Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
The Stronger One
It used to be that her father was the most important fact about a girl like me. All to follow in her life would grow from that root cause—the world according to fathers. Such would not be the case with my life, I resolved, and so I made you small in the stories I told of it. In them you are a secondary character, minor to others’ major status. I didn’t decide to relegate you to a supporting role, little better than a butler who holds the door for a gaudy entrance by the star. I didn’t sit at my desk on the third floor looking out over the treetops and say, Goodbye, Daddy. Yet it happened. You pop up in character roles, but the story is never about you, never an engagement with you. You aren’t entirely absent; I didn’t delete you. But our relationship is a stripped thing, glanced at on the way to the main event. I had to do it that way, really. If I hadn’t pushed you into a corner, you would have gobbled up the scenery like a tacky actor. Had I allowed you a prominent role, my attention would have been derailed from the essential topic, my titanic struggles with Mother. She and my half-sisters, the woman-center of the household, were my flood subject, the waters breaking and the bloody show,
blending in a single tide.
Around Which We Pivoted
It was tempting to imagine a dramatic and symbolically rich death for you, but alas, you were not a soldier or a diplomat serving the country on long absences from home. No train you rode derailed and plunged off a bridge. Truth requires I admit that you were a daily, predictable presence in our lives. And yet because of the arrangement of your marriage and family life, you remained outside the core, never quite welcomed in. You may have paid for the house, but it wasn’t yours.
We daughters attended to our mother intensely, as the floodlit center around which we pivoted. We suffered you—that’s the script I followed, taking my cue from those older and wiser than I. Of course, I wasn’t entirely welcomed into the mother-sisters unit either. You and I were Aldriches, and they were not.
Our shared blood and outside orbit might have been a consoling bond between us, but it was not. I reminded you of your own status in Mother’s affections. Neither you nor I was what she wanted, a deficiency neither of us cared to admit we shared. You saw, or could have seen, in her ill-disguised disdain for me, her distaste for you. And I didn’t want to see my fate in yours—as someone Mother suffered. There were many strategies through which we could keep the truth of our fate at bay.
Visitor at the Gates
Each of the daughters had her own bedroom, and privacy was more valuable than communal closeness. We had places we could retreat to, where we became acquainted with ourselves; only you and Mother shared a room, though you did not share a bed.
Your money was hers, so you said, though she had to ask permission to spend it and had to demonstrate grateful feelings in return. Prosperity shaped our lives. Mother made the daily decisions about the house and children, and it isn’t surprising that in a household of girls she should be the center of our world, or that you should be peripheral, a visitor knocking at the gates.
Mother admitted you entrance and endured your presence because it was what women did to support themselves. She did not have a job in the conventional sense, outside the home. You were her job, and she had to manage you, as if a difficult client. Did she bear you affection or love? Maybe; I’m not sure. It was impossible to disentangle her dependence upon you from her natural feelings. She was grateful, I can say that. I struggled with my feelings as well, for it was through your financial generosity that many things I valued came to me. Because of you I have been well educated. But I’ve felt more gratitude than love for you, since you never let me forget I was in your debt.
D. K. A.
At summer camp in the Poconos I received a few communications from you—business cards filled out by your secretary and signed with your initials, D.K.A. Shortened by removal of the middle initial, this became my name for you, D.A. Formal, unloving, it denoted a larval version of the relationship of father to child often called Daddy.
We had two telephones in the house. The first, a beige wall phone, hung near the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room. The second phone resided in the upstairs hallway on a white table next to a little matching chair with a seat cover embroidered with birds in flight. Four bedrooms and a bathroom opened out onto the hall.
You normally spoke on the phone in the kitchen. Your conversations were of the shortest duration and usually related to business. But on the Fourth of July, when I was six years old, the phone rang in the middle of the night, or so it seemed, for I had long been asleep in my bed. The ringing shattered the silence of the house, and you stumbled out of bed and flung open the door with a force I feared would wrench it from its hinges. Then your voice was low and troubling, the call longer than your usual curt transactions. Finally you said, “Thank you for calling,” and you hung up. I got out of bed and came into the hall, where you were slumped in the embroidered chair, hand still resting on the phone’s mouthpiece. Something terrible had happened, and you were shaken. We were joined by Mother, who turned on the hall light, and my sisters appeared. We stood in our nightclothes, hair disheveled, and looked at you, ungirded by your robe or slippers. It was the first time we had formed an arc around you in the middle of the night.
It was your only uncle who had died, and now you would shoulder the burden of my grandmother alone. (In your third year of college, your father died. You dropped out, found work, and began to support your mother. Your uncle had helped.) I saw how death shook you. It was my first death, and from then on, for me, that news came in the night and carried you with it. Its razor ring shears sleep, severing lives into before and after.
The Great Waiting Room
You arrived home at five most evenings and expected dinner at six. You sat in the living room in a worn armchair reading the newspaper till the food was ready, at which time you were called to the table. You were a steady presence in the chair in the living room, more steady than the sun sinking in the sky outside the big windows.
You waited for Mother to get our dinner ready. You often waited for Mother—waited for her to come to bed, waited for her to be ready to leave for a party, waited for her to be ready to leave the party. Perhaps you waited for her to die. Waiting on Mother, that’s how I remember you exasperated, impatient, wanting to get on with it, whatever it was. Not for a moment of your many decades did you forget about time. You were wound too tight. In your working life, your days were meted out in appointments, meetings, deadlines. There were places you had to be, someone who expected you, unwelcome consequences if you were delayed. You had to know time and account for its disappearance.
Mother, on the other hand, had a lifelong history of lateness. She never knew where she drifted on the softer eddies of time, what hour of the day others might want to adjust themselves to. She went about her business—drying dishes, applying lipstick, looking for a lost earring—luxuriantly. At the end of one summer camp in the Poconos, I waited hours after the arranged pickup time for her to arrive. The counselors and I sat under a shade tree, my sleeping bag and gear thrown against the trunk, until Mother’s station wagon made its stately way along the gravel road, dust in its wake.
I suffered mother’s lateness with you. With you I held the horn of a succession of automobiles, checked clocks and watches, jingled coins in pockets and stood red-faced. Our world was a great waiting room into which she would eventually float. On either end of an engagement, she created a crisis. She was late to arrive and late to leave. Getting her out the door was nearly impossible—a thousand times you stopped her midsentence, eased your arm across her chest like a lifeguard, and maneuvered her toward a destination.
I am punctual, and grow incensed when I must attend those who tarry. Mother gave me birth, but you set my clock. In the eternal war with time, you are my captain.
Like a Son to Me
You rose early, left the house to have breakfast with your friends and associates, and returned home at dinnertime. As a life insurance salesman you often made house calls at night. I have little memory of your presence in the evening when I was young. As you became more successful and the business changed, house calls became a thing of the past, and you were at home, reading or watching television with Mother. On weekends you played golf with friends, attended church, and visited your mother. You led a remarkably independent life—plotting your schedule of activities as you chose, touching down for dinner and other duties you performed with your wife. You weren’t woven into the fabric of our days. You didn’t enter my bedroom to speak with me. I didn’t seek you out for advice or ask a question about math. You were not my counselor.
Mother never voiced a longing to see more of you or complained that you weren’t around. No, just the opposite: she was glad you departed early in the morning and left her to her own devices. And so was I. When you returned, we felt oppressed; heaviness hung at the center of the house, clogging the main arteries to Mother.
You made but brief appearances in my stories of growing up. You stood on the clubhouse veranda in a blue seersucker suit after the conclusion of your workday, watching with chagrin my commotion in the pool below, splashing in a stroke of my own design. You were there to pick me up on your way home from work, and you got a glimpse of my ineptitude. I hurt your sense of what a swimmer should be, for it was you who harbored the desire that I be a competitor and follow in your footsteps. You pushed me into sports as fathers direct their sons, projecting their own wishes onto the boy and living vicariously through him.
It was you who, returning one Sunday night after a weekend trip, learned that my leg was swollen from a bicycle accident on Friday. I had ridden recklessly down a hill and run into a tree. You took me to the hospital for X-rays. I had broken my leg, and Mother declined to notice. Daughters were not supposed to ride a bike recklessly or fall from trees or require medical attention. Mother cared nothing about my swimming or any other athletic endeavor. She cared about how I looked; that was what females should properly be concerned with.
You weren’t interested in who I was or what I felt, whether I felt loved or whether I suffered, but it was you who was interested in my advancement. You cared where I placed in the swim meet and the horse show. You were interested in what grades I earned, my class rank, what programs or schools admitted me. You didn’t care nearly as much about my sisters’ progress. You assumed they would find husbands at college, marry, and become stay-at-home mothers in the pattern set out by Mother. And they did. For my sisters college was a finishing school, a place to meet good mates and train for the place in the social world that awaited them. These attitudes didn’t hold with me. Times were changing and assumptions about a girl’s development were breaking down. You treated me like a son you were grooming to assume responsibility for his own life.
In teaching me tennis you used the drop shot strategically. Once I had progressed beyond the airy returns of a beginner, I liked to hit hard, flat strokes, loathe to leave the baseline, where I felt good on my feet, secure. Out of nowhere you’d hit a dink that just crossed the net and plummeted to earth like a dead bird. If I hurled myself at the net, I still could not get my racket on the ball with its fading bounce. A tennis naïf, uncertain of my footing except in the safe zone far from the net, I never saw it coming. The court is more than the baseline, you would say. Learn about the space at the front of the court. You would not coddle, hit soft balls to my feet, you said.
I found it mean-spirited. You were a skilled man playing against an unskilled girl. Did you need cheap shots to win? And was winning so very important? You and your drop shot were trickery.
Eventually I learned about touch and soft hands and how to let go just when you want to squeeze hard. You taught me the harsh lesson, pulling me to the net like a puppet and then lobbing a volley over my head. But I became cunning in my own way.
I shared Mother’s dependency, but my response was contrary. I vowed to depend on no one for my financial well-being. The cost was too high—a debt one could never repay a ledger one could never clear. Or so it seemed if I judged according to the example of our family. Mother’s leisure held no appeal. Not for a minute did I aspire to be taken care of. I wanted a job and money of my own. You were my model, not Mother, though that fact was hidden from me for a long time.
I worked hard not to see how much I was like you. I didn’t want to be reminded that I was the product of a second marriage and didn’t share the same father, the same genetic makeup with my sisters. I wanted to belong with them, not you, and yet it was you I took after.
You and Mother didn’t like to look closely at things; a passing glance was the family way. Erasure and denial were your modus operandi. You constructed your own realities, your own stories of family events and dynamics to suit your own needs, and to my eye they were fictions. Unpleasant fights, harsh scarring words—these were blotted from the family ledger, and a new account would be written over the one I fervently believed. That rewritten version would then take its place as the family edition, and what actually happened was banished. But I didn’t accept these omissions. Someone had to counter all that fiction-making with another story.
An example, a story to revisit, one written and crossed out, deleted and restored: When I was in college I accompanied you on a spring vacation at a tennis colony on the Florida coast. In my version of the story, I would include your history of losing your temper when things did not go your way. You broke tennis rackets and golf clubs—breaking something was a routine response to frustration.
We were playing singles at the busy complex, and all the courts were full. You weren’t satisfied with your level of play. You weren’t happy that I was beating you. You swore at me and smashed your racket on the court. I was embarrassed by the spectacle you were making in this public place. Players on nearby courts were watching us. I told you that I was done and going back to our cottage.
“You can’t do that,” you said. “You can’t walk off the courts until I say you can.” (In your version of the story, you would explain what I did that was so infuriating. But you never told it, and I don’t know what I did.)
With you I had studied serve and volley in the game of anger, so I left the court and hurried down the lane to our cottage. You huffed and puffed behind me, angrier and angrier. By the time we reached our cottage, where Mother was reading on the porch, you had lost control. I ran inside and you followed and you grabbed my neck with your hands. Mother had to pry your hands loose from my neck. You broke your watch in the scuffle. A lamp was knocked over and a shower curtain pulled from its rod.
The fight occurred midweek in our vacation. We did not pack our bags and go home. We stuck it out. That night we went to a French restaurant that had been recommended to you. I was too heartsick to eat, and yet I came along. I didn’t want to go. Why were my refusals so ineffectual? You ate well, as if nothing of import had happened earlier—as if your hands now holding a fork were not the same hands that had squeezed my neck. We were parents and daughter, a happy threesome, on a Florida vacation, having dinner at an elegant restaurant. For all the feeling you showed about me, I might have been a cardboard daughter propped up at the table with the fancy linen tablecloth. In subsequent years, whenever the trip was recalled, you would marvel over the delicious meal, saying, Marcia, do you remember that quaint French restaurant we ate at? You had erased the events of the afternoon, erased the profound unhappiness of our family life, erased your problems with anger. No, that is not what I remember. I thought I was losing my mind, and that no one would ever confirm or believe what actually happened inside my family.
Now I ponder your rage. Why all that anger directed toward me, unleashed upon me? When I was young, I simply didn’t understand it. I was baffled by your ill treatment of me, your only offspring. I did not understand that my resemblance to you, my role as bearer of dreams and ally in sufferance, made me the target of your wrath, frustration, even self-loathing. It was as if you were smashing your self-image that you found in me.
What’s in a Name?
Given your pride in our family name—you owned a three-volume history of the Aldriches—you might have been pleased that I chose to keep my maiden name when I married in my mid twenties. It was mine, given to me at birth, the name I had scrawled at the top of my papers and poems for years, the name I had answered to when called all my life. My husband’s last name was Finnish and over-voweled and didn’t speak to me. I disliked the look and sound of it when combined with Marcia. I had come too far, gone far too long with the sound of Marcia Aldrich to give the name up just because I was getting married. It was a mistake I had made before.
I was your only birth child, the only child to carry your name, and I reasoned that you would be happy with my decision to continue the name, keep the family Aldrich alive. But you weren’t. The rule of power and custom far exceeded your pride in your own name and your respect for my proclaimed wishes. You refused to acknowledge that I had not taken my husband’s name. From the day of our wedding, all correspondence, gifts, checks for children’s birthday and Christmas gifts were addressed to a woman who did not exist. It was an opportunity for you to claim me as yours in a different way. I sent back correspondence addressed to that woman, with the name crossed out and Marcia Aldrich written over it. On one occasion I penned words in bold, saying, No such person lives here.
I was shrill, frantic perhaps, to get you to call me by my name, the name you had given me. I might have let the matter go, turned it into a light, humorous anecdote about the unfinished progress of woman’s liberation, but your refusal to acknowledge my wishes irked me and was a wedge between us. Given the opportunity to support your adult daughter’s strongly argued wishes, you chose to refuse me.
Timed to the Minute
For the bulk of our lives we spoke infrequently on the phone, and on those occasions the exchange was brief. As a grown woman, if I called and you happened to answer, you’d say, “Your mother will fill me in” or “I assume you are all right.” I’d say, “Yes, I’m fine." Then you’d grunt, “Good.” And there would be an implied good-bye. Gruff and businesslike, that was your manner. It was Mother to whom I spoke. In the years of her decline, during Mother’s dementia, she was incapable of talking on the phone, and you were forced to answer my calls. You began to move to the center of the frame. Sometimes you even called me when despair and frustration overtook you. These calls came in the afternoon when Mother was napping and you thought it safe to have a conversation about her. You seldom left her alone. You were trapped together in the condo. You preferred to suffer the claustrophobia of confinement rather than admit that Mother was suffering from dementia. But there were days when she said things that hurt you. On these days you called. You wanted me to listen to you this is what you always wanted from me—to listen. If I suggested a remedy or intervention, you became irritated and closed out the call. Click. You were gone.
What’s in a Name? (II)
In Mother’s obituary, written by you, I was listed as Mrs. Marcia Respectable Woman Who Bears Her Husband’s Last Name, although you misspelled his last name, confused by all those vowels. How ironic, I bitterly seethed, you can’t even spell the name you are so intent upon giving me.
I began my campaign with you anew. I thought that without Mother’s influence reinforcing the conventional approach, you could be brought around to my family name—your name. Periodically, when I received a card addressed to Marcia Aldrich, I believed I had succeeded and that Mother had been the real obstacle all along. But then, a card would come addressed to Marcia Respectable Woman Who Bears Her Husband’s Last Name, and I wondered what had caused the relapse, whether the effort to honor my wishes, even in something so easy and fundamental, was too much for you to sustain.
After her death, you took to phoning me regularly. After her death, you were ready to turn to me, and you called every Saturday morning at 8:30. I resented these calls. You never inquired when a good time to call was, when might suit my schedule. You had long been retired and it never occurred to you that 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, the beginning of my weekend, was not an opportune time to call, that I might wish to sleep later or lounge about doing whatever I pleased, drinking my coffee, drifting free on the eddies of time. But it had never occurred to you to consider me in the equation at all. You kept busy in old age, and calling me was part of your Saturday schedule. Eight-thirty suited you. It filled in the dead space between breakfast and your Saturday errands.
I felt tempted not to answer, but you picked your time well. At 8:30 in the morning it was hard not to answer your calls. I could not find excuses. Where would I be at that hour other than at home? If I didn’t answer, you would call again and again, and the rings would fill the house with their insistent need. Your relentlessness always wore me down. At last I’d answer, and you’d angrily demand to know why I hadn’t answered earlier, and I’d make up an excuse, pathetic as that of a six-year-old. It was easier just to answer the call at 8:30.
I was caught between my anger toward you and my sense of duty, and I never was able to manage a compromise between the two or a happy solution. Which was worse—to feel guilty about refusing you, my father, or to feel trampled by you?
The High Pitch of the Female Voice
You called, but you had no interest in me. If I spoke of my life, you couldn’t hear the words. Hard of hearing for much of your life, you had perfected a technique of tuning out the females around you. In old age you claimed the high pitch of the female voice was difficult to pick up. You didn’t wear hearing aids while talking on the phone with me. I’m not sure why. I suspected that because you had no real interest in hearing what I said, you didn’t attempt to get your hearing aids to work on the phone. Whether you couldn’t hear or weren’t inclined to listen, the result was the same: your phone calls were delivered monologues, usually accounts of your health. You never tired of updating me on how you felt, the latest test results, your doctor’s appointments. After all, what you wanted to hear was the sound of your own voice. By the end of a call, I wanted to break something, to smash the phone against the wall.
What’s in a Name? (III)
When you died and we began to manage the considerable paperwork of your estate, I discovered that “herein” and “hereafter” I was referred to as Marcia Respectable Woman Who Bears Her Husband’s Last Name and that you never did get the spelling of his name right. The ironies piled up. First, you insisted on imposing a name upon me that belonged to my husband, who himself had never penetrated your consciousness in all the years of our marriage. You knew next to nothing about him, spoke the scantest words to him when by chance he answered the phone, and still you imposed his name upon my own. Yet you got the spelling wrong wrong on all the careful documentation you carefully assembled before your death. It’s only fitting that troubles arose over your estate because you insisted on wrongly naming me. I had no legal status as Marcia Respectable Woman Who Bears Her Husband’s Last Name, no driver’s license, no checking account. I could get no forms notarized or processed as in that persona. Every form had to be altered with the added words “also known as Marcia Aldrich.”
After a week’s vacation in Florida with my sister and her husband, the three of you drove the last leg back to their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You didn’t tarry to share a few recollections of the week’s events, but stepped into your car and drove the seventy miles to Allentown, not an arduous drive normally, but perhaps taxing as the capstone to a full day of travel. You stopped at the grocery store to purchase a few essentials—not much, for you never bought more than you could carry in one bag. You pulled into the long sweeping drive of Luther Crest, the retirement community where you lived after Mother died, and parked in your spot near the entrance. With your groceries and luggage in tow, you took the elevator to the third floor, turned right toward the long corridor to your apartment. You walked with difficulty, a shuffling step, past one closed door after another, each with a number and name in small print in a brass frame above the doorbell. Outside each door was a ledge with displays, vases of plastic flowers, snow globes covered in dust, animal figurines with big eyes. You always liked dogs, were affectionate with our English cocker, Irene. I wonder if you glanced at the dogs with momentous eyes and realized they were trying to speak to you, a story you ought to hear.
Inside your apartment, you called my sister, said you had arrived home and were okay. You exchanged a few pleasantries with her about the trip. You unpacked your light travel kit, put your wallet and watch in the top dresser drawer, where I found them later, read your mail, made a snack, called Pat, the woman you took up with after Mother died, whom we hadn’t met because you thought she might affront our memory (no, we were glad for you, Daddy!), and made plans to see her the next day.
Shortly after nine you had a heart attack. The nitroglycerin spray you carried did nothing to help you breathe. The attack continued, for it was your time. You called the first responder, who quickly called the paramedics. But you were punctual in death as in life.
Several hours later, our phone rang. My husband answered and handed over the phone, saying, “Your sister.” I knew what important news she had to tell at this special time. The heat had shut off for the night, and it was cold in the bedroom. Outside the snow fell lightly.
When the call was over, I stepped out to our small deck in the back. I remembered how you had hastened away from the gravesite where we buried Mother’s ashes, trying to get to your car as fast as you could. The day before you had bought a cheap suit on sale and it wasn’t the proper size because you wouldn’t try it on. Who buys a suit without trying it on? It was too small and it was too late to get another—you had to wear it. The buttons were popping and the seams unraveling as the brief burial service took place. You were trying to get to your car before the suit fell apart. You were holding the lapels as you walked across the gravel.
The Stronger One
After Mother died, I wondered if you felt the lack of father-to-child communication, and if so, whether it disturbed your peace of mind. Did you lie awake at night worrying that you had failed me, and wonder if you could ever make it right?
From the evidence, I don’t think so. You had trouble sleeping, but worry over me was not the cause. You were aware we had a poor relationship, but you didn’t dwell on it. There may have been moments of recrimination and regret. With Pat you might have gone over certain decisions you’d make differently. Or you may not have mentioned me, except to relate the bare facts of my existence. She may have inquired why you saw me so infrequently, or she may have kept her thoughts to herself. If asked, you’d probably cite work or financial limitations as the reasons I didn’t visit. You would not look at the heart of my absence from your life and reveal its darkness to her.
When I met her at your memorial service, I expected someone in the mold of Mother, haughty and withholding, someone you couldn’t really have. But she wasn’t anything like Mother. She was petite, deeply tanned, and wore copious amounts of blue eye shadow. Her step was quick, her manner easy, and when we met at the punch bowl, we extended a hand to each other at the same time. Seeing something open in her face, I thought she might reveal your feelings for me—that is what I wanted. But she had nothing to tell me.
I don’t think I was an important personage in your life. You weren’t as troubled by the failure of our bond as I would have liked you to be; you weren’t as troubled as I was. It was I who felt bereft of love, I who lacked something important. Are children more haunted by the lack of parental love than parents who are not loved by their children? Children depend upon their parents for everything—neglect can create a temperament that can’t easily be changed. I was low on your list of priorities, a kind of accessory to your real life. Mother was the person who mattered to you. You spent your life trying to give her what she wanted, and you failed. It was my mother’s side that you took in fights with me. After a fight in which Mother broke down in tears, blamed me for all the trouble, and then vanished into the bedroom, you’d come to me, even when I was a child, and tell me that she was fragile, that I was the stronger one. The stronger one. How I longed for you to fight for me, to shore me up. You allowed her to hurt me, no doubt the way she hurt you. Perhaps I’ve downsized you in retaliation.
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Searching for a number, I scroll down the contact list past “Father.” The entry was programmed by my husband on an earlier phone of mine, and has moved with the rest of memory as it has been transferred from device to device. Why do I keep you in this trivial cache of recollection? You are no longer available to receive calls, and you cannot disturb a sunny Saturday morning. Your service has been disconnected for eternity.
I have my mother’s plates and amethyst ring, my grandmother’s drop-leaf side table. These are items I use or wear, touch or dust, to bring the plangent memories back to me. I haven’t things of yours; with you I have only a name. You who were never one to linger, yet I cannot delete you. D.K.A. a.k.a. Daddy.
Marcia Aldrich is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women (U. of Georgia Press, 2017). Her nonfiction books include Girl Rearing: Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray and Companion to an Untold Story, winner of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction.
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