I am 8 or 9, all lanky arms, knobby knees and budding breasts. It’s a rare occasion because my father is actually home, not working his late shift at the post office or decorating a stool at some local tavern. Enamored by his sheer presence, I recline my head on his shoulder while he zones out on the sofa watching TV.
My mother saunters by, surveying the situation. "That’s my husband," she says to me, pausing in the kitchen doorway, pointing at her chest for emphasis. Both Daddy and I gaze at her for a few seconds of shocked silence. As meaning descends upon my adolescent brain, I lunge up the thinly carpeted burnt orange staircase to my bedroom.
Early American Discord is the décor that permeates my childhood home, my room being no exception. It is a sad and lonely space with slanted walls pierced here and there by squirrels trying to claw their way through from the attic. It’s the same vantage point from which I listen midnight after midnight for the sound of my dad’s key in the front door. Once I hear him enter and double-lock the deadbolt, I know all is right with the world and sink into a deep sleep.
Advance half a decade later. I’m about 13, fully developed and fast. I’ve taken the bold step of inviting my boyfriend over, and we are relaxing on chaise loungers on our backyard patio. My dad’s been home a lot more often – not just due to retirement, but I suspect his being there also has something to do with the quaint corner neighborhood church he’s been visiting lately. I stare up at the lone window in the back of our brick house, wondering if he’s watching. Wondering if he cares now.
I long to be a Daddy’s Girl, one of those cherished princesses who say stuff like, "No guy could measure up to my father." Though Mommy works tirelessly to feed my Baskin-Robbins obsession and Daddy to keep a roof over our heads (squirrelly though it may be), I crave more. Especially since my mother openly confesses to complete strangers that my sister is her favorite and my dad – up until this pivotal day – plays the role of Equal Opportunity Ignorer.
It is the perfect chance to test my worth. Leaning over, I kiss my boyfriend. Within seconds, my father marches out the kitchen door and down the sidewalk towards us, his large hands swinging like weights attached to pendulum arms.
"You’d better leave," Daddy commands.
"Okay, Sir," the boy says, darting off.
"Who initiated the kiss?" Daddy asks.
I roll my eyes and mumble, "I don’t know."
More than two decades later, my 36-year-old self realizes that my pangs for a protective and caring father began to be satiated with that event, but it was like tossing a cracker crumb to a starving person.
It would take many years for me stop blaming my problems on my dad’s aloofness and appreciate him for the things he did right. These days, Daddy is an 84-year-old widower. Gone are his robust build and wavy lush hair. They’ve been replaced by a withering frame draped in flannel oxfords and a near-white horseshoe-shaped mane of unintentional dreadlocks surrounding a freckled scalp.
We greet each other nowadays with warm hugs and pecks on the cheek, knowing full well that his time to "go to glory," as he puts it, is nigh. My hunger has changed from a deep, gut-wrenching rumble to a niggling need for a snack now and then, fed when I travel home to visit him.
One recent trip filled me to overflowing when Daddy and I worshipped at that same little corner church together, where he’s now an elder. After service we waited in line to speak to the pastor and shake her hand.
"Thank you," I say, admiring the woman’s gang of thick black ringlets gathered away from her face.
"This is the one you prayed for," Daddy says to her, motioning at me. And there, beneath the arched altar and stained-glass windows, I had an epiphany. My father, the original International Man of Mystery, had cared enough about me to tell someone else. Worried enough about my misdirection in life that he sought help. He had thought of me on days when I no longer thought of him.
So maybe the fact that I left my wild-child days behind wasn’t just happenstance, but a result of my father’s petitions on my behalf. This thought dawned on me right there in the sanctuary. And finally, as a grown woman, I feel like a well-fed Daddy’s Girl.
This essay originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Akron Family magazine, and when I warily sent it to my dad wondering what his reaction would be, I was quite pleased that he was so proud he took it to church and showed his pastor.
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