That’s MY Daddy!

“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

A four-year old girl stands with a tiny suitcase in hand as a passenger ferry pulls into dock. When she spies her father on the second-story deck, she jumps up and down, shouting: “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

Surprisingly, that little girl is me (almost forty years ago). I can still remember the smell of the docks warmed by the summer sun, and the sounds of gulls flanking the ship as her stern squeezed itself into the snug embrace of the piers.

“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” I yelled, tugging my Nana’s arm into the air. I had come to spend my first overnight at her house, and we had a wonderful day together. We picked berries, walked along the boardwalk, and visited the beach. I helped pluck ripe tomatoes from her backyard garden and met her friend, the frog, who frequented there.

But when the call came that afternoon to check on me, it was all over. As soon as I heard my father’s voice on the phone, I fell to pieces, saying that I wanted him to come get me, right then. 

His reply?

“Ok.”

Decades later this response seems a major miracle–given my father’s lifetime indifference to the emotional aspects of parenting, and the challenging relationship we shared once I was older.

Even more amazing is the fact that I wasn’t down the street or across town, I was in another state–and a couple hours away– including a ferry trip across the Delaware Bay.

The story grows even more climatic, however, as my penny-wise, pragmatic father, forgoes his plans to have my Nana board me–and crosses the ramp himself to lift me into his arms–because he can’t resist my excitement; thereby having to pay an additional return fee.

“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” That phrase has taken on mythical qualities in the family history, but you’d have to hear like I do with the twang of my Nana’s Delaware accent. She retold that story on each visit we made to her seaside town of Rehoboth; so that by the time that I was in my twenties, I was no longer sure if I remembered any of it from experience, or if it was simply her telling that I knew so well.

But it doesn’t matter, because it served the same purpose: it anchored the affection between me and my father– for a lifetime. Perhaps, Nana, in her great-grandmotherly wisdom, knew that we would need to draw upon this for many years to come.

As I grew up, it was my mother who I found easier to love. She and I easily became friends as I entered adulthood. With my father, things grew increasingly difficult, particularly as I began to spread my wings, and even more so after my parents divorce.

My father had been the one prone to anger, erratic discipline, and increasingly absent from our lives. He had always provided for our family, and we were proud of his work as a surgeon, but what we really craved was his time and affection–something he never seemed able or comfortable enough to give in any satisfying doses.

And yet, strangely enough, it is his shining moments of devotion that are strung along in my mind’s history of our dance together. At eight years old, I remember the day when I discovered that my mother had disposed of my beloved “blankies,” telling me once and for all that I had grown too old for them. This triggered an episode of hysteria in me that my father might typically dismiss with a fury, but instead it was he who listened to my tears.

Like a knight in shining armor, he rescued my blankies and returned them to me–pleasantly amused at my passion–and perhaps the simplicity with which he could play the hero.

In looking back, it might be that my father was the more tender-hearted one of my parents after all. He was certainly more prone to the range of emotions that accompany one who acts from the heart. Or maybe it was simply that his moments of grace were so few and far apart that they took on larger-than-life proportions. Whatever it was that possessed him to sudden strokes of fatherly greatness, the memory of them lasts to this day.

My favorite story is not the “That’s my Daddy” tale that my great-grandmother loved to tell, but another precious drama that occurred just between the two of us–forever etched into my heart in its unforgettable intimacy.

I was a snowy day in downtown Philadelphia, 1969. I was just five years old and waiting outside in the cold for my daddy to pick me up from kindergarten. He was in his third year of medical school at Jefferson.

Schools were different in those days. They didn’t keep track of every child, and there wasn’t someone “on duty” to attend to stragglers. Thus, no one saw my tiny frame, standing there in the deepening snow, and no one suggested that I come inside while they called home.

In fact, when I trudged through the snow back to the entrance, I found the janitor locking the doors, and learned that my only option was to re-enter this tall city instution from around the back–which seemed very far away to a little girl who was certain that her father would not look for there and that she’d be left forever.

I was told to wait out front, so I did, shivering as the snow fell upon me.

My father never did remember me until he arrived home that afternoon an hour late to my mother’s panic:  “Where’s Kelly Ann!?”

By the time he sped up to the curb, my teeth were chattering and icy tears were rolling down my cheeks. My young father quickly lifted me into the car, turned the heat up, took my hands in his and warmed them with his breath.

Then he removed my socks and shoes and placed my frozen feet–and this is the best part–under his shirt, snug against his belly.  

We rode home like that, our bodies touching, his warming mine.

To this day, that act stands out as one of the most loving moments of my life. In fact, I repeatedly challenge my husband’s devotion by insisting he warm my cold feet against his belly each winter night.

Sometimes, when I find myself filled with resentment for my father’s failure to strive toward any of the “Hallmark” measures of parenting, I see that little girl with the suitcase in hand, jumping up and down, shouting with glee, “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”And I decide to give this love story another chance…

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My father revisiting my school in Philadelphia–almost 50 years later. (I remember it much bigger.) photo: 2014

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