“Cast in this unlikely role
Ill-equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact” –Rush
Each time I try to write about my father, I pick up the post and leave it alone for a while. Perhaps that’s because my dad and I were pals for so many years. Perhaps it’s because the breakdown in our relationship was more gradual, where my mom lost my trust in a matter of hours, after one argument.
The dust of more recent wounds have served to hide my father from my view. So I imagine that I’m holding a rag (pronounced rayg in my ever-fading Minnesotan accent), and I begin to brush the dust away.
Beneath the layers of gray, I see the nickname I always used for him: Daddy. Nothing else quite fit, and words like “Pa” from the Little House books or “Papa” from Fiddler on the Roof, titles he liked to use for himself, never stuck for me. He was my daddy, and sometimes Dad, but I used “dad” less often in later years because I’d often slip and call him “God” in my head when I tried using “dad.”
I don’t know why I made that mistake so often, but I noticed my siblings doing it, too. Maybe that’s because he made himself God to us – saying we couldn’t go places just because he didn’t feel like allowing it, and never taking “no” for an answer.
More dust falls to the floor, and in the word “Daddy” I see a memory. The first time I remember him taking me to work, when he’d just become an English teacher at a public school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. I was probably four or five. Daddy introduced me to some other teachers as his third child, and I turned to him in private and said, “But I’m also the oldest. Your first real child.”
My mom had my two oldest sisters when she was fifteen and eighteen. My sisters have two different biological fathers, but my dad adopted them when he married my mom. Legally, we’re all my parents’ kids.
He scolded me harshly, saying that nobody should know that Alicia and Alissa weren’t his daughters by blood. He’d adopted them, and we must never speak of them as being anything but my sisters. I wouldn’t learn the term “half-sister” until I read it in a book at age ten. I always think back to that moment whenever someone asks, “So, did your parents have all those kids together?” For many years, I answered simply, “yes.” It wasn’t until after we were on TV, and the truth was general public knowledge, that I was allowed to explain with more accurate details.
After my scolding, I felt ashamed at my privilege as the oldest child of my parents’ marriage. I felt like crying, but I resisted – I wasn’t hurt physically, and I didn’t know that daddy’s biting voice could be categorized as “hurt.” I have carried that shame ever since, and it doubled up when Alicia’s rebellion made me hate her.
Almost every day, one of my parents would say something to the effect of, “You won’t be like Alicia. You’re a good daughter. You’re obedient and not rebellious.” My mom regretted that she’d made mistakes with my two older sisters. My mom shouldn’t have gotten pregnant out of wedlock, she told me.
I would turn out better than Alicia. I was different. When Alissa became a Muslim, I was told the same thing: they’d tried, but mom regretted her teenage mistakes.
Mixed with the determination to please my parents was the nagging memory of when I called myself my daddy’s first “real” child. After Alicia’s rebellion, and Alissa’s after it, I wondered if he’d been telling the truth. Were my older sisters really my equals, or did daddy just say that?
Part of me was relieved when my parents kicked me out for no reason. They’d proven that I was no better than my apparently disadvantaged sisters. I, too, could be made unwelcome in their home.
I keep brushing at the word “Daddy,” and more dust falls. I remember pulling up a blog post I wrote for the family website. It was totally rewritten, with more grammatical errors than it’d had when I saved the first draft for my dad to edit. It said something totally different than what I meant to say.
This didn’t bother me much. I just knew it would be the last thing I would let him edit. Besides, it was my fault for not being clearer. Sometimes he just didn’t understand my philosophical ideas. He hadn’t since I was in my early teens, and I eventually gave up on trying to explain what I saw in science fiction and the lyrics in my music. He read and listened to the same things, but it was a different experience for him.
Another memory: I was 19, and it was my first year of college. I started editing my paper in front of my assigned writing center tutor, and she called my editing style vicious and shocking. I chopped out whole paragraphs and rewrote them, remembering all their content and phrasing them better than before. If the whole sentence was bad, it needed to be completely rewritten. The concept of a “first draft” confused me – you do it right the first time or nobody can understand you.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I have no emotional connection to my own phraseology. That’s a good thing, because many writers struggle with being too devoted to their writing. It’s just unfortunate that I learned that lesson through such a harsh writing master.
He said I couldn’t write my series about Star Wars – he didn’t think I’d actually finish a series. I learned to write whole series ahead before showing them to him. He wrote things I didn’t mean to say, and I tried to protest, and he’d tell me it sounded better this way. He forced me to keep each post short – 400 to 500 words was the aim. Then he posted thousand-word posts of his own, true to form: he was always the exception to his own rules.
I will not be like my father, nor will I let myself crumble to his influence, still so strong with every email he sends, appealing to his own pain. Each message is laced with words that have lost all meaning because they only meant control for me: “I love you.” He even recently offered me money to take my posts down.
Daddy – one last memory is of his music. When he met my mother, he was a Catholic drummer with long dark hair. That was only apparent now and then, like when we got an old turntable and played Rush’s YYZ drum solo on the live album “Exit…Stage Left.” What I remember as a child was when we went camping, and he’d play his guitar. I knew the songs “Piano Man,” and “Jehovah Jireh” only from the way my dad sang them.
My dad got me into Rush, and I still love all the music my parents introduced to me. Life is too short to stop listening to music from the people you once loved, whether they’re your exes or your parents. Music is beautiful, and it should have wrinkles of the experiences that came with it.
The song “Limelight” by Rush is full of mixed feelings for me. My dad and I compared the lyrics together when we were first on TV: “Living in the limelight…”
I don’t think he understood the rest of the line. It goes, “…the universal dream for those who wish to seem.”
Dad wanted to be in the limelight, and he got it. I hope with everything in me to become the second kind of person listed in that song’s chorus – those who wish to be, not to seem.
I leave the word “Daddy” sitting in my memory, still covered in more dust that might be brushed away in another session. I will not seek out the spotlight so I can seem to be what I’m not.
I refuse to seem. I will be.