Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree Burn.
When I was seven years old and on my way to the only beauty pageant I ever entered, I stood in front of Daddy and showed him my best curtsy, then waited for him to utter something endearing and supportive. It never came. Instead, what happened that night set the stage for so many other experiences I’ve had with men in my teen and adult life.
This year, I missed seeing my dad at Father’s Day. I’m sure he missed seeing me and especially my daughters. At almost 80, he probably felt the way I did that night when I was seven— insignificant, alone, unimportant, hopeless, worthless. But I couldn’t help it. The custody agreement says the girls are with me on Mother’s Day and with my ex on Father’s Day, so there was no taking them to visit their grandfather this year. I feel guilty for missing his special day, even though my life with him has been a vivid mixture of both love and hate. He was a hard man to love. Still is. His physical frailty has not diminished the power of his manipulation.
It’s on Father’s Day and the days after that I think of him and his effect on my self-esteem as I grew up, as I worked hard and married and set out to raise my own family. It’s easy to see now that I married a man so like my dad, like the verbally and emotionally abusive side of him, but I’m just now realizing that there was a contrasting side to Daddy that made his abuse all the more intensely felt. Given the leather belts doubled and broken on my brothers’ backs and the constant verbal and emotional abuse reserved for the women in the family, it would be easy to hate a man who dedicated himself to negativity and fear, but there was a sweet side at one time—before I was seven— and it’s been my undoing in my own adult relationships with men.
There were times after I was seven when I knew I’d never be good enough, no matter how hard I tried or how talented or how very valuable my skills would later turn out to be to the rest of the world. Throughout high school, I brought him report cards with all A+s and one A, and he’d tear into me. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make all A+s? An A wasn’t good enough. I had to do better, especially considering all he’d done for me. Didn’t I want people to see my name on the A Honor Roll in the newspaper and know I was as good as any of them? Was I ignorant or something? Never mind that I found his own report cards after I’d grown up and was astonished at the consistent Cs and Ds. He set an impossible standard for me far above anything he’d achieved and then told me I could never measure up—and reiterated every day of my life with him that I would never be good enough.
I don’t remember hearing him tell me he was proud of me until well after I’d married a banker—someone who would make him look good to his friends in town—when he wrote me a letter telling me how proud he was that I’d married and had two beautiful daughters. My worth, it was clear, was my womb. He didn’t acknowledge my intellectual or creative accomplishments, just my ability to marry well and bear children. In fact, when I told him I was divorcing his much-admired son-in-law, I had already warned my daughters not to even carry their suitcases into his house for the overnight stay because he’d likely tell me to leave and never come back for daring to humiliate him with a failed marriage. People would talk, you know? To my shock, he showed me an unusual side of him that was tenderly and discreetly supportive. A side I vaguely remembered from before that night when I was seven and a contestant for the Little Miss Peanut crown.
Mama helped me dress that night. She’d tied my sash and used her own spit to wipe a smudge off my patent leather shoes. I’d looked in the mirror as she combed my short, straight, spiderweb-fine hair and I’d thought I was pretty, even without Mama saying so a dozen times. I still remember the way my blue eyes gleamed when I stared at the mirror and the way they matched the dress Mama had made for me herself. When I was ready, she urged me to go show Daddy my best curtsy.
As I walked carefully to where Daddy waited in the kitchen—no running or skipping or it might muss my hair!—I knew it was an important night. Yes, I had aspirations of being the next Little Miss Peanut Princess, but I wasn’t unrealistically hopeful about winning as many of my classmates were who’d been promised by their daddies that they were going to win because they were the prettiest little girls in the world. The most important thing was that my mother’s mother would get to see me on the stage. She was dying of stomach cancer and not expected to live the week. Only now do I understand what an incredible stress it must have been on my mother to support my brother’s high school graduation and my pageant preparation in the same week she tried to keep a stone face and pick out her mother’s burial shroud. Yet she made my dress and fixed my hair and did her best to see to it that I would look good on stage when my grandmother was wheeled into the front row to see me curtsy before the audience…if my dying grandmother could just hold on a little longer and have her last wishes.
And there in front of my father, the man who’d always treated me like gold, I grinned and curtseyed, careful not to crease the toes of my patent leather shoes. I was nervous about the pageant and the crowds, and I’d made no secret of it. Daddy was angry, though I have no idea why. He was younger then, about the age I am now, distinguished with a little gray in his dark hair and a good-looking man, but I don’t remember him looking at me, even when I pulled my skirt to one side and curtseyed low. I do remember what he said, though: “Well, when you don’t win tonight, don’t worry ‘cause you’ll still be my little princess.”
Not if. When. No words of encouragement or hope or how pretty I looked or how much he loved me. No, it was the message from then on. That I would never be good enough and that I was damned lucky he loved me because the others wouldn’t. I don’t know what had happened in his life at that time and I’ll probably never know, but there was a sweetness that had gone rather abruptly.
This angry and isolated side of my father was the man I married, the one who, like Daddy from that night on, never loved me for who I was but who demanded I earn his love with every action and thought.
And yet, Daddy wasn’t always like that. Not with me anyway. Before I was seven, before that night—which is the only event I can tie the transition to—I was Daddy’s constant companion. I went with him to town several times a week to the farm supply center, the feedmill, the bank, the tractor company, the fertilizer store, the seed store. He’d hand me nickels and dimes and I’d pull a small bag of peanuts from the vending machine on the other side of the waiting room at the feedmill and then I’d do my best to pull a grape Nehi from the vertical soda machine, but I never had enough strength in my little arms. He’d come over and pull it for me and pry off the bottle cap, then buy himself a strawberry Nehi. Sometimes, if they were out of grape, I’d get a 6-ounce bottle of Coke, drop the peanuts into the bottle one by one, and then drink the coke and eat the soggy peanuts when I upended the bottle. It was our ritual, and I adored my daddy.
It was our ritual, too, for him to show me off to all the women in town. Pretty women with hippie-print mini-dresses, false eyelashes, and Dippity-Do hair that flipped up at the ends or wiglets piled high on their heads. We would make special stops to show them how pretty I was. They would ooh and ahh over me, or rather, over a little girl and her daddy. He doted on me more in those public places than ever at home. In hindsight, I probably accompanied him to town so often because he loved the attention. And I’m certain now that the utterly sexy appeal of a young father with his little girl can be traced back to those preschool days with Daddy. I’m still a sucker for a man with a child gently by the hand.
I felt special with Daddy on our trips together. I felt loved. It’s the type of emotional support and affection I’ve craved since I was seven years old. I know it’s out there and I seek it and find it, only to have it yanked away, replaced by reminders that I’m so worthless and so lucky to be loved. It’s because of those days with my father when I felt special that I stayed so long with my ex and made bad decisions with other men—because I’d tasted the banquet and was willing to starve for forever if I could just once in a while get a crumb of what I’d once known.
I remember the pageant and I remember my grandmother in a wheelchair, giving every ounce of her strength to watch me walk onto that stage and curtsy when they called my name. I remember my grandfather next to her, and my mother. I don’t remember Daddy being there, though I’m sure he was. The little girl who won the pageant looked nothing like the playmate I knew—she wore false eyelashes, heavy makeup, a storebought pageant dress, and yellow butterflies in the black wiglets piled precariously on top of her head, then bobbie-pinned and sprayed stiff. Her father, she told me later, had told her she’d win because she was, after all, the most specialist little girl there.
But I’m not seven years old anymore. And I know that a man pretending to offer emotional support and affection may do so only to get his own needs met…or that he could possibly surprise me and really like me for who I am, no matter how different or unusual I might be. That he might like me for me and that I might not have to spend every minute of the rest of my life earning his love but being loved just for myself.
As for Daddy, I still love him and always will, but I know many of the self-esteem problems I’ve spent the past year shedding originated with him—deep emotional scars I’ve carried for over three decades—and I can finally recognize the truth of the matter: my father was fucked up.
As for me, I want a man who’ll love me as much in private as he pretends to in public, treats me like royalty, and doesn’t care if I’m wearing a crown but damn sure thinks I ought to be. A man who’ll touch the innocence and blind faith in me that I’ve been missing since I was seven years old.