Reflections of a Daddyless Daughter
Copyright 2020 by Barbara Brockway
was inspired to write this autobiographical essay after reading
an article about the lifelong effects of growing up without a father.
My father's death when I was sixteen has had a huge impact on my
life, but when I reflect on my childhood, I feel it was quite
idyllic. Writing this piece brought together those two very disparate
images, one of tragedy and loss, the other of being nestled in
the middle of a nurturing, loving family surrounded by a caring small
dad was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease the year I was born. I
grew up with the specter of his death over me always, it was
something I never not knew, from the way adults cast pitying looks at
me, to the lack of money from the mound of medical bills, to his
bouts of suffering and the casual talk of his myriad of treatments
around our dinner table.
grandmother paid for all of us kids to go to the Oddfellows and
Rebekahs summer camp. There no one knew about the sword hanging over
my head. For one week a year I could canoe and make sassafrass tea
and eat in the mess hall and sing campfire songs and I was free of
the shadow, just another kid chasing fireflies at camp.
dad bonded with his oncologist, Dr. Steffey, in a way I doubt many
doctors emotionally extend to their patients. When my dad was told
his stage four diagnosis meant he would never live to see me, or my
Irish twin younger sister, reach the age of five, he told Dr. Steffey
that was not an option, that he had two little girls to raise, let
alone his older four children. Dr. Steffey became his champion, his
co-conspirator in trying to beat back the elusive dark menace that
loomed over all of our lives. The doctor researched experimental
drugs, my father diligently stuck to any cutting edge regimen Dr.
Steffey attempted. Against the odds, my father lived years and years
past that first sinister deadline. Dr. Steffey broke down and cried
the day he told my dad there were no more options. The doctor’s
last prescription was to enjoy the several months he had left to the
fullest, to say goodbyes, to hold his wife, to tell his children all
they needed to know.
I was nine we moved to the edge of our small town. My parents had
owned a piece of land for a few years and decided to build a house
there after our in town neighbor moved to Florida and sold her house
to a family with eight kids. You know the family in those “Best
Ever” books, the
Herdmans? Our new next door neighbors made the Herdmans look
positively upstanding and orderly. My mom argued that money was too
tight, that they shouldn’t rush into anything, but my dad
pushed forward with the project. I think he wanted to see our family
settled and set up for the next stage without him, wanted us away
from the noxious neighbors, wanted to see completion of the exciting
venture. Every Friday night we would go out to the building site and
walk around, seeing the progress from week to week. At the end of the
summer, my dad decided to host a party there, even though the
plumbing had not yet been connected. He barbecued and people flocked
to see our unfinished house, my mom gave tour after tour and the
crowd stayed way into the night, using the woods to pee and tipping
me and my little sister as we played waitress, bringing them cans of
beer and charred chicken.
legendary garden took up a quarter acre on our new property. He
worked in it constantly and it yielded mounds and mounds of food. In
the summer we feasted on fresh fruit and veg, I would eat four ears
of corn each night when it was in season, my mother would furiously
can and stock the freezer chest in the garage. He gave away produce
by the paper grocery bagful, to friends and people he knew needed a
little help. One time I told him the school bus driver mentioned the
tomatoes he had ripening in the sun on a metal table near the garage.
He made me take her tomatoes the next day. She was tickled, I was
dad grew sunflowers and scads of gladiolas. One day a boy I knew from
the school bus knocked on our door and asked if he could have one of
my dad’s sunflowers. The boy was younger, nerdy, his little
sister always had a chapped face. The boy cut the head of the
sunflower with a jack knife he carried in his pocket and he was
delighted with his prize, which was bigger than his head. He said he
would eat the seeds. My dad helped him wriggle the huge head into a
paper sack to carry the sunflower home. I
think my dad was both flattered by the boy's enthusiasm and touched
by his joy over something so trivial; my dad grew the sunflowers for
the birds. My father watched the boy walk buoyantly away, then spent
a half hour picking two grocery sacks full of food, loading it into
his car and driving in the same direction.
gladiolas he gave to friends who owned a restaurant. Bunches and
bunches to put on the tables to cheer diners. We ate dinner there
every Friday night, they had a beer-batter fish fry. My dad always
ordered the open-faced steak sandwich rare, rare, rare. He always
asked the waitress, “Who’s cooking tonight?” Then
he groused when the waitress told him Velma was. Velma always worked
Fridays, I don’t know why he asked.
worked in the liquor window of that restaurant every Christmas Eve,
far and away the busiest day of the year for liquor sales. He would
dress up and be in a cheery mood before and after, he would see half
the town that day, would sell them their bottles as they bustled
around completing their last minute holiday errands. Part of his
payment was a fifth of Seagram’s Seven Crown.
couple of my sisters worked in that same restaurant over the years.
One time, when my shy sister was washing dishes in the empty kitchen,
she was unnerved by the obnoxious attention of the owners’ son,
who had a crush on her. She called home and I relayed the story by
phone to my mom; my parents were at their weekly Saturday night card
game. My dad and two friends drunkenly burst in the back door of the
restaurant kitchen, one of them adopting a fighting stance and
yelling “Where is he, where is he?” After finding out
they had missed the pestering boy, the inebriated trio proceeded to
go next door and top off the night with a couple more beers. I think
my sister was both glad the boy was not there to see the embarrassing
spectacle, and reassured by their chivalry.
father had many, many good friends, but I always thought his best
friend was Heidi Waltz, a Japanese war bride brought back to our
remote town after meeting her husband stationed there during his
naval stint in the Korean War. Heidi had three white registered
poodles, Yuki, Chibi and Cherie, and a staccato laugh that rang out
constantly amidst her thick accent and mixed-up English. Her joy at
spending time with my dad with written all her face, she would
welcome us into her home, offer coffee and sweets, tease us girls.
Besides the black children adopted by the Catholic priest, Heidi was
the only person of color in our town for years and years. How lonely
she must have felt, being stared at and whispered about, no wonder
she was so grateful for my dad’s unconditional friendship.
dad went to the Kal-Ho bar every weekday morning for coffee with a
bunch of his cronies. This was when coffee was fifty cents and you
drank it black out of a thick ceramic mug, a sassy waitress would
splash a refill in once or twice. Sometime he would take my sister
and me to the Kal-Ho in the afternoons, where he would have a beer or
two and he would let us each get a can of Fanta, she always ordered
grape and I always ordered orange, and he would let us split a bag of
potato chips. “Don’t
tell your mother,” he’d say. We knew our mother wouldn’t
have cared about the pop and chips, but she would have cared that her
two little girls were sitting in a bar in the middle of the
told my mother he quit smoking, but my sister found cigarettes and a
lighter wrapped in a rag behind the seat of his pick up truck. When I
was about twelve I noticed he would wander out to the back yard each
morning and I suspected him of smoking. I decided to see for myself,
and, using dumping our compost bucket as cover, came upon him leaning
against the metal shed enjoying a Marlboro red. I ran into the house
crying and he promised, promised, promised he would quit, but he
didn’t keep that promise. Now I know how hard it was,
especially in the seventies when most adults smoked, everywhere, in
their homes, in cars, in restaurants, around their kids. When his
cancer came out of remission that last time, none of us minded that
he smoked anymore.
mom rented a hospital bed and we set it up in the dining room. My dad
loved it when we rubbed lotion on his feet. Months after he was gone,
I went to put lotion on my hands and pulled a bottle out of the back
of the bathroom vanity. The distinctive scent flooded my brain with
memories of my dad, I had to wash off my hands and chucked the
bottle, hunted through teary vision for a different one.
aunt called my grown sister in Colorado and told her, “Come
My sister brought her two young daughters, who horsed around with and
sat on my dad’s too thin lap, letting him read book after book
to them. My sister didn’t fuss when my dad fed them too many
Hersey’s miniature chocolates. She tried to be cheery, but her
red-rimmed eyes belied her pain. She flew back out west, knowing she
couldn’t afford to fly back for the funeral.
told my track coach I couldn’t come to practice because I would
miss hospital visiting hours. I could see the muscles in his jaw
tense as he told me to come to meets anyway, that I had a valid
your dad doing?” A friend of mine in school asked me each
morning in front of our group as we joked and jostled around our
lockers. I was so fragile, I was barely holding it together, trying
to be a normal high schooler. I marvel at the maturity of my
fifteen-year-old self as I pulled her aside one day.
know you are trying to be kind,” I said. “You can say you
are thinking about him, but please stop asking me how he’s
doing. He’s dying, that’s all there is to it.”
never asked me again, but mentioned every few days how she was
thinking about him. At the funeral home she walked in and tenderly
took my hand, sitting next me for what seemed like hours.
funeral was large, for some reason that offered solace. My dad’s
mom was so shaky, her two daughters, my dad’s sisters, propping
her up. My dad was a mason and an old, old man wearing white gloves
performed a masonic ritual over the casket, I remember an evergreen
bough. In my dad’s wallet we found a poem printed on a business
was a young man who had just begun
willing worker and a widow's son
lived on the level and died on the square
was buried on the hill and only three knew where.”
rained softly at the gravesite. Heidi told us that the Japanese
believe rain at a funeral means god is crying, or it signifies all
the tears your loved ones will shed, or something like that. She was
so broken up it was hard to understand her. Her husband Ferm had his
arm around her protectively.
remember standing in our backyard some weeks later and feeling so
much pain in my heart, wondering when it would diminish, when it
wouldn’t be so sharp, every day, day in, day out. Eventually,
the pain became dull and distant. The good memories coming to the
forefront, crowding out the bad ones.
couple of years ago a Sunday school class my husband and I attended
discussed the topic of how being fatherless affects kids. How it
impacts so many aspects of a person’s life. A kid who loses, or
never had a father can have issues with trust, commitment, intimacy,
anger. I tried to listen to others’ perspective instead of
injecting my own experience into the conversation. I guess on some
level I knew how deeply my father’s loss had affected me, but
reading the article we were discussing and hearing it analyzed by my
peers made me really consider the influence.
know in some sense I’m a hot, sticky mess of a person. But in
so many ways, my childhood was idyllic and that deeply shaped me.
Sure, cancer was threaded throughout schoolwork and girl scouts and
basketball games and Sunday dinners, but maybe that made my family
appreciate all of that in a way most families wouldn’t. Seeing
the steeliness of my 1960’s stay-at-home mom juggle a job,
hormonal teens, stacks of medical bills and a dying husband, all with
her eternal Pollyanna good nature, that taught me a resourcefulness
and work ethic I still carry today.
childhood taught me that shouldering through the hard times will get
you to the other side, where things are hopefully, usually, almost
Brockway grew up in Michigan and graduated from Michigan State
University. In another life she was an accountant, but now spends her
days writing. She has had short stories and essays published in
various literary magazines and has been honored to receive writing
awards from Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, the
Tallahassee Writers Association and Atlanta Writers Club.
has been her home for over 30 years, but she is currently living in
Chieri, Italy for two years with her husband. Her window overlooks
the courtyard of her 15th century apartment building, so while
writing she sees cobblestones, wooden shutters, palm trees, plus a
Mail Boxes, Etc. and a vape shop.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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