The Good, the Bad and My Dad

It’s Father’s Day and I’ve just hung up with my Dad, thinking how much I love him, wishing we lived closer.  Yet when you write about beauty or being a woman, it’s almost impossible to avoid the topic of your parents, and the impact they had on your identity, inside and out.

The Dad I know today is a lovable, charismatic mench who spends his time puttering around the house, trying to walk his cat, and driving my mom bananas.  He’s fun, clever, compassionate and one of my favorite people.

But it was his alpha male alter ego from the 1970s that had the most impact on me, for better or for worse.  He was a PR executive for Lufthansa airlines and wasn’t home a lot.  My childhood memories of him are like a mental Pinterest board of Dartmouth green, paddle tennis, “dungarees”, Scrabble, sports cars and skiing.  He was one part jet set glam, one part iron fisted authority figure who expected order and a dry martini when he was home.   In contrast, there was my practical mother who was saddled with the monotony of raising my me and my younger brother in suburban Philadelphia.  She loved him, but found him draining and catered to his high maintenance with passive resignation.

It was his world and we were all just living in it.

Me at 8 with a DIY welcome home sign for my dad

The difficulty was finding where I fit in to his world.  I was his clone, with gender and generation being the only exceptions.   It was cute when I was a little girl, a pistol with his dark hair and dark eyes, but between the ages of 10 and 20, my relationship with my dad was turbulent at best.  My drama would rival his, and he didn’t appreciate the audacity of sass, especially in a girl.  His myopic view of women and authority conflicted with my budding curiosity and need to find my own identity, not just within the family, but as part of the larger world.  The only way for me to thrive was to move as far away as possible to avoid the impact of his judgement, because at the end of the day, I wanted to please my groovy, crazy , scary father.

I moved, I thrived, I found my grounding.  His impact on me though is indelible, and I realized that there was just as much learning from the good as there was in the bad and the “meh”.   After all, he was my Dad, not a unicorn.

Here are my Top 5 Dad quotes:

Mom 1966

1) “You have the most beautiful Mother in the world”.   Whether she was or not wasn’t the point.  This was his way of thanking the universe that he found a woman who would put up with him and loved him for who he was.  More romantically, it instilled the belief that whoever I married better make me feel like the most beautiful woman in the world too.

2) “You’re a pretty girl, so don’t let yourself heavy”.  Even though my Dad admired my Mom’s beauty, he was a vocal critic when it came to her struggle with weight, providing ample teaching moments for me.  Intentional or not, it was clear my cuteness was a source of pride for him.  Yet, I always wondered how he would have handled it if I had been down right homely?  If I were ugly, would it have been easier for me because he would have pointed me in the direction of math and science (probably not, I don’t have any talent in those areas)?  Would the topic of weight have even come up?.  I’ll never know, but what he implied early on was that I have an asset and I should use it.    I’m conflicted on if this was good or bad counsel. On one hand, he established a firm bed of lifelong insecurity, yet on the other I think he was just telling the cold hard truth.

3) “There are two kinds of woman, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe (and be the Grace, like your Mom)”.   Initially, I didn’t get his point.  I wasn’t wired for the restraint of Grace Kelly and thought there was nothing wrong with the sexy vulnerability of Marilyn.  For a teen still figuring herself out– especially sexually, this presented a problem.  All I knew was that I was NOT my mother or Grace Kelly.  Why is this a bad thing, and isn’t there some moderate in between?  I never gave up on that idea, but got his point after a few years in the grown up dating pool and because of his advice, learned to deal with men with a bit more savvy.

Me at age 7 with Lufthansa stewardesses

4) “You too could be a stewardess one day!”.   Not that there’s anything wrong with being a flight attendant, and in fact in the 70’s I thought it was the most glamorous job a girl could have.  The problem was, my Dad had a limited view on the options for women and told me to aim for complimentary roles without realizing it.  Go for the middle, play it safe, stay in jobs that “nice girls” did before they settled down and got married.  Again, a challenge….

5) “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right”.  My Dad had a high bar for everything, whether that was raking the leaves, clearing the table or writing an essay.  Most of the time, this created unnecessary pressure, stifled confidence and left my brother and I paralyzed by by the need to be perfect, so we often didn’t even try.  But today, I realize what makes me good at my job, or anything  it’s that I bring my A game, which is what people count on me for.  I’ve allow myself room to fail, otherwise I would never try anything new.  But knowing I bring my A game gives me comfort that if I fail, I’ll do so with dignity.

At the end if the day, I realize my Dad never dispensed advise that rivaled Yoda.  What I got instead were “roots and wings”.   The roots were his edicts which sometimes became my foils, a platform to spring from and challenge.  The wings were simply being his daughter, his DNA doppelgänger complete with all the flaws that didn’t make me the perfect daughter, but gave me the gas needed for take-off.