I am my father’s daughter. I see him when I look in the mirror. His skeletal signature is all over my face. I’ve inherited his oval face, high cheekbones, thick eyebrows, long and unpronounced nose. I wash off my make up, and there he is. I am his likeness, his daughter.
My youngest siblings are still in their teens, under his roof and his fist—though less totalitarian than it was in my teens. I hear their arguments, and the frustration of my upbringing comes rushing back. The way he made me feel like a leech for having needs. How I walked a snowy mile home in slippers because I didn’t want him to guilt me for needing a ride at 15. The times he called me selfish for taking a shower before my brother—pounding on the door as he reminded me how consumed I am with myself. I can’t count how many times he disappeared to his work, leaving me (age, eleven or twelve) to tend to my siblings for weekends. My childhood dissolved into the needs of younger children. At times, it felt like I was the parent he couldn’t be to my sisters. I was the partner he couldn’t be to my mom. And I hated him for it.
Hatred soured to loathing when he took a job in Indiana my senior year of high school. When we didn’t join him, he left anyway. He reminded me frequently that I was the source of destruction within my family. If only I had obeyed him, we would be ok. If only I were a good daughter, our family would be whole. I was bad and wrong and destined for hell. But here I was, trying to hold my family together. Seventeen years old, and I was stretching my hands as far as they could go serving my three siblings and my mom. When she struggled through nursing school that fall, it was me, not him, who became the Band-Aid. His absence and silence became the enabler to the abuse that ravaged our household that year. I didn’t want to be right, reader. I would’ve given my left arm to be the angst-ridden, ungrateful teen whose father knew best. Were I only an obstinate, headstrong girl. But, I wasn’t. I was a seventeen year old drowning in responsibilities too big for her. My best couldn’t save my family, or even myself. And when he told me that they were moving to Indiana—the land he left me for—where they could pretend to be this united family, the one I preserved, rage overtook me.
I could only see my father for his weaknesses after that. My hurt howled through my early adulthood. I just wanted to be as far away from him as possible. Distance was the only way I knew to keep my infrared anger away. I don’t regret these years. I don’t regret my reactions. I refuse to apologize for how I kept myself whole and where I found my joy in the process.
As I grow into adulthood, I know our parents never leave us. A genetic imprint can’t be removed. My father is an echo in my behaviors—how diligent I am in all my actions, my fierce loyalty, irritating stubbornness, an earnestness that edges on hokey. I exercise as vigorously like him, monitor my diet with his same shrewd discipline. I am my own worst enemy, just like him. Guilt is my shadow, just as it’s his. To interact with my father is to be in his ghost story, one narrated by my paternal grandfather.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ireland. They were neighbors in the old country, but arrived in the US separately. My grandfather left school in the sixth grade to labor in Scotland and later Wisconsin. My grandmother received an eighth grade education. She was twenty when she arrived in New York City. It was October of 1948. Her single life was riotous and remains mysterious—she lived with an accused murderer. She generated income through housekeeping and reading tealeaves. Somehow, my grandparents reconnected and settled in Providence, RI. My father was their first-born. A sister and brother joined him. But the pressure of being was reserved for my father. He had one toy growing up. He never Trick-or Treated, but had to pass out the candy to other children. There was a bitter winter when my father was shoveling the snow with my grandfather. My dad put on gloves. My grandfather mocked and berated my dad for needing gloves. Scorching his son for being cold. My dad was eight. From my understanding, this was common.
He and his siblings ate butter and sugar sandwiches. The children were locked out of the house all day every summer. My father was forced to be an altar boy from the second he was old enough to participate. He would serve this church for a decade, and when he had to leave the role to work, the church listed him as “dismissed”. My grandparents never said anything to defend their son when the church inaccurately portrayed his exit.
Even in college, my father lived at his parent’s home and paid rent while being a full-time student and working full time. To this day, my dad calls this “lucky”. I call it exploitation. I know my father’s childhood was traumatic because my aunt, his sister, struggles to verbalize what happened to him. Her silence is a feud between reverence for her parents and pity toward my father. She, a witness to his abuse.
I don’t know that my dad understands that emotional abuse and love aren’t the same. I don’t know that he understands that parenthood is a sacrifice, and a parent doesn’t get to lord those concessions over their children. There is a lot I don’t know about my father. He remains an incomplete picture, but then again, how do you gather a complete narrative from his incomplete pieces? We don’t know how my grandfather came over to the US, only that he did farm labor in Wisconsin. The names of his grandmothers remained a mystery to him until he was in his forties. My father has no concept of an extended family and sees no oddity in that. I am not the keeper of his scars, and I will not participate in the family tradition of lending our baggage to the next generation.
There was a time when my dad was a sweet little boy who got broken. And, for as ruthless as my dad’s parents were to him, I know that his parents hailed from pain and abuse. Someone broke my grandparents too, and probably their parents as well. My genealogy is rife with scars. We are as connected by DNA as we are by our wounds. This essay is not intended to vilify my dad or my grandparents or anyone. I write this because, believe it or not, I still love my dad. My love for him rages against a Hallmark facade of perfect. I love him problematically, angrily, honestly. We talk every Sunday. I tell him all the things someone should’ve said when he was young: “You’re good, and I’m proud of you. You did a good job.” He is my dad, and I only get one in this life.
I am my father’s daughter. This is the hardest piece I’ve ever written because it’s largely the most painful, unresolved piece I’ve ever given breath. My relationship with my father is forever raw, unresolved, incomplete, and yet, illogically loving. The words are there. They’ve waited twenty years to see black and white, but they struggle. They struggle in the way I do with my relationship with my dad. But I’m not my father. I’m not him. I haven’t made the same choices he has. I get to examine his mistakes, how they came to be, and forge a different path for myself. I am his daughter. This is a fact I abandoned for over twenty years. I left it the way he left me, as a means of survival. Because I was more interested in my ego than the necessities of my own life. He is a bad father, but a good man. Now that I no longer rely on him for my livelihood, I can differentiate the two. I’ve learned to love myself in the ways he is incapable of loving me. I’ve grown to love him in the ways I know he’ll never love himself. Because tremendous power is had in loving the parts that are broken without the incentive to fix them, to embrace them as they are. I think that is the love that heals.