– a reflection on Father’s Day, a father and a daughter
On a sweltering summer’s day in rural Virginia in 1970, a 7-year old girl was taken away from her home by the county sheriff and handed over to her mother. At gunpoint as the result of a court decision following a riveting divorce case that kept the local gossips occupied for weeks.
The next thing she remembered, she found herself in a car with a slim, elegant, deeply tanned man driving down a road in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk area of Virginia. He was nothing like the men she knew before. He spoke ‘fancy’, meaning not-Southern. He enunciated precisely (as he did most things, she came to discover). He asked her questions. Not the usual kind you ask a seven-year-old, but what she liked and cared for, what she dreamed about. Then he said: “I know this must be really, really hard for you. Just call me Phil. You and I can figure this out.”
Over the course of the next two years, they did just that. He woke her up early in the morning and took her to the beach a short distance away to dig for clams and crabs. He showed her the lights of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge twinkling in the distance. He taught her that fall to find the wild black grapes that grew everywhere and tasted like nothing else. At night, he’d take her to the beach and teach her the constellations of the stars, and in daylight to read the weather in the clouds. He encouraged her reading, and asked what she thought of what she read, of what he did (he was an architect) and the houses he built. “All my houses have big kitchens,” he said. “Because in my family, the men cook.” He was also famous for that.
In short, this first-generation New Yorker Sicilian-American was something of a Renaissance man – well-rounded, educated, and with a truly unique ability to basically walk into any bar in any country and have the entire bar wanting to be his new best friend. He was a man completely without bias of any kind, and made sure to eradicate any of my own I might have developed.
About a year later, when he married her mother, she decided to call him Dad. For no other reason than they had indeed both ‘figured it out’.
The little girl was me, that elegant man – whether in a shirt and tie or bathing trunks and diving flippers, he always had that sublimely Italian ‘bella figura’– was my stepfather, and to all intents, purposes and meanings, my Dad.
My father cracked open the world and gave it to me. Always happiest on a boat, he passed on his immense love of the ocean and marine life. He taught me to swim the hard way – by putting me in a life vest, snorkel, mask and fins and throwing me into the Caribbean. He was an artist, too – painting on plywood and walls, painting everyone and everything he loved and cared about.
In those important years between the ages of seven and twelve, his indelible imprint shaped me in ways still with me to this day. At no point in our shared history did he ever make me feel I didn’t belong, wasn’t ‘his’, or wasn’t an important part of his own life.
When I aced my first SAT tests and scared my mother witless, he sat me down for a talk.
“You can go on to Harvard, or Princeton.”
“Why would I do that?” I was still smarting from being told I was too short to be a cheerleader at my junior high. These things matter when you’re eleven.
His voice dropped half an octave. “Because pretty is good. But smart is better.”
Even today, those words are engraved in marble on my heart.
As stories of fathers and daughters go, my own doesn’t end happily. A small package arrived in September 1974 – a baby girl who looked very much like her father. I hovered on the brink of puberty preoccupied with other things; straight As, my friends, viola lessons, music and always, a big pile of books. Whether because of my baby sister, my own increasing independence, life in general or for some other reason I’ll never know, my mother packed a few suitcases, wrapped up the baby, told me to pack and left him. I wouldn’t see him again for fourteen years.
He told me some long time later how devastated he was. So was I. I never received an explanation from my mother, wasn’t allowed to have contact with him and certainly never, ever mention him in conversation. When he sent me a huge birthday package for my twelfth birthday, my mother insisted I send it back. I refused. Not least because he sent me a lot of music in the shape of ´45 singles that reallyrearranged my adolescent mental furniture, never least David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’.
My Dad was cool that way, too.
Around age 24, I began to write him letters. Long, long letters written on a legal pad he sent me, letters about my life, letters about life, letters about whatever I thought he might find interesting or entertaining. “You should have your own newspaper column. You’re that good,” he wrote back. And he always wrote me back.
Today, the baby – that little girl he fathered who became his greatest gift to me – does. Her Father’s Day story would be different from mine, as it should be, because it’s her story and her life.
As for my own, we had one last riotous reunion in 2002, Dad and I. There was laughter, and food, and that sense of belonging he always gave me. We talked about that past, and the present, and a little of the future. He told me – this came as a massive surprise –he had wanted to adopt me properly, back in the day, and my mother wouldn’t let him, and wouldn’t say why. I still don’t know, any more than I’ll ever know anything about my biological father apart from what I had inherited, among them my blood type, eye color and insatiable curiosity.
In April of 2005, while getting his boat ready for summer, he died in an instant, aged 63. I was on maternity leave with a baby of my own, unable to attend his funeral. In a long transatlantic conversation with his widow, she told me how much those letters I had sent so long ago had meant to him, and that he kept them close by. All I could do was hold a baby tight through my grief and swear that some day, I’d tell him about my Dad.
On a dark November night in 2013, I sent my last edited and proofread installment of my first novel to my publisher. I bawled like a baby after hitting the ‘send’ button. I collapsed into bed that night and dreamed of Dad. We were somewhere off the coast of Florida, hauling up lobster crates. In my dream, I was overjoyed to be back with him, doing something we both loved. I told him I had just handed in my book. “Do you think I did OK, Dad?”
He looked up from a gargantuan pile of very large and lively lobsters. “Honey,” he replied, “You did GREAT.”
I woke up, a long way from the Atlantic, from lobsters, and from a father who had been gone for over eight years.
Then again, he never really left at all.
Thank you, Dad. You really, truly did GREAT.
In memory of Philip Caruana, 1941-2005