When I was a child, I was undeniably a Daddy’s Girl. I have always been a lot like my father, typically quiet and stubborn and restless. My parents divorced when I was six years old, and my mom decided to move with her new boyfriend and us girls from Central Illinois all the way to the Northwest corner of Georgia. There was only one flaw in her plan. There was absolutely no way I was moving hundreds of miles away from my dad. Not in a million years. Child though I may have been, I was very matter-of-fact when I informed them both of this. To my six year old brain, this wasn’t even an option. My dad had been living away from our house while my parents were separated and preparing for divorce. He was staying with one of his best friends, a man we girls would come to call Grandma Gary, a man who would remain a presence in our lives until he died when I was in my early twenties. My sisters and I spent weekends with our dad at Grandma Gary’s place, a decrepit farmhouse somewhere in rural Central Illinois where it was drafty in the winter and there was a radio softly playing an oldies station twenty-four hours a day. We were allowed to run wild on the acreage there, we got to drink as many Dr. Peppers and RC Colas and grape pops as we wanted, and we learned how to shoot a black powder gun.
When my parents split, our dad was free to take us places with him that maybe we wouldn’t be allowed to go when my mom was dictating his movements. There were no rules, just the ones that he put in place, and those were few. Dad was a softy, and we knew it. Coming from an authoritarian mother, discipline wasn’t really his bag. He never let us do anything wildly dangerous and he didn’t expose us to anything worse than mom did. But even when our mom was so drunk she barely knew her own name, she could manage to slur, naw you can’t hev a canna popped, it’sh pasht yer behtime.
Dad was permissive. He was lenient. For the most part we could be absolutely wild with him, staying up late, running around outside with abandon, hanging out in his mechanic’s shop for hours on end. This was not the only reason I was a Daddy’s Girl. I just was, seemingly from the moment I was born, despite the great turmoil that surrounded my coming into this world and their marriage. In the past five years it came to light more and more that I had a lot of characteristics from my mom’s side of the family, such as my predilection for booze, mental illness, and my McGuire green eyes. But back when I was a wee babe, there was no denying that I was my father’s child through and through. Moreover, I was my grandmother incarnate. When my family wanted to be cruel to me, they would call me by her name. He looked like she spit him out of her mouth, I looked like he spit me out of his.
In the cooler behind us, I can almost guarantee that there was Busch beer and grape soda. If that’s a pot behind us, it’s probably filled with some sort of stew that we will eat later. Oh, and the hair? What should you do when you have a child who is plagued with sensory issues who won’t sit still and stop screaming while you try to brush out her curly hair? Cut that shit off! As short as you can justify without getting family services called on you! Parents of children with curly hair take heed: don’t brush it. For the love of all things rational, DON’T BRUSH IT. Guess what I don’t do as an adult with shoulder-length curly hair? I don’t brush it. Because brushing curly hair is stupid.
Dad and I have the same orange-ish, brownish hair with the same unruly curly wavy frizzy mix. We have the same gangly limbs. We purse our lips pensively in the same way when we are pissed off about something. We have the same tendency to buck authority. We are both weirdo loners who like to do our own thing on our own terms, but who love fiercely and warmly to the depths of our souls. We both have problem-solving border collie brains that won’t just calm the fuck down and give us some peace.
My mom was reluctant to let me live with my dad while she and my sisters moved several states away, but she had spent the first six and a half years of my life fighting me on various issues every single day. She was weary and willing to consider that maybe my dad could manage me. And I was adamant. This was what I wanted and I would pull down the moon and the stars with my tiny hands to make it happen. Or I would kick and scream and say hateful things because those were the weapons I had. They gave in, though not until I had already gone to Georgia with my mom and my sisters and my mom’s boyfriend. I hated it there. Hated it with every fiber of my little being. There are pictures of my seventh birthday at the Pizza Hut in Cedartown, Georgia where I look positively depressed. I am surrounded by presents and cake and family and friends, and I am clearly miserable. The misery is evident on the faces of my sisters, too, but they have always been exponentially more polite than me.
My memory is fuzzy on the details, but somehow I ended up coming back to Mt. Zion to live with my dad. He had rented a farmhouse of his own by that time. It was a two story house with godawful wallpaper and creaky floors and shingle siding. It sat on a blacktop, a road that people flew down in their cars the way people tend to do on rural roads because they forget to remember that other people live on those roads and have children and pets that play in the yard. I was always being cautioned to STAY BACK from the road, to play in the back yard instead of the front. There were outbuildings all over the property, which was surrounded by fields. There was a long, dirt lane on one side of the house where my oldest sister learned to drive my dad’s old gold Chevrolet one summer when she was twelve or thirteen, puttering up and down the lane, being super cautious the way she usually was. The house had a bathtub with no shower in the main bathroom. If you wanted to shower, you had to descend to the cellar that was accessible through a huge and heavy trap door, the cellar where the light barely permeated into the space through the one tiny window, and the shower stall was adorned only with soap-on-a-rope.
There was one bedroom on the main floor where my dad set up his waterbed and his dresser. There was a staircase that was walled in on either side and curved halfway up, the walls covered in ancient floral wallpaper. There were two bedrooms upstairs. They shared a closet that had a door on either side. The ceilings up there were slanted, and the windows were tall and hard to open. The staircase wallpaper extended all the way up here into both rooms. My dad set these up for us girls, building bunkbeds for Yay and me in the room that was at the top of the stairs. Nep had her own room, but you had to walk through ours to get to it. These rooms were sort of like shrines, only for use when they came to visit at Christmas and in the summer and when I was brave enough on sunny days to go up there and play by myself. Otherwise, there was a pullout couch set up downstairs in the dining room where all my toys and my pet gerbils lived. This was meant for me but I can count on one hand how many times I actually slept in it. I would sneak into my dad’s room and crawl into bed with him so often that he finally gave in and just let me sleep in there. This also meant he could keep the heat much lower since we were both hunkered down in a heated waterbed. Keeping a drafty farmhouse warm is serious business and can get expensive fast. And sleeping by yourself in front of huge windows that whistled when the winter wind howled and that had no curtains so you could see right out into the darkness was terrifying. This meant it was a win-win for dad and me.
I only lived with my dad for about a year before he realized maybe raising a daughter full time was more than he anticipated it would be, and before my mom insisted that I come live with her. Her insistence actually had to do with one of my most pervasive memories of living with my dad. Each morning when it was time to wake up, he would fill the farmhouse bathtub all the way to the brim for me with extra warm water. Waking up has never been easy for me, and it was especially difficult as a child. My dad would scoop me out of the warm waterbed where I would be splayed in slumber and carry me one-armed into the bathroom. I can vaguely remember so many mornings like this, being bleary-eyed and trying to gain consciousness as the cool morning air of the farmhouse air hit my face after I’d been removed from the warmth of the bedroom. He would set me down on the rug in the bathroom – careful not to let my tiny feet touch the freezing tile floor – where I would stand, wobbling, while he peeled off my cotton nightgown. I would climb into the bathtub, filled to the brim with extra warm water, the gentle hands of my father three begins me to keep me from losing my balance. Dad would exit to the kitchen, which was adjacent to the bathroom, leaving the door open so he could keep an eye on me while he prepared breakfast.
I don’t necessarily remember breakfast from my childhood all that distinctly, except in the public school system in Georgia, and when I lived with my dad. He is a hot breakfast man. He does love frosted mini wheats, but only at night as a bedtime snack. As far as he is concerned, humans are meant to have hot meals in the morning, and my memories of breakfast with him are of sausage and eggs and toast and biscuits and gravy and milk and juice. Hearty breakfasts. The radio played oldies quietly, or he listened to the news, as he cooked breakfast for us and I took my time waking up in the bathtub.
Dad trusted me to bathe myself, and I did the best I could as a seven year old. But my mom had always micromanaged our bathing process and I didn’t know how much soap or shampoo or conditioner to use. Maybe I should have known what I was doing at seven, but I often got it wrong. I would use way too much conditioner and I wouldn’t get it rinsed out properly and then I would use a quarter of a can of Aquanet on my wet hair to slick back one side of it because I thought that looked fabulous. My dad didn’t take me to task for this because he didn’t know any better himself, and it wasn’t as if my greasy, Aquanet-saturated hair was a threat to my health or well-being as a child. But when I went to visit my mom’s sister at one point when I lived with my dad, she noted that I smelled weird and my hair was greasy. This is a woman whose house was and probably is so permeated with cigarette smoke that the walls and the furniture and the blinds and the windows were yellowed. But it’s all relative, I suppose. This sparked my mother’s concern, and my dad didn’t have a lot of fight in him. She convinced me that this was correct and I told him that I thought it was best.
My year with my dad was a fascinating time, during which I was able to exercise a great deal of independence and acquired lots of pets and learned how to care for horses and how to communicate unabashedly with adults. He was a man who had been on his own since he was seventeen years old and I can’t imagine that trying to raise a daughter alone while keeping a business afloat and processing a divorce and the fact that your two other daughters and your son weren’t with you was an easy burden to bear. At twenty-nine I am still a Daddy’s Girl in many ways. My dad and I have had some rocky years, but he has been an incredible father to us girls in our adult lives. He is a man who I admire and respect with all of me, a man whose very presence still incites in me the same little girl excitement that I felt twenty some odd years ago when I knew I would have the chance to spend some time with him. He is a man who can do anything he puts his mind to, can quickly learn any new task in front of him. He is a man whose well of knowledge is impossibly deep, and whose quiet thoughtfulness is unmatched. He would do anything for anyone, would move heaven and earth to help someone out. He is consummately resourceful, intelligent, witty. My dad is one of the greatest humans I know, without question.