Dutiful Daughter

I’m starting to worry that people who are close to me will start to peace out when they realize that they could be written about in a not so favorable light at any time. Still, this blog continues to be an outlet for me and I had to get this out.  The main “character” of this post has been forewarned, and there are quite a few aspects that I have decided to keep private. At the very least, I hope someone who shares similar experiences will feel some sort of catharsis after seeing themselves reflected in my story. I have returned to this quote from Anne Lamott several times in the past few months, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

***

One of the more unsettling things I have found out about writing honestly about my personal experiences without the disguise offered by the label “fiction” is the potential to manipulate, or to put it in less sinister terms, to guide the reader to have a particular emotional experience. With the right word choice and sequencing of events, along with a subtle push from the readers’ own taste and prior experiences, a writer can work towards ensuring that one laughs or is outraged almost exactly on cue as the text demands.

For example, I could have chosen to start this post with a description of a younger me in my yellow and white gingham dress with the square neckline, hair cornrowed into two bunches on either side of my head, waiting on my grandma’s couch all Saturday afternoon for my father to pick me up. I could go on to show how my grandma bustled about, unusually busy for a weekend, trying to act like she wasn’t waiting as well and attempting to distract me with errands like walking down the road to buy sugar or some other thing we didn’t need. That may be leaning too far towards the cliché TV movie genre, especially since the story of an absent father isn’t exactly groundbreaking material.

It is possible that it would be a little more poignant to explain why it is that I still don’t know how to ride a bike even at the advanced age of 24. My father gave me a bike with a neon green frame, accompanied by a set of crooked training wheels when I was 7 and a promise to teach me how to ride it that was never met. For years my uncle tried to convince me that it was really easy and that he could teach me if I wanted. I’m still not sure why I haven’t taken him or any of the many others who tried up on their offer.

At this point, it might be appropriate to list many milestones that he missed or was not invited to because I did not want nor expect him to come. The more generic ones: school prize giving days, piano recitals, the time I caught mumps from the boy I sat next to in class, dance shows, birthdays, Sunday School plays, the time I sweated my way through my high school valedictory address, two graduations. To add some personal color with bolder traces of nostalgia, I could also include; black and white French films at Alliance Française, the time my mother started buying me notebooks to fill with my little scribbles that would turn into journals, long walks to the part of the neighborhood with the huge houses blinking their bright lights behind full hedges, not to mention the fact that I didn’t realize until I was much older that I was supposed to miss the presence of a father figure because I was surrounded by five incredible mothers and uncles that more than made up for the expected “gap.”

I probably sound quite cynical, and I am to a large extent. I tried forgiveness and openness once, because I felt ashamed for holding on to my anger for such a long time after someone I used to know and care about told me that I was only doing so because I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t “the girl whose dad wasn’t there.” I agreed, especially because what I’ve come to see as a mundane piece of personal information since moving to the U.S. was still relatively rare in most of the families I knew. So, I would try. Never mind that when it came time to apply to college, he refused to fill out his portion of my financial aid applications because it would look like we had more money than we did, and I would get less financial aid as a result. It was for my own good, you see. Never mind that he stood in the doorway to my mother’s bedroom explaining that he couldn’t fill in his half of financial aid forms in case he was expected to give up some money. This disclaimer hovered over me for the entire application season, “Unwillingness to fill the forms are not grounds enough to waive the requirement,” as did the persistent ticking of the ceiling fan that filled the awkward silence between my father’s abandoning of responsibility (once again) and my mother’s disdain.

No, there was no real reason to continue keeping my father at arm’s length. I should give him a chance, let bygones be water under a bridge that we would build and all kinds of other metaphors and platitudes, because he was trying. Trying looked like forcing relationships with my step –siblings with labels like “big sis” that I still don’t claim, and waiting expectantly for me to respond “I love you too” at the end of phone calls and at the gate to my grandmother’s house on the weekends he actually showed up. Is it obvious that my cynicism is an act? I actually don’t enjoy parading my father’s absence just to make myself more interesting, mainly because I would like to think that there is an unending list of things about myself that are more fascinating, and also because there is nothing new in this world, and a father who isn’t around is among the oldest of things.

Maybe I will appear more sincere, or my bitterness a more palpable, if I address him in the second person, you the reader, to make you feel uncomfortable, to compel you to occupy his position for just a moment as you read this. You, my father. My hurt is complicated and deep, and not just an unsettled score or a grudge. It pushes itself further into my self in spite of everyone’s efforts to dance gingerly around the truth. There is also the anxiety that comes with the suspicion that your care comes on the condition that I keep succeeding in a way that will permit you to point proudly at the last name I wish I didn’t have. My memory is crystalline in its accuracy, and I can recall that the times your requests to see me have been most stringent have immediately followed some kind of public achievement of mine. I graduated from college and you posted photos of the widest grin I wore that day on Facebook without once inquiring how it was all paid for. I posted some of my writing online, and you shared the link, proud father. I was in Accra reading some of my work the radio, and you raged and demanded to know why no one forced me to call you to let you know I was in town. Are these the only times you think about me?

I understand that you may have been able to trick yourself into thinking that you’ve done the best you can, that I’m picking up one out of every five phone calls, that up until recently I have responded promptly and politely to one text message every few months. It was almost easy for me to smile tight smiles across a stained tablecloth at a Chinese restaurant no one goes to anymore, to even pose for a picture afterwards because I wasn’t really there, I was floating somewhere above your head, dodging all your jokes, wishing the afternoon away because at least I was doing my duty as a daughter. I am only a few years older, but my hurt has turned into resentment, and any desire to engage, to mend, to try, to be “dutiful” has dwindled to zero.

Your reaching out is a few years too late and I can’t imagine how I could catch you up, or how to even carry on anew by putting all the missed opportunities behind us. That may be possible for others, but I don’t know how any relationship we could begin now could be successful if you don’t know that at a point I was so self-conscious I couldn’t wear my hair up and away from my face. Or that I spend far more time living in my head than I do actually allowing people to see me, and that I’m terrified of being unlovable and being rejected by potential friends and romantic interests alike, to the point where I just exist and hope that the other person will say something first. Or that I’m constantly fretting about money but would rather maintain my bank balance teetering on the edge of an overdraft than ask for help from my mother because she has done more than enough for me. Or that I’ve kept 2-3 jobs since I started grad school so I can be as financially independent as possible, and being the kind of self-sufficient person my mother would be proud of. I’m very stubborn, but you wouldn’t know that about me either. You also don’t know that the quickest way to push me away is to crowd me, and to give fatherly directions and commands with authority you haven’t earned because I absolutely hate being told what to do. Or that I am fiercely protective of my mother and so you have broken the last few links of the rusty bridge that hung between us by trying to blame her for being “spiteful,” from trying to keep me away from you.

I can admit that I’m a little frightened of the amount of animosity I’m still holding within, while simultaneously taking note of how little remorse I feel for speaking to you like I have done over the past few days. I hope you see that we actually do have problems, contrary to your insistence that father-daughter relationships are “natural.” It may be more convenient for you to point fingers at my mother or my aunts for turning me against you, but the truth is that if you knew me at all you would know that for years my cool politeness has been all I’ve been willing to give, and even that I have done grudgingly. I should have been honest all along. You haven’t been there, and I don’t know how I’m going to get over it, if I ever get over it at all.

(Image: I have been so loved by these amazing women: my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.)

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