. It may not hold together completely, but it has a sampling of the essence of my relationship and feelings about Dad.