I know a lot about my father. Not because he lay next to me and told me stories before I went to bed, or took long walks with me and imparted wisdom and told me how much he loved me. He didn't do those things. I know about him because I studied him -- learned to read his moods and their triggers ---the way he could unleash sharp words like wild dogs on smaller, weaker prey.
My father was happiest when he told stories about his past, about growing up in Brooklyn, about the Italians and Jews watching out for each other, about playing street ball, battling polio. And about how smart he was -- a member of Mensa -- and how not particularly smart he thought his parents were, and unkind, because they kept a tiny book listing all the money they had spent on him and asked him for it back later in his life. And I particularly remember how proud my mother seemed when he told these stories, proud that she was with a man who was smart and complicated in all the ways her immigrant family wasn't, in all the ways she wanted to be.
Our life was far from ordinary but hardly extraordinary. There were few routines and fewer rules and it became clear to me from an early age that my father was the center of our universe. He was brilliant, funny, and mercurial. He abhorred 9-to-5 jobs and so he made his own way for many years as an independent film distributor who dabbled in race horses and supplemented his income by going to the racetrack, often with my siblings and me in tow. When we got home we smelled like cigars and cheap perfume, but we never complained because we got to eat crab cakes in the racetrack clubhouse with friends, and get dressed up, which my mother liked to do. She was beautiful, and elegant, especially when she wore the tiger-eye and pearl necklace that hung just so at her bosom where I lay my head when she let me.
Sometimes I worked in my father's office licking stamps. When I was seven or eight, I broke the new Xerox machine making copies for him, and he banished me from ever coming there again. "Jesus, can't she do anything right? Get her out of here," he said to my mother. I think of it to this day, flinch actually, whenever I use someone's copier.
A few years later he sold the distribution company. He never really had another regular job again, though he spoke frequently about how he was going to be famous, and the big deal he was about to make. For a while he was an all-night radio talk show host. There was a constant stream of people in and out of our home, which doubled as his place of business. We had pound cake and chocolate babka in the freezer "just in case," and I'd often head down to breakfast in my pj's and find perfect strangers in our tiny dining room, eating it.
My favorite place to seek solace was my maternal grandparents' home in Flushing, N.Y. -- especially with my grandfather Isaac. He loved me with all his heart. I know because he told me so. When I ran to him he opened his arms wide and smiled like I was the only person in the room, even when I wasn't. Each morning he slid his index finger down the front of my nose saying he needed to collect a few of my freckles to sweeten his cereal. Each evening he said goodnight to me using my Hebrew name, and wishing me good dreams.
In between, he listened to me babble on, laughed at my knock-knock jokes, and gave me the paper rings from his cigars which I wore on my fingers and put under my bed for safe keeping at night. Sometimes my grandfather would take my brother and me to the drugstore for a present. We always walked -- even if it was far and even if it was cold. When we got to the store, we'd ponder the plastic cameras, the comic books, and the Bazooka bubble gum, while he waited patiently, thumbing through the comics. Then when we'd made our selection, we'd head back home with our treat, and he'd hold my hand the whole way. His hands were strong and broad, and could build anything. Fix anything. When he had a stroke, they withered from lack of use. He died when I was 17. After his funeral, at my grandmother's, I woke screaming, certain I had seen his face hovering over mine, calling out to me in the dark. And I wondered: Who would love me now? Who would be here for me with open arms that kept me safe?
At home it wasn't unusual for me to begin speaking only to have my father begin a conversation directly over mine, as if he had turned the volume down on the television and couldn't -- didn't want to -- hear me. How dull I must be, I thought. So I made it a priority to be more interesting. Studied the newspaper and evening news for stories to chat about, eavesdropped whenever and wherever I could in the hopes I'd pick up some tidbit to pass along. But really, I was happiest curling up and watching I Love Lucy and figuring out how to make oatmeal raisin cookies that didn't overspread in the oven. And writing, always writing in tiny journals that I shared with not a soul.
Before I met my husband, I met my almost-husband, a man whose love of being center stage is what attracted me. He was someone I knew already, and knew how to behave around. I drew from my life experience, from watching my mother with my father, to play the role of his soon-to-be wife. I didn't then realize, of course, that he was a reincarnation of my own father, nor that I was drawn to him partly because of the unconscious hope that if he loved me, then surely my father loved me too.
When the relationship ended, I was left to face the truth -- to see how I wished him and our relationship to be one way when it was clearly another. That I barely knew myself, much less understood what I needed in a partner. My instincts to find the right partner had been formed, and damaged, because my male role model had been a man whose world revolved around himself. He was conditioned by his family from an early age to be disconnected from feelings -- not willing to make emotional sacrifices, without expecting something in return.
My father's impact on me was profound, but in ways I've only recently come to understand. This is partly because the world around me won't let me forget, serving as a constant reminder of the relationship I didn't have. From fathers and daughters portrayed by actors, to real-life fathers and daughters walking hand-in-hand, to President-Elect Obama, who on the night he won the election proclaimed his love for his daughters in front of the world. The day after, on my way to work, an old John Mayer tune came on the radio -- I can't get it out of my head:
"Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers, be good to your daughters too."
It's not just about how a father's involvement in his daughter's life impacts his own relationship with his daughter, but perhaps, even more importantly, how it affects her future relationships. What she expects from men, the lessons she learns about boundaries, about love, loyalty, self-respect, and how to be a good parent.
Now, 14 years after the death of my father, I am speaking up about how I loved a man -- the first man in my life -- and how my uncertainty about whether or not he returned that love affected me. I finally understand the lesson so many women need to learn: The validation we seek from our fathers sometimes has to come from within ourselves. It's not about us being unlovable, it's about their not knowing how to express their love. Our fathers, like us, are products of (and sometimes victims) of their upbringing. That's a hard truth to recognize, and accept. For me, it's a work in progress. But I'm getting there.
Fathers be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do.
Follow Melissa T. Shultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MelissaTShultz