Columns: Father’s Day

"A Little Fatherly Advice" by D.W. Winfield (1866)

“A Little Fatherly Advice” by D.W. Winfield (1866)

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
  –  William Shakespeare, King Lear (I,i)

It has been noted by long-time readers that while I mention my mother and sisters from time to time and my Maman (paternal grandmother) and favorite cousin “Jeff” quite frequently, I’ve barely mentioned my father at all.  Some may have concluded that he was largely absent from my life for one reason or another, but that would not be the case; it’s just that I honestly don’t have a lot to say about him.  But since today is Father’s Day in the US, UK and many other countries, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide you with a brief sketch.  Though I’ll speak of him in the past tense because it’s been 16 years since I’ve seen him, he and my mother are both still alive and still reside in the same house where I grew up.

If I were less objective, I would say my father was hard and standoffish, but that would not really be true; while he was traditionally paternal and often trapped in very rigid thought patterns, that was no more true of him than it was of other men of his generation and background.  He was in fact much warmer than his younger brother and several of his contemporary cousins, and though I never met his father (who died in 1960), Maman told me that he was very cold toward my father and uncle; he was an intellectual who married late, and other people I’ve talked to about him (such as my aunt) have said that they believe the only reason he got married in the first place was because that was what an established man was expected to do in the 1930s.  Given this upbringing, I’d say my father was actually a bit on the demonstrative side, though he sometimes had trouble showing it.

My father was always very devoted to my mother; I honestly feel that he’s always been very much in love with her, and since he was not a very verbal person he expressed it the same way he expressed affection to us or Maman:  by doing things.  He would cheerfully embark on major landscaping or construction projects, and never made me feel I was imposing if I asked him to help me with something; the only drawback was that he is the one from whom I inherited my hardheadedness, and if he was to be involved in a project it would be done his way or not at all.  I think these characteristics were what caused him to be less affectionate to me than to my first and third sisters; his rigidity prevented him from understanding my strangeness, his tendency to be non-verbal made it difficult for us to relate, and his devotion to my mother caused him to absorb a lot of her attitude toward me.

So though I never felt rejected by my father exactly, I never really felt accepted by him either; like my mother, he never quite seemed to know what to do with me.  The two preferred sisters were both tomboys who were much like my mother in personality, so that gave him a point of contact with them; my brother and other sister had an amiable if not especially close relationship with him.  When I was young we often watched shows together:  we both enjoyed The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and other nature documentaries, and he was a big Star Trek fan (I never heard him laugh so hard as he did at a rerun of “A Piece of the Action” in the late ‘70s).  Indeed, Star Trek was the subject of the first of only two intellectual discussions I can ever recall having with him, a 1988 conversation in which he stated that he felt the characters in The Next Generation lacked the appeal and chemistry of those in the original series.  We agreed about that, but six years later argued about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War after I referred to the facilities in which they were held as “concentration camps”.

But for the most part our interaction was limited to discipline, his telling me I wasn’t doing my chores quickly enough for his liking, my asking him for permission to do this or that (because he was more permissive than my mother), or his chastising me for upsetting my mother (which happened quite frequently in high school).  Other than that, he seemed more distant with every passing year, and I remember how very strange it felt to walk down the aisle with him at my wedding; we had been growing apart for so long that I didn’t really feel that I was his to give away any more (even in the modern social sense, much less the traditional patriarchal sense).  So it’s not remotely surprising he upheld my mother’s decision not to speak with me any longer, though I sometimes wonder if he actually knows the reason or just went along with it without question.

I fully realize that in publishing this I am opening the door for prohibitionists to proclaim that I became a whore due to “daddy issues”, thus proving that all of us are mentally unbalanced, blah blah blah.  I’m not worried about it; people like that will twist whatever they have to fit their model, and if they don’t have anything to twist they’ll just make stuff up.  Did my teenage promiscuity result from a lack of attention from my father?  Possibly, but what difference does it make?  We all have childhood troubles, traumas and tragedies, and we are all shaped by them; if we as a society are going to deny agency and free choice to individuals on that basis, absolutely nobody will have free choice.  Ultimately, the hidden currents and tendencies which pushed me toward harlotry are no more germane than those which push others into politics, medicine, science, music, teaching or being a professional busybody, and any given individual’s choices are nobody’s business but his or her own.

(This essay was previously published in The Honest Courtesan last Father’s Day; I have altered it slightly for Cliterati by adding some explanatory text and more links, including one in the last paragraph to a recent guest column by the wonderful Sarah Woolley which explores the theme of that sentence in greater depth.)

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