It’s my father’s birthday today, and just before I fell asleep last night, I started thinking about my childhood and the way my father interacted with me. I realized that he is most likely responsible for me never having a feeling of being ‘less than’ simply because I was a girl. It’s important because it translated directly into who I am as a woman.
The thing is, I took this for granted as a kid. I had no idea that some might feel there were things I couldn’t do, couldn’t handle, couldn’t attempt or succeed in because I was a girl. I had a glimpse into this mentality in elementary school, possibly in fourth or fifth grade, when we were in gym class – boys and girls – playing soccer. When one of the boys kicked the ball hard, and it flew mightily through the air, each of us excitedly anticipated where it might land or whether we could stop it with our head and push it further into the air toward a teammate.
Suddenly, our gym teacher shouted, “Be careful! Duck, girls, the ball is coming your way!” I remember being incredulous that he wasn’t encouraging us to advance on the ball, but yet he seemed to feel that only the boys were capable of handling this rough play. He continued this behavior any time we shared the field with the boys, whether it was kickball or soccer. He somehow saw us as less than, less capable and not up to snuff with the boys. I’m sure, given his mindset, he thought he was protecting us rather than encouraging us to go toe-to-toe and give the game our all.
My brother and I didn’t have a lot of household chores; I think my parents were both too much of perfectionists to settle for our efforts, but we did have yard work assigned to us. There was no distinction over whether a specific task was directed to my brother or me. We both learned to cut the lawn, push the dreaded lawn sweeper to capture the grass clippings, weed and trim around the shed and flower beds. One particular summer, our yard was overcome with dandelions and my father offered us a penny for each we upended. I don’t recall my brother’s outcome but I ambitiously acquired about three bucks that first week – what a bargain for my father, scoring the removal of at least 300 dandelions for a mere $3.
When we were old enough to drive, we were fortunate to be given cars, more than one actually over a few years. They weren’t new cars and often needed maintenance. Just like my brother, I learned to change a tire, change the oil, a bit about replacing spark plugs and belts, draining a radiator, and quite a bit about bodywork. I could sand, patch and paint a car part, even if I did so while holding sandpaper quite gingerly so I wouldn’t mess up my nail polish.
I was never particularly athletic, but my father often threw a ball around in the yard with us, or played croquet or frisbee. He loved badminton and was quite clever in keeping the birdie aloft while beating me soundly game after game. It’s not surprising that this was one game I learned to love and became skilled in playing.
He taught me how to throw a football, but I didn’t have much finesse in catching the ball. One evening, he threw it soundly, and I almost caught it fully when it winged my middle finger, pushing the top half back hard. I started to cry and my father came over and looked at it, insisting it was fine. He wanted to keep playing. I was mad, equally as insistent my finger was broken and I wasn’t about to keep playing. I stomped off in a huff, and I don’t think I ever played again. We never had the injury checked either. Years later I learned there was a healed fracture in the knuckle, not surprising given that my once straight finger now had a bit of a tilt to the right.
When I was in middle school, I got in a physical tussle with another girl. I don’t recall what the situation was that led to this, and it certainly wasn’t the type of behavior I participated in as a nerdy honor roll student. When our social studies teacher pulled the girl off of me, he had a look on his face I still can recall, as he said my name in disbelief, not quite able to register that I was engaged in a fistfight.
When I got home, my mother was horrified that, one, I was in a fight and, two, that I was a girl in a fight at school. She was not happy and said to just wait until my father got home and he heard about this. I waited upstairs in my room, dreading his arrival. I heard him come in the back door, listened to the rumble of voices as my mother relayed what had happened that day. When I came downstairs sometime later, my father was in our family room, and I slowly made my way over to him, bracing myself for what was to come.
With the smallest of voice, I said, “Hi.” He looked up from his book and said, “I heard you got in a fight today.” I shook my head in assent. “Well, did you win?” he asked. I told him I didn’t think so, and that was that. Not another word.
My father was a man of few words, and I know he thought actions spoke louder than words. I learned a lot simply by watching him along with the things he felt it was important to teach me.
The last fall of his life, he came with my mom to my house and took a look at the washer that giving me issues. I was in a tight spot financially at the time, with a sick husband and four growing kids. He told me to pick out a new washer and dryer and let my mom know how much they cost – it would be a gift from them. Of course, he didn’t phrase it that way. I think it was something like, “Get yourself new ones and tell your mother the cost.” The gift was implied. Typical.
But then he walked around the basement looking at wiring and some of the pipes around the hot water tank and furnace. Some of the handles associated with the pipes weren’t in the right position, and he wondered who the hell had been touching them. He adjusted them and showed me exactly how they should be. Told me to keep an eye on them. There was some other advice, most of which I can’t recall now. That would be his last visit to my house.
Not too long after, he had a seizure at his own home and was diagnosed within the day with a brain tumor. Five months later, he’d be gone.
I’ve often credited my mother with giving me the strength by example, for how I’ve overcome great challenges and being able to maintain a sense of humor as I did. She deserves that credit. She was a tough cookie throughout most of her life and still is pretty strong, even as she declines at 91.
My father, though, allowed me to believe that I was capable of anything. That I could fix broken things, take care of important stuff – my family, my home, my life, financial and legal matters, taxes and so much more – and that I was bright enough to figure things out, even when they seemed too complex to get a handle on.
This evening, on his birthday, I celebrated his memory with my mom. We raised a glass of Prosecco in his honor as we looked at one of our favorite pictures of my father. She told me she wrote on her calendar, “I love you, Fred,” today and had a little cry – and how much she misses him every day.
I do my best to honor him, to take care of my mom through her more challenging years, to take care of myself and my family, my home and my yard.
And while I’m still not much of a fan of yard work, I have come to love cutting the grass if only to embrace that incredible smell of a freshly mowed lawn. It takes me back to my childhood, and my father, in his cut-off jeans, often a bandana tied across his forehead to catch the sweat. He never wore a shirt when he cut the grass and maintained a reddish-brown tan all summer well into the fall as a result. That’s when I feel close to him, with grass clippings across my feet and sweat rolling down my face. I embrace the scent of the yard and somehow feel at peace.
Happy birthday, Daddy – I’ll always be grateful to have been your girl.