Some of you folks often ask things about my own background, so I thought I'd share a piece I wrote for another site today. Enjoy.
"There are people having sex in that film!"
"It's a love story, for crying out loud. It's tender, realistic and very sweet. It isn't a Playboy spread, Theresa. That scene is two seconds long and shot from the waist up."
"There's a breast in it."
"Yeah? There are two on her chest, in case you haven't noticed. She's seen a breast before."
"I don't want her seeing that."
"I don't understand what the big deal is."
"Because it's pornography."
"It's art, for crissakes. This argument is pornography."
I was about ten when my mother and father had that argument on the phone, a few feet away from where I sat in front of my father's television, the tape of _An Officer and a Gentleman_ ejected from his Beta machine (which would probably be considered a valuable relic by now). We had just watched it at the end of my scheduled weekend visit, and I had just called my mom to tell her I was coming home. Easily settled into the pattern with my father where there were no secrets, I didn't realize that I shouldn't have said anything, and nonchalantly mentioned we had watched the film. Needless to say, my visits were curtailed for a few weeks, something that would happen again and again. My mother and my father have always been very different people with very different ideas.
They also had very different feelings about sex, and about how sex and a sexual life should be presented to me. Throughout my adolescence, my mother and I would always come to blows about my sex life and how I conducted it -- more to the point, THAT I conducted it. But that certainly isn't surprising in this instance. I was the result of an accidental pregnancy in my parents young lives, and my mother was very worried about that being repeated, and had her own baggage to contend with to boot. When it all comes down to it, they both did a good job. My mother, as a health educator, always gave me the books and the talks that gave me the bare bones and solid basics to reason with. However, though both of them had many things they contributed to who I am and to what I do with my life now, it was, without any doubt, my father who clearly affected me most. It was my father who largely helped me formulate how I feel about and understand sex and love, how I question that and everything else, and how I fearlessly reach for what I want, not merely what I think I am capable of getting.
It was my father who showed me how to dream, and how to wake up fearlessly, dreaming still.
My father has always been convinced that he didn't do a good job, and gave me nothing of worth, despite my protests to the contrary. Like many parents, he couldn't stave off a lot of tragedy and hardship in my life that he felt he should have been able to cease, and because of his own hardships, never felt -- and still doesn't -- that what he could give was enough.
My father has had a hard time in his life, and few things have ever been easy for him. He and his brothers grew up abused. When my grandparents and his youngest brother were killed when I was just a toddler, he and my mother suddenly had his two brothers to take care of, as well as myself. He was in a marriage neither of my parents would have chosen. He was a draft resister, and was politically, creatively and socially active in a time and place where that wasn't appreciated by many, and in a life where more pragmatic things kept him from realizing most of those ideas. Having been unable to finish college due to my sudden appearance, finding and keeping jobs that suited his level of intelligence has been tough. Living in poorer neighborhoods in the city, he's been mugged and attacked numerous times. He has had partners die, and others use him. He has had a serious illness to battle for years, and has fought with serious depression to boot. My father has always been a questioner, not a sheep; an explorer, not someone with a clear path, making any path at all hard to find and harder still to follow. Overall, he has had a more challenging life than most, in which he was given little to work with and so it isn't surprising or unreasonable that he hasn't been satisfied with what he made of it.
When I was young, my father was a dreamer in a world full of cynicism, and as the years went by, it seems clear that seeing a lot of his dreams and ideals get squashed was terribly hard on him, as it is on anyone. The letters from Coretta Scott King written to him during the civil rights movement slowly yellowed in a suitcase under his bed, not unlike the dreams of many an idealistic young person in the sixties. Though over the years my father would become more cynical, and though he would suggest I temper my idealism with realism, he never insisted I not dream and question as he had because it had disappointed him. Perhaps it was simply too clear from the beginning that we were so alike, there would be no avoiding us making similar mistakes, and having similar disappointments. From the beginning, it was simply clear to everyone that though I was my mother's child, I was my father's daughter.
I remember clearly that the first time my father inadvertently walked across his apartment nude, not realizing I was awake, he didn't run and hide, nor did he make me have a "talk." We both got the giggles, a little embarrassed (and I of course, a little shell-shocked at seeing my dad's penis), and he just kept going where he was going, and I went back to what I was doing.
When I found his Playboy collection and he found me finding them, he didn't yell or try and shove them back under the bed. When I said, "Yuck!" he didn't pretend to agree with me, he asked me what was so yucky about the photo I was looking at anyway (I do, however, blame Gahan Wilson for my perpetual paranoia about escalators, and think if you're going to play the Playboy situation like my dad did, hiding Wilsons' very terrifying cartoons is a good idea).
My father has -- for any number of reasons, which are hard to pin down -- always had a very magnetic personality, which seems to draw an incredibly diverse number of people to him. In my weekly visits to his apartment while growing up, I had a parade of bubbly, inventive, surrogate big sisters. My father had many girlfriends, all of whom were wonderful to me, and would let me play in their clothes, dance wildly in the living room with them, take me out to the park, or downtown, or out shopping, or to recitals, and treated me like a big girlfriend, too. I saw a myriad of nationalities and body types and personalities, and nearly always all his girlfriends were kept as friends still when the relationship fizzled. When he kicked my favorite of them out -- a beautiful gypsy artist who sketched horses and flowers with me, and who I still keep a gift from close to me always -- and I refused to speak to him, he let me have that space and that sorrow. When I came to my senses, he didn't dismiss it, or tell me that "things like this happen with grownups I couldn't understand." He told me she'd been taking his money and racking up bills in his name without permission. While I didn't fully get all that then, I understood in my small way from that that sex doesn't make for love, and that screwing one person over can hurt a lot of feelings you may not even think about. I also understood that she didn't leave because of me, and that my father had a right to make choices about his relationships without consulting me on them, or thinking of me first.
When I got into my teens and everything started catastrophically falling apart at my mother's house, my father tried as hard as he could to help me keep it together. When I left for good for various reasons, he rearranged his whole life -- within six hours, literally -- to take me in. Because of what he was willing to do for me, I was able to find an environment that kept me from being destroyed on a lot of levels. In addition, I was able to spend a few more weeks with my much older lover before he killed himself, which I know my father saw coming when I did not. I can't begin to express how important those few weeks of time, where our relationship was accepted and honored, was, and still is, to me. After Matthew died, my father even went to his funeral, something he cannot bear to do, because he knew I needed his support. In the months following, he trusted me enough to help me do things I needed to do to heal. In no short order, he saved my life, both my physical life and my emotional one.
Later, my father would allow my partners to stay overnight at our apartment, fully aware of sexual activity, as we always talked about it openly, and he always made clear he preferred that if I was going to experiment sexually, or with drugs or alcohol, that I do it at home. When the people in my room for hours with little grumbles and sighs were women and not men, he didn't question it, save to ask if I was seeing that person, and then he'd ask more about them. More times than not, my lovers and friends came to like spending just as much time with my father as they did with me, and there were times my friends would come by expressly TO talk to him, and didn't give a hoot about talking to me at all.
We had a lot of nose jokes between us: I have my father's nose in miniature, which if you've seen my nose, should make you indeed wonder how big the king-sized one really is (big, he doesn't deny it -- that schnoz is big). While my mother would fuss over my weight a good deal -- I had constant ups and downs of thinness and chubbiness -- my dad never made a big deal about it, nor about how I expressed myself through the way I dressed (unless I just looked bloody foolish, in which case he said so, but left it my business if I was going to go out looking like a dork). How I looked, and changes my body went through were always treated with kindness, gentle humor, and loving guidance. For instance, I do think it is oppressive or overly critical to suggest that combat boots aren't exactly the best choice for a job interview.
My father never told me there was something I couldn't do or wasn't capable of, nor anything I couldn't touch, anything I shouldn't talk about or look into. I learned to read years before most kids do, because when I reached for heavy books with toddler's hands, he didn't take them away, or hand me a picture book instead. What my father did instead in my life was let me know that anything I did do, I was responsible for, be it good or ill, and that he'd be there if I needed support, but I was going to stand on my own two legs, dammit.
He told me my gift was in creating, in writing, in making music and taking risks before I knew that it was. He made it clear I'd rarely have it easy, but never told me there was a thing wrong with that. His only real mistake, as far as I am concerned, is that he also made it clear that we are in some ways so similar it is eerie, and that being like him isn't acceptable at all. Though there are many problems we've had over the years, a million arguments and disagreements, and a whole lot of very hard times the only thing I can say with certainly he has done -- and still does -- is to tell me that being like him is an awful thing.
I am my father's daughter, and as far as I'm concerned, the parts of me from him are the ones I'd fight to the death to keep, and without which I'd be someone else, not myself.
I'm well aware I had a unique childhood, and certainly have a unique father, and a unique relationship with him. This is a man who when I was young, asked that I call him Dave, not Dad.
"But aren't you my Dad?"
"Yes, but call me Dave, because I'm mostly your friend."
"Okay, so if you're not Dad, who IS my Dad?"
He gave up on that one, but never gave up on being more a friend than a father. In his mind, on some level, that means he wasn't a good father. If being a father means being distanced, saying no a lot, and being more of a disciplinarian than a lesson by example, then I suppose he was not. But for a child as independent, stubborn, fearless and strong-willed as I was, he was what I needed, which may have been a friend, and not a father. And that makes WHAT he is to me, far less important than WHO he is.
I'll give you that many children and teenagers would not have functioned well with this kind of model. But I wasn't most kids or teenagers. I was my father's daughter, and he was -- and remains still -- so much of who I am, and so intrinsic a part of who I turned out to be and how I think, that were he anyone else, I would have been someone else, too. If you've ever tried to make a plant grow along a trellis that clearly wanted to grow somewhere else, then you've got a rough idea of what attempting to parent me was like.
Were my father anyone else, or were he a prototypical father, I may not have grown up largely thinking that sex was something people do, that can be pretty to watch and have many facets, all of which are okay if people are responsible and kind. Were he anyone else, I would not have asked "why" quite so much, nor would I have continued to reach for things just beyond the grasp of my small fingers.
Many people who work in the realm of sexuality do so under a very intricate cloak woven of secrecy; rarely telling their families, neighbors or friends. I don't like keeping secrets from my family, so that isn't the case with me. My mother is accepting of what I do, and is also supportive, though I don't imagine she boasts to her friends about it, or sends out copies of my work to people at Christmas. On the other hand, my father is one proud papa. When he has raved about work I do with others at his job and someone has reacted negatively, or said "You shouldn't be proud of that!" his reply is simply: "Well, I am."
Now and then, my father insists his life has been a waste of time. It is at those moments that what I want to tell him is that if he truly is proud of who I am, then it should be clear that he has done at least one thing with his life that is crucial and valuable: he has poured and nurtured the mortar for my foundation in a way that no one else I have ever met could have, and that it what has made me that person who gives him that feeling of pride.
My father and I don't always agree, and often have vehement debates, at the end of which we usually agree to disagree. We are both so passionate, so argumentative, and so strong-willed that at times he makes me want to tear my hair out, and I him. When things are wrong between us, or one is worried about the other, it is so incredibly painful, I swear I have felt my heart crack inside my chest. But my father has never made me feel anything less than proud of myself and of the whole of my life, and I know few parents whose children can say that sincerely. Conversely, though he has not always been proud of himself, there has never been even a minute in a day when I was not glaringly proud to say he was my father, nor when I didn't feel blessed and full of grace for having been given him as a lifelong friend.
A week ago on the phone, he expressed great concern that I would "turn out like him" as he perceives himself right now: as very disappointed with what life dealt him and what he took from it, and as being very alone, happy only in solitude, and not in the company of others. Many parents, while they say they don't want their children to make the mistakes they did, at the same time do not necessarily want it illustrated that they did not, or did one better. But as I have said, I have a unique parent, and a unique relationship to him. I feel comfortable and good saying that I haven't made the same mistakes, nor have I had it quite so hard. My idealism is tempered with a bit more realism. My support system is a bit stronger. My willingness to reach out to others and push against resistance is a bit easier for me than it was and is for him. I have, thankfully, been able thus far to realize a good number of my dreams, and I don't dream in sleep: I always dream waking.
Despite other ways in which we are different, one of the real reasons that I have an advantage isn't because I'm stronger. It isn't because I am more talented, or more wise. It is simply because he didn't have the father I did, nor the friend. I am like my father, but I am not my father.
I am my father's daughter.
© 2000, Heather Corinna. All rights reserved.