My father isn't what I think of when I think of a typical feminist. Machismo flowed from this man like butter. He didn't like "loud broads" or chicks who didn't fall in line. Women could have jobs, but also had to cook and clean and be the perfect housewife. Sometimes, I don't know how my mother put up with it other than the fact that she loved the man.
Despite being Mr. Macho, everyone seemed to love him. He was a guy's guy. He was a drag racer in the 1950s. He worked on cars and had a motorcycle, but could also make the ladies swoon in the same beat.
From a young age, I remember him scoffing at "women's rights" and "women's lib." My mother would attempt to have an opinion, but he would immediately shut her down with "the look."
I would become more than familiar with "the look" as a tween. Once I was old enough to know better, I challenged him: "But, Dad, don't you want me to be able to make as much money as a man or have the same opportunities? Make my own choices?" The day I said that it stopped him in his tracks. I was 11.
"Well, that's different," he sputtered. And other than that, he couldn't give more of an answer. It became his answer for everything I questioned that involved my future, sometimes adding, "You can do whatever you want, Punkin. You've got a good head on your shoulders." He even broke his "no women" rule in the garage for me.
Since my father worked as a mechanic, I knew every tool in his toolbox by the age of 9. I would even go out to memorize each tool when he wasn't around to. I became his very reliable helper. He never let me lie under the cars with him, mind you. Women still weren't technically supposed to hang out in garages. Not even my mother was allowed in the garage when work was being done. For some reason, he loosened the rules with me.
When I was 12, I told him I wanted learn how to fix cars so I could be a drag racer, like he'd been, when I was old enough.
"Nope, nope. That is not happening," he said very gruffly. "You are going to college because you are going to have a better life than this."
To which I, of course, argued because I could go to college and still drag race.
"Daaaaad, you did it when you were old enough. If you teach me, you know I'll be good, and then that's how I can put myself through college," I pleaded. "Plus, you've always said I can do whatever I want with my life."
"We're not talking about this again," he said. And we never did.
Granted, I could have gone off and done it anyway. My father always wanted more for me even though the things he could do to a car were like artwork. Even now that "garage" smell — a mix of gasoline, motor oil, grease, and dirt — brings me back to the days when I was my father's dutiful helper.
When I was 13 and my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, my father truly became my primary role model. Prior to this, I was fairly meek and mild; a quiet kid for the most part, unless I had something important to say. Once my father's influence took hold, his half of my DNA became dominant. I voiced my opinion without worrying about the consequences. I stood up for the little guy and didn't back down.
At one point, without realizing it, I became a sugar mama of sorts to my high-school boyfriend. I thought nothing of it until one day, "Hey, so, people look at me weird when you pay all the time," the boyfriend said.
I stared at him. "What? I don't even know what you're talking about. Anyway, who cares?" I said.
By this point, I was 16 and my mother was in the deep throes of Alzheimer's, so my father and I mostly talked in passing as we tried to come to grips with the fact that my mother, his love, was going to die.
"Dad, is it weird for a woman to pay for things?" I asked him after the money conversation. I explained what happened and he paused thoughtfully before answering.
"Men like to be men. We like to be the dominant ones. It scares us when women show that they can be just as strong, or stronger, than we are," he said, making a point to squeeze my hand when he said "stronger."
"So, I'm scary? I'm just being myself," I said, somewhat confused.
"Dolly, you are turning into quite a woman. Dealing with Ma, most people won't go through what we're going through in their lifetime. You're being strong for me and Ma, and it's starting to show in your personality," he said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, and you don't need a man to make you whole. Remember that."
It was the best conversation I ever had with my father.
After that, I thought we'd be OK without my mother, but in July 1996, three months after my mother died and two months before my senior year of high school, everything changed.
That spring and summer, the recruitment letters from colleges across the country had come in fast and furious. I was, somehow, a straight-A student. I had a backlog of letters to go through. My dream was to move to New York City and pursue a writing career, but my safe plan was to go to a state school near my Wisconsin town. It was less unknown, less scary, and that's what I thought I needed — something predictable.
Then I opened a letter from New York University.
"Holy crap, Dad! Do you see this?" I screamed, excitedly handing him the letter. "NYU wants to recruit me!"
My father did not share the same excitement. He took the letter and asked me to sit down. I assumed he was going to say we were too broke to send me any further than a state school. I was prepared to say I'd work my ass off to save the money to get there. I was not prepared for what actually came out of his mouth.
"This is a good time to talk about your future,'" he said. "I've been thinking it might be good for you if you left now instead of in a year."
My stomach dropped.
He continued, "This town does not have opportunity for someone like you. I've watched it stifle you for too long. It's time you left it behind."
And then, slowly, "But, Dad, it's my senior year. I just got into National Honor Society. Remember I told you I'm going to be the school newspaper editor? It's my last year with my friends, and you."
"You can't see it right now," he replied, "but this is going to be better for you in the long run."
He explained that he wouldn't be supporting me financially and I'd have to find a place to live.
"You're almost an adult, so it's time you be an adult. And you can't stay in the area to finish school here, so don't get any ideas about staying with friends. You need to let this place go," he responded like it was nothing.
"But where will I go?" I thought aloud.
My father continued to tell me that I was stronger than anyone else my age, stronger than he was at my age, and that he knew I would figure it out.
"You're perseverant and resourceful. You'll be fine."
He was right. I would be fine, and I would "make" it, but not before using his (and my mother's) abandonment as an excuse for almost everything. And, ultimately, it destroyed our father/daughter relationship. I hated him.
It took me until 2010 to finally forgive him, and we talked by phone every week until he died on Halloween in 2013.
I miss the hell out of that man, but I'm fortunate he made me into the woman I am today: strong, resilient, and pigheaded, just like him.