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.