Reflections of a Daddyless Daughter

Barbara Brockway

© Copyright 2020 by Barbara Brockway

Photo of Barbara and her family.

I 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 town.

My 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.

My 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.

My 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.

When 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.

My dad’s 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 mortified.

My 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.

The 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.

He 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.

A 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.

My 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.

My 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 afternoon.

He 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.

My 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.

My aunt called my grown sister in Colorado and told her, “Come now.” 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.

I 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 excuse.

How’s 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.

I 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.”

She 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.

His 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 card.

He was a young man who had just begun
a willing worker and a widow's son
he lived on the level and died on the square
he was buried on the hill and only three knew where.”

It 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.

I 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.

A 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.

I 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.

My childhood taught me that shouldering through the hard times will get you to the other side, where things are hopefully, usually, almost always, better.

Barbara 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.

Atlanta 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.

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