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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks. You are right, he does live on, but I wish I had him right here with me.
how are you NOT wearing glasses in that shot? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sans glasses.
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.
Beautiful post. I’m sorry you lost your dad when you (and he) were so young. It sounds like he saw you and loved you as you really are.
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.
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.
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.
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? 😉
Good for you – I would have been miserable in anything – puberty was just setting in and I just wanted to be a kid.
Sounds like you had an awesome dad. I am sure he’d accept as you are today.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I know this is a really old blog post, but I’ve been reading a lot of older posts from butch/trans/genderqueer/enby bloggers lately and this really struck a chord with me-a lot of your posts do.
One, I’m sorry for your loss. From experience, pain doesn’t fade as much as it changes and losses some of the sting, becomes more of an ache. The 18th anniversary of my dad’s death is coming up-he died of a brain aneurysm when I was 12. My mother was abusive/neglectful, sneaky when he was alive about how she went about those things. She ruled the house. He was a quiet, gentle man and I think he married someone a lot like his (abusive) mother. I don’t hold his inability to protect myself and my brother from her against him, I’m not sure he was truly aware or understood how abnormal some of her behavior was. I did for a long time before I realized that he stood to lose everything, including custody of us, if they divorced and that he was stuck even if he did realize.
Gender and sexuality weren’t things we discussed at home. My mother was pretty homophobic, but beyond that we rarely heard about any lgbt things outside of church.
I’m not sure I really seemed unusual, gender wise, as a kid. My mother was very anti-femininity (and possibly/probably had gender issues of her own) and I had to fight for long hair (frequently cut short as punishment) and dresses. I’m not sure I really WANTED those things for myself, I think it was mostly rebellion/trying to be feminine enough that I was socially acceptable. The other kids already pegged me as very weird. Introverted, always in a book, clumsy (dissociated, poor vision uncorrected until the end of elementary school), fearful/jumpy, moody, clothes didn’t fit (despite being upper middle class, we were both poorly dressed), unbathed (one shower a week rule) and I didn’t want to be more obviously different. I wanted to fit in. My dad also told me that school before college was difficult in part because there wouldn’t be a lot of kids who’d be like me. He told me I’d fit in fine after HS.
I know he would be supportive of me, especially after my mother died and he was allowed to have his own opinions. He might not have understood this non-binary thing beyond an academic level and we might have struggled some about me possibly changing my name, since my first name and its Welsh spelling had been his way of honoring his father’s family and one of a handful of things about which he had a choice. But I believe that he would have understood that I am unhappy, uncomfortable, in this body as it is. That my name makes me feel like a character in a play I’ve been forced into. That there is no essential difference between me as his daughter and me as his…well, whatever it is exactly that I am now.
I base this on two instances predominantly. One being him getting upset at dinner one night and insisting that people were people and should be judged by actions instead of color or age or anything else. The other being the letter he wrote me when I wanted to quit playing the flute, the general gist of which was that my happiness should drive my decisions, but that I should carefully consider what I wanted and the consequences of whatever choice I made. I like to, need to really, believe that he would have said the same thing about any of the steps I’m taking to align my presentation with how I feel. He didn’t box myself or my brother into gendered roles. He and my mother didn’t really have gendered duties. If anything was stated as “you’re ______, so you should _____” it was generally “you’re older” or “you’re smarter”, not “you’re a girl”. He told me that basic skills (sewing, cooking, changing a tire, building something simple, navigation, first aid) were survival skills, not male/female skills. He taught me to sew. He taught me to read. He taught me to strip wire, disassemble a mower, row a kayak, put my hair up in a ponytail, tie my shoes and button buttons. He didn’t tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. He told me to never use that as an excuse not to be a competent individual. So I believe he would have been behind me in the same quiet way he was when I was young and knew that he loved and wanted me.
Maybe you’ll read this and maybe you won’t. I’m probably just typing into a void, but these things have been rolling around my head for weeks now and this just kind of prompted me to write. If you read it, thank you.
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You’re not writing into a complete void. I still follow Jamie in the hope that they might pick up the blog again. I appreciated your thoughtful comment and can relate to much of it. It sounds like you had a wonderful father. Cherish the memories. I think he would be very supportive of your decisions.