I’d Like to Talk to My Dad

My 6th grade graduation in 1970. I might have been happier in a jacket and tie, but pointy collars were in style.

My elementary school graduation in 1970. I might have been happier in a jacket and tie, but pointy collars were in style.

It was a simple question, an ice-breaker at a meeting. If you could invite anyone over for dinner, dead or alive, who would you choose? We were going around the circle, and I wished I was more imaginative. My immediate reaction was “I’d like to talk to my dad.”

I could have said Emma Goldman or Magnus Hirschfeld. John Lennon or Rosa Parks. Would Mahatma Gandhi be looking at his watch, wondering if he had to stay for coffee and dessert? Would Audre Lorde have to feign interest in my writing? Would she wonder why she was brought back for this when there were so many more interesting things she could be doing?

My dad would be tickled that I choose him. He was forty-three when he died; I was thirteen. I wish I could talk to him. I’ve got questions.

My dad accepted that I was an eccentric kid. He didn’t try to make me act like a girl. He used to give me his version of “It gets better.” It was a riff on how it was a big world, and once I got out on my own I would find other people like me to be friends with. I half-heartedly believed him. We never talked about my wanting to be a boy or about lesbians or transsexuals.

He tried, more than once, to tell my mother that I was not going through a phase, and that I was not going to out grow out of it. He told her it was counter productive to try to force me to change. My mother over ruled him. She was the authority on raising children. She expected me to marry a man and have kids. He did not stand up to her. I wanted him to protect me. He often failed. 

When I couldn’t contain myself, when I lost my temper, when I lashed out, he admonished me: “Watch your language and be respectful. She is still your mother.”

I didn’t know how to handle being picked on and bullied at school. I desperately needed to escape from my mother’s criticism and haranguing. I withdrew into my own fantasy world; it was the only place I could be a boy, the only place that was safe. I slipped away from him.

I have a lot of questions about what my childhood was like, but I don’t trust anyone except my dad. I can remember clearly what was going on inside my head, but my memories of being a girl in the real world are vague and scattered.

I’d like to ask him about the suit. He took my brother shopping for a Bar Mitzvah suit; I was ten years old, and tagged along. The salesman sized us up. He told my dad that Jon was probably a regular, but I was definitely a husky. My dad laughed, and explained that he was only looking for a suit for his eldest. He didn’t tell my mother. He didn’t say anything else about it.

I’d like to ask him if he could see what my mother was doing to me. Did he worry about the long-term effects? Did he think I was going to be a butch lesbian? Did he understand that I really wanted to be a boy? What did he think I was going to be like when I grew up? How far would his unconditional love go?

I try not to think about how my life might have turned out if he had lived. If he would have helped me make better choices. If I would have listened.

My dad died in his sleep. They told me it was an aneurysm. I woke up and he was gone. I’m left with my questions and an empty seat at my table.

Note: Public television and radio stations sometimes auction off dinners with a celebrity during fund drives. Here is a link to George Plimpton reading “Dinner at Elaine’s” on The Moth; his story of what happened after a listener donated all of his savings to have dinner with him.

20 thoughts on “I’d Like to Talk to My Dad

  1. krisalex333

    I remember those pointy shirts and body shirts that had press studs between your legs and when you had to use the toilet, you had to basically strip… Then there were platform shoes and bell bottom trousers… at least now I wear men’s clothes and don’t give a damn…

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I was always stealing my older brother’s clothes, and coveted some of my dad’s, but I did not want anything from my mother’s wardrobe. The early seventies were a fashion nightmare for a queer adolescent.

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  2. Lesboi

    I would answer that question the exact same way, Jamie. My father died suddenly when I was only 14 months old so I have no recollection of him at all. Yet, I miss him terribly and feel a deep connection to him. If I could spend a day with anyone it would always be him I chose. This was a nice homage to your father and I have little doubt that he would have supported you being who you are and loved you unconditionally.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      He would have been angry with me that I stopped speaking to my mother, and that I am not closer with my brother and his family. I try to have empathy for him, being caught between trying to protect me and trying not to get in the way of my mother – but I wish he could have made her stop the verbal abuse (she was abusive towards him as well).
      What he did give me was the sense that there were other people like me (whatever like me was) we just didn’t know any of them – and that I would find my place. This did turn out to be true. I don’t know if I would have made it without that belief.

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  3. sarashanmugham

    Your father is indeed a wonderful person. He is not gone away from you he is still lives in your heart. so do not worry a lot. if you are happy he will be also happy. This post is great.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      All of us are blind as bats without our glasses. My mother and I must have taken them off (for vanity) – I had nerdy rectangular tortoise shell glasses. I got aviators in seventh grade.

      The photo is black and white, but the groovy skirt and vest outfit I was wearing was bright red.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks. He definitely accepted all my eccentricities as a child (which were many), and I can only hope he would have continued to support me as an adolescent. My mother was so off the deep end (undiagnosed and untreated until very late in life) that if I did not have his love to balance her I would not have made it (I barely survived the rest of high school without killing her of myself and I connect my suppression of my grief with my suppression of my transness).

      It would be interesting to know how many of our parents “saw” us authentically, and how or if that affected our acceptance of our sexual and gender identities.

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  4. txbridgefarmer

    Why does it seem like the only family that truly understands or at least excepts us is usually taken away? For me it was my brother. He did stick up for me when he realized I wouldn’t change. I’m sorry you didn’t get to experience that from your father.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Having one person who “sees” you and supports you makes the difference between survival and being obliterated. I know my dad knew who I was, and loved me, but he was caught between supporting me and fighting my mother and grandmother.

      I don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine what is like to watch your child be abused and feel like you can not or should not intervene. So I’d really like to know what he was thinking, or why he was paralyzed.

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  5. Charlie

    For my graduation I wore Velcro pants. Only “girl” at graduation who did. The other girls why not a dress. I replied, who should I? 😉

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  6. Jamie Ray Post author

    I hope so, I had already aged out of being a tomboy, so he probably knew what was coming. I don’t think my parents had any gay or lesbian friends or even acquaintances (even in NYC, even in 1970) or if they did they never mentioned them.

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  7. RonaFraser

    I loved your post and am sorry for your loss… and I will try to think of it when I am wishing my dad would shut up and stop lecturing me on my finances 🙂 Re your mom, and my dad (who can be pretty negative, choosing to criticize me for everything to my face and yet be proud of me to others), although I think I would have been better off in some ways without the constant criticism (that now continues in my head without his help), I also appreciate some of the ways it has helped me. It taught me to rebel and be independent, and to hear the voice of authority without necessarily following any of its orders. There are probably other benefits, but today I am feeling a bit fragile (stupid me attracted to a stupid man who I thought was interested but probably not… bla bla bla… currently spending a lot of energy keeping my negative inner voices from taking over!)… so I don’t want to think too much about the negative things I’ve been told! Currently if I could invite anyone over to talk with, it would be the guy… because I had such a good time talking with him last week… but otherwise it might be my grandad. He died when I was just starting to become an individual, and I never really had a meaningful talk with him… never learned what made him tick. He was a really sweet guy, and strong. And I think he needed a hug… and he probably wasn’t getting them from his wife or cold daughter (my mom). And he was a good dancer. I would’ve liked to dance with him.
    As usual, thanks for making me think. Hope retirement is treating you well!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is strange because my relationship with my dad was frozen in a particular time and place – I was 13 and only had limited “adult” discussions with him. I don’t know how he felt about his marriage or his work or being a father (he also was a very good partner dancer).

      Retirement so far seems like a very extended long weekend, I’ve never gotten 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis (as and adult) and it is great to be rested. I’m going to have to get on a better routine in the fall, but right now I am enjoying a very lazy endless summer.

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  8. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    Another great post, JR. I’m not trying to be insensitive, playing “devils advocate” or being my normal smart ass self but my take on your writing (and I could be wrong) is that your father was in your life during your most formable years. He gave you unconditional love at your most vulnerable time so that you would know what that felt like. That kind of love is rare and worth missing. He may not have been perfect, humans seldom are, but I know he is proud of you for being your authentic self. Cheers.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You are right, he was the only adult around who “got me” and loved me more or less unconditionally. I did understand through him that I was lovable, but because he did not get my mother and grandmother to back down and lay off me, I believed somehow that I deserved the ridicule and harassment. I do forgive him, but I’d really like to find out from him what was going on.

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