Your father, yourself: 4 women look back on their dads

Like it or not, your father is one of the most influential men you'll ever meet.

Story highlights

  • One writer's father encourages her finding freedom through passion
  • Inherited stubbornness leads to another writer's lasting marriage
  • Moonlighting like her dad leads to a deeper connection for one writer
  • Another writer finds happiness remembering her father's joy for life
He was probably your first pair of male arms, and, like it or not, the most influential man you'll ever meet. These daughters reflect on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways their fathers shaped them.
"He Helped Me Find What It Was I Loved"
What I remember of my father are the dark suits he wore and the tired way he came home in the evening. He seemed beaten down by something, something large and sharp, and I wasn't sure what that was.
My mother used to say, "He comes home late because he gets very tied up at the office," and, in the literal-minded way that small children think, I pictured him roped and cuffed to his swivel seat, and this seemed terrible to me. He was frail and pale and needed protection. I used to bring him offerings: a pale green shoot, a clear cup of water, a serrated shell from the beach. 

When I turned 10, I fell in love with horses. I fell in love with their dry, velvety noses, their thick pink tongues and the way a canter felt when I sat deep in the saddle.
My mother, a strict woman, forbade me lessons: Jewish people, she said, did not ride horses; they played tennis or golf. I pined and pined. I read Black Beauty again and again.
And while my mother forbade me my passion, my father welcomed it, aided it, perhaps because he sensed that through passion we find our freedom - the highest expression of self. He was all tied up, but for his daughter, he wanted room to run. 

He was a frail, pale man and wouldn't cross my mother's mandates in any direct way, but whenever she left town, he would sneak me out to the stables.
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I remember him coming to my room in the earliest part of the dawn; I remember the whisper of wheels on the wet road as we drove from suburb to country; I remember the sweet smell of dung, the hot blasts of a horse's breath. I remember how he stood by the fenced-in field and watched me, my father, still in a dark, serious suit, the sleeves too big, brass buttons winking in the dawn.
Month after month, year after year, he helped me find what it was I loved: He drove me there; he watched me take the 4-foot fences, the horse surging forward, me hunched high up on the neck as I entered the air. 
A Chip off the Old Rock
How did my father form my character? 

On first thought I would say not at all. 

He was a driven and hard-driving man. Born in Jewish Lithuania, he came to this country at the age of 4 with his mother, brother and baby sister. His father had come the year before to scope out the lay of the land. It was a common story: They were poor immigrants struggling to make good. My father excelled in school; that was to be his way out. 

He studied math and science, won scholarships to Columbia, where he was the college chess champion and later the champion of the Manhattan Chess Club. He took no interest in literature or art. He became a mining engineer, worked in Cuba and Jamaica.
In time he went into business - a business where he was essentially the only Jew - fought to keep his head above water, relished conflict, mocked his adversaries to my mother, calling them pink-cheeked Yale boys and pitiful cases of arrested development. He prospered. His success took stubbornness, toughness, endurance, a thick skin - features I would have said I do not share. 

I grew up passionate about literature, writing stories and poems that my mother saved, diaries that I hid away. I loved to draw, humming as I leaned over the table. I was lazy in school, worked on what I liked and not on what I didn't like. I played the piano dreamily but didn't practice. I would have said I inherited my mother's nature, not his. 

In time I began to have boyfriends. He paid little attention to them. Maybe he didn't know about them; he was at the office. But when I brought home Artie, then working as a soda jerk, he laid down the law.
"No," he said.
He was enraged. I wasn't to see Artie anymore. When I wouldn't agree, he said he wanted me out of the house. He didn't say forever, but certainly for a while - a long while - unless I agreed to give up this scruffy young man.
"A boy with no future," he said. 

With an excitedly beating heart, I refused. My will stiffened. I refused to give in. I felt heroic. I was David with my slingshot. I was Joan of Arc, defying the English.
A war between us began, which only ended 10 years later when he came sheepishly to the hospital to see his newborn grandson. The scruffy young man had gotten his PhD and was a professor at Columbia. We've now been married for 50 years. 

Where did I get this power of resistance, this stubbornness? From him, of course. How did I learn to say no? His genes taught me, and his behavior showed me how. 
A Poem for My Father
My dad wasn't the kind of guy who looked into his own depths. He was too busy moonlighting - days for the electric company and nights at a gas station. Men like my father keep our lives together without our even knowing it. And they hardly know it, either. 

As a little girl, I suspected there was a whole world inside my dad, but how could I find out where he really lived? When I first heard a poem, I felt as though I were diving deep into a pool. I thought that if my dad would read one, he might dive deep, too - and join me on another shore where I would learn who he really was.
But his reality was work boots and a hard hat and too many beers between shifts. I was often either in school or in bed when he came home. 

But even if a daughter doesn't have a thing in common with her father, his DNA swims in her life. 

After my dad died, I found I'd become a moonlighter. By day I taught seventh grade, and by night I worked like a demon to write poetry and to start "Poetry in Motion," which posts poems on the nation's subways and buses. I never asked why. I just kept busy. 

One morning as I stood on the rush-hour subway going to my job, I saw a man in a work shirt, lunch pail crushed against him, callused hand on the steel strap, lurching as the subway car lurched - but searching, too. 

What was he doing? He was reading the poem I helped to put up - diving into that pool of understanding I'd hoped my dad would swim across to meet me. And I met my father through that man on the subway car that morning. 
Ode to Joy
I loved my father so much that I couldn't understand how I would be able to survive when he died. And his death seemed to be an ever-present threat: He had had rheumatic fever as a child in the days before doctors knew that the disease could damage the heart, and as a result he had a deteriorating aortic valve.
"Anything over 40 is gravy for you," one of his doctors told him. He was nearly 37 when I was born. 

For as long as I can remember, on Saturday mornings as soon as the weather turned warm, my father would fling open the doors and windows of our suburban house and fill the spring air with Vivaldi or Beethoven or Haydn quartets at full volume on our living room stereo.
The passion in the music pumped through him like life blood; he sang and sometimes whistled along vivaciously, conducting his imaginary orchestra with enormous gusto, flushed and lifted by the gorgeousness of it all. His face full of joy, he'd catch my eye, as I sat, at 5 or 6, cross-legged on the floor in my overalls and saddle shoes, and in his look there was the gift: See? 

I did. 

When my son was about to leave for college two years ago, in the course of a conversation about separating, he asked me how I felt about losing my father, who died when I was 30. It wasn't at all what I thought it would be, I told him. Every time I feel happy, I recognize Grandpa's spirit, I said.
I looked at my son; he looked at me. I see, he said.
He did.