Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Father's Influence

They say that one of the most important influences on a girl's self-esteem is the role her father plays in her life. Intuitively, I think that is true, and I know for a fact I benefited from a real winner in that department.

My dad went to the South Pacific on a troop ship instead of going to college, but he loved to read. His favorite subject was history. Despite cultural bias in our Catholic blue-collar community against intellectual pursuits in general and, especially against educating girls, he encouraged me to be curious about my world and he never once gave me even the slightest hint that he would accept anything less from me than the relentless pursuit of knowledge, in school or out. The first fight we ever had was over homework. He found my homework papers unacceptable. I told him they were good enough. He said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." He made me redo my homework, and he left me with a mantra. I may have been just a girl to the rest of the world, but he expected more of me. I soon learned to expect even more of myself than he did.

When I was in high school my dad read The Female Eunuch. Why on earth he read it I have no idea. Personally, I think he thought it was a dirty book. To my knowledge it was the only "liberal" and/or "feminist" book he ever read. He never told me what he thought of it. When he finished reading it, however, he gave it to me. I read it but I have to confess it didn't make a huge impression. Geer's thought processes were too difficult for me at the time. It inspired me, however, to read The Feminine Mystique, which I did understand (because it described the lives my mother and her friends were living at the time and which I was determined to avoid at all costs). Dad never mentioned the book again and he never mentioned the Feminists in a positive light, but somehow I always knew that his opinions were more complex than they appeared. He may not have liked the Feminists, but he knew they were looking out for my best intersts. He may not have wanted me to turn out exactly like them, but he wanted me (for some reason) to know about what they were doing. I don't think he really understood it or accepted it, but at some visceral level he made an exception for me in his anti-Feminist attitudes. I have always appreciated that.

Perhaps most importantly of all, my dad showed me by example how to pursue dreams. When he retired he embarked upon the study of music. The man could not read a note of music until he was in his early sixties at which point he started taking music lessons. For years, he practiced for hours and hours every day. No girl ever had such an amazing confluence of inspiring witnesses as I did at that point. My mentor, Liz, was off in Arizona learning to paint and writing long passionate letters about the ecstacy of the process. My dad was learning to play the organ, with perhaps less flair but every bit the determination. He never tried to describe how he felt about that. He didn't need to. It was evident in his beatific visage every time he sat down to play.

I heard the message loud and clear: follow your bliss; it is never too late.

He never pushed me like some fathers do. He merely offered me alternatives that may not have occurred to me because they cut across the grain of the ambient culture in our community. He practiced his principles rather than preaching them. How many girls have ever been lucky enough to have a dad like that?

No comments: