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 some- thing endearing and supportive. It never came. Instead, what happened that night set the stage for so many other experiences Iâ€™ve had with men in my teen and adult life.
This year, I missed seeing my dad at Fatherâ€™s Day. Iâ€™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 sevenâ€” insignificant, Â alone, Â unimportant, Â hopeless, Â worthless. Â But Â I couldnâ€™t help it. The custody agreement says the girls are with me on Motherâ€™s Day and with my ex on Fatherâ€™s Day, so there was no taking them to visit Â their Â 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.
Itâ€™s on Fatherâ€™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. Itâ€™s easy to see now that I married a man so like my dad, like the verbally and emotionally abusive side of him, but Iâ€™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 brothersâ€™ 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 timeâ€”before I was sevenâ€” and itâ€™s been my undoing in my own adult Â relationships with men.
There were times after I was seven when I knew Iâ€™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 Â A, and heâ€™d tear into me. What was wrong with me that I couldnâ€™t make all A+s? An A wasnâ€™t good enough. I had to do better, especially considering all heâ€™d done for me. Didnâ€™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 Iâ€™d grown up and was astonished at the consistent Cs and Ds. He set an impossible standard for me far above anything heâ€™d Â achieved and then told me I could never measure upâ€”and reiterated Â every Â day of my life with him that I would never be good enough.
I donâ€™t remember hearing him tell me he was proud of me until well after Iâ€™d married a bankerâ€”someone who would make him look good to his friends in townâ€”when he wrote me a letter telling me how proud he was that Iâ€™d married and had two beautiful daughters. My worth, it was clear, was my womb. He didnâ€™t acknowledge my intellectual or creative Â 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 Â warned my daughters not to even carry their suit- cases into his house for Â the overnight stay because heâ€™d likely tell me to leave and never come Â back Â 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. Sheâ€™d tied my sash and used her own spit to wipe a smudge off my patent leather shoes. Iâ€™d looked in the mirror as she combed my short, straight, spiderweb-fine hair and Iâ€™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 Â 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 walkedÂ carefully toÂ where Daddy waited in the kitchenâ€”no running or skipping or it might muss my hair!â€”I knew it was an important night. Yes, I had aspirations of being the next Little Miss Peanut Princess, but I wasnâ€™t unrealistically hopeful about winning as many Â of my classmates were whoâ€™d been promised by their daddies that they were going to win be- cause they were the prettiest little girls in the world. The most important thing was that my motherâ€™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 in- credible stress it must have been on my mother to support my brotherâ€™s high school graduation and my pageant preparation in the same week she tried to keep a stone face and pick out her motherâ€™s burial shroud. Yet she made my dress and Â 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 audienceâ€¦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 whoâ€™d always treated Â me Â 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 Iâ€™d made no secret of it. Daddy was angry, though I have no idea why. Â He was younger then, about the age I am now, distinguished with a little Â gray in his dark hair and a good-looking man, but I donâ€™t remember him looking at me, even when I pulled my skirt to one side and curtseyed low. I Â do remember what he said, though: â€œWell, when you donâ€™t win tonight, donâ€™t worry â€˜cause youâ€™ll still be my little princess.â€
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 would- nâ€™t. I donâ€™t know what had happened in his life at that time and Iâ€™ll probably never know, but Â there Â was a sweetness that had gone rather abruptly.
This angry and isolated side of my father was the man I married, Â 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 wasnâ€™t always like that. Not with me anyway. Â Before I was seven, before that nightâ€”which is the only event I can tie the transition toâ€”I was Daddyâ€™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. Heâ€™d hand me Â nickels and dimes and Iâ€™d pull a small bag of peanuts from the vending ma- chine on the other side of the waiting room at the feedmill and then Iâ€™d do my best to pull a grape Nehi from the vertical soda machine, but I never Â had enough strength in my little arms. Heâ€™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, Iâ€™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 Â 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 Â 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 Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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. Â Itâ€™s Â the Â type Â of Â emotional Â support Â and Â affection Â Iâ€™ve craved since I was seven years old. I know itâ€™s out there and I seek it and find it, only to have it yanked away, replaced by re- minders that Iâ€™m so worthless and so lucky to be loved. Itâ€™s be- cause of those days with my Â father when I felt special that I stayed so long with my ex and made bad decisions with other menâ€”because Iâ€™d tasted the banquet and was willing to starve for forever if I could just once in a while get a crumb of what Iâ€™d once known.
I remember Â the Â pageant Â and Â I Â remember Â my Â grand- mother in Â 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 donâ€™t remember Daddy being there, though Iâ€™m sure he was. The little girl who won the pageant looked nothing like the play- mate I knewâ€”she wore false eyelashes, heavy makeup, a store- bought 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 sheâ€™d win because she was, after all, the most specialist little girl there.
But Iâ€™m not seven years old anymore. And I know that a man Â pretending to offer emotional support and affection may do so only to get his own needs metâ€¦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 Iâ€™ve spent the past year shedding originated with himâ€”deep emotional scars Iâ€™ve carried for over three decadesâ€”and I can finally recognize the truth of the matter: my father was fucked up.
As for me, I want a man whoâ€™ll love me as much in private as he pretends to in public, treats me like royalty, and doesnâ€™t care if Iâ€™m wearing a crown but damn sure thinks I ought to be. A man whoâ€™ll touch the innocence and blind faith in me that Iâ€™ve been missing since I was seven years old.