Lessons From My Absent Father

The Thanksgiving I was a year old, my mom decided my father had beaten her for the last time. She packed a bag, called her dad, and we moved in with my grandparents. I’ve seen my father less than a dozen times since.

I’m thankful for that; I bless my mother for her strength in leaving him. He is, to say the least, not a good man. He abused the other families he created, too (I have nine half-siblings), and for much longer periods of time. He has served jail time for just a fraction of the crimes he has committed.

Most of our images of lessons we learned from our fathers are sepia-toned, burnished with love – as it should be, because most fathers are decent men, doing the best they can. Mine isn’t. But he still taught me a few things.

You CAN miss what you never had. I can’t count the times I was told during my growing up years that I “can’t miss what (I) never had.” Even as a kid I knew that for what it was – utter bullshit. Sure, I didn’t miss him in particular; I didn’t know him well enough to miss him, and I was aware from a young age that he was a person I wouldn’t want in my life. But for much of my childhood, there was a big hole in my heart shaped like what other kids called Daddy. The things we’ve never had are often the things we long for most.

There are worse things you can do to a child than leave her. Abandoning your child is a terrible thing to do, full stop. It is an act done by people who lack character, who are willing to dump years of suffering on their own child. I won’t minimize it. But there are also people in the world who do more harm with their presence than their absence could ever do. My father is one of these.

Well into my adulthood, I met my sisters – his other daughters, from other wives. Brilliant, gorgeous, tough, resilient women all. Their stories belong to them; they are not mine to tell. But when I was in the throes of childhood longing and self-doubt, wondering what was so wrong with me that my father abandoned me but would stay (sort of) to raise his other daughters, they were going through hell on earth at his hands. Though I could not have known this then, I struggle with it now. I feel guilt for what they experienced and I did not, and for having grieved over my own bruises, when their wounds were so terrible.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. For a long time, I thought forgiveness required patching things up, saying it’s OK, letting the forgiven back into your life. But forgiveness really only exists in the heart of the forgiver – an acceptance of what has happened, not a condoning. Some things can never be OK; some people, like my father, will never be safe to let in. Forgiveness, in my case, took the form of just not being angry anymore, not wishing him ill, not feeling defensive or ashamed. While this required professional help, it did not require an announcement, or his knowledge or participation.

Not to say that forgiveness is one-and-done. Or even linear. For me, it has been a choice I keep making, with the alternative rearing its head in unexpected places. When my next-youngest sister was diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life before her 42nd birthday, I was filled with white-hot rage and a scorching certainty that this was HIS fault; that it was the pain he caused her that became malignant, metastasized, and finally consumed her. That this was completely irrational did not matter to me at the time.

Last year, after my sister’s death, and after serving jail time for abusing yet another child in his orbit, my father sent me a letter. A very sad, self-serving letter about how he should have paid more attention to me while he had the chance, and would I please come visit him now, “before it’s too late.” Inside was a check for $500, with the word ‘inheritance’ written on the memo line.

I pondered what to do with this for awhile. Send it to another sister I knew was having financial difficulty? Not worth the risk of inflicting more hurt. Buy $500 worth of really excellent booze and drink it with ALL the sisters? Donate it to RAINN and have the acknowledgement card sent to him? Both those had merit. But in the end, I realized I could not touch, cash, handle, or otherwise perpetuate the energy behind that check. I did not want it myself, and I didn’t want to be responsible for sending it out into the world. I enclosed the check with a brief note, telling him I didn’t feel he owed me anything, and he should be at peace and use his money to take care of himself (because I’m not planning to, I left unsaid). As I dropped it in the mailbox, I found I could breathe easily again.

Time and love really do heal – but only if you let them. When I had enough of my childhood longing, I spent my teen years and some of my 20s angry. Being angry made me feel less helpless than I did when I was just hurt. It was his loss, not mine. I’d show him what he missed out on. Finally it dawned that in this kind of thinking, I was still living in reaction to him – which was just the flip side of waiting around hoping…what? That he’d notice me, repent his evil ways, and turn into a decent human and loving father? Living in spite of him was no different than living for him. It still put him – an absence – at the center of my life. Real healing couldn’t start until I let go of that anger and defensiveness, and decided to live by my own lights. Then time had room to do its work.

You just might find…you get what you need. If kids are like flowers, my garden was without the gentle, soaking rain of a father’s love. But throughout my life I’ve encountered kind and honorable men who provided some of the guidance and protection a good father would, in a kind of drip irrigation that allowed me to survive the parched landscape. My grandfather. Teachers who noticed and cultivated my gifts. The man my mother married when I was small, who unfailingly treated me like a cherished daughter, even as he was losing his battle with his own demons. A kindly neighbor, who wrote me funny poems and, I suspect, was responsible for some anonymous financial gifts during hard times. No, it’s not the same; but because the givers had no obligation to me, it was all the more dear.

Somewhere in the midst of living my life by my own lights, the healing came almost unnoticed. Then I had Adrienne, and saw Anthony become the amazing father he is. His presence and his love for our daughter is so vast that she can’t see outside it, to even imagine that things could be different. But as she gets older and sees friends in other situations, she understands enough to know we have something special.

My cup overflows.

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Frumpy to Fabulous in Three Parts

I once read that there is a reason Queen Elizabeth II of England follows her own fashion dictates – pastel skirt suits, with matching overcoats and hats – rather than current trends or even classic fashion guidelines. It’s because she (or whoever decides such things on her behalf) believes that fashion is inherently mean – judgmental – and that the monarch must remain outside that.

In many ways, she’s right. The fashion industry thrives on us feeling off balance, insecure. With every new season they convince us that the things we own and wear are hopelessly out of style, and we can be saved by the next thing – but woe betide you if you carry curves, or if you’re aging.

I’m a Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde when it comes to clothing. Sometimes I get it really right; I feel confident, everything just works. Other times I feel hopelessly frumpy, especially as I get older; but until recently I haven’t been successful in figuring out why things work for me or don’t.

A colleague of mine told me she gets a lot of inspiration from the TV show What Not to Wear, but I found the makeover element of it – telling the featured victim guest everything they’re doing wrong – more than I could bear. All of us could be perfectly stylish with two experts and thousands of dollars at our disposal. How many guests maintain their new look after they go back home to their everyday challenges?  I’m after feeling good about myself within the limits of the money and time I have to spend.

I know two things: first, that there are actual principles to fashion (even if I don’t know what they are) – not one size fits all rules, but reasons things look good or don’t, or why what you’re wearing might look great on you but not on me. And I also know that I’m teachable; I can learn and apply stuff. I just wanted to find a way to learn that wasn’t based on judgment, and that didn’t trigger the perfectionism and self-loathing monsters.

Enter Imogen Lamport. Imogen is an Australian image consultant who writes at www.insideoutstyleblog.com. It is the most extensive collection of information on every aspect of fashion that I have ever seen. More importantly, it comes from a place of kindness and support, not shame. The information is so comprehensive that I am having to take it slowly. Otherwise I fall into the perfectionist trap, using the gaps in my knowledge or the fact that I don’t yet know everything, as reasons to give myself a hard time.

I am only getting started, and I have a way to go before I look and feel the way I’d like to every day. But understanding just three things has added up to one big impact:

Body shape. Imogen uses letters to represent the general shapes women’s bodies tend to fall into. For example, H (similar measurements at bust and hip without a defined waist); V (larger on the top than on the bottom); A (larger on the bottom than the top), and many others. Your shape is not a problem to be solved; rather, it’s a guide, with specific principles that can help you dress your body in the way that is most comfortable and most flattering. I’m a combination of V and H: wide shoulders, narrow hips, without a defined waist. Learning about how to dress my shape is both freeing and fun. I’ve learned I can balance my V by doing things like wearing jeans with details on the pockets that draw the eye. And learning about my H shape gave me permission to just STOP trying to make wearing a belt work for me. Figure out your shape here.

Proportion. The way your clothes fit you, the pleasing (or not pleasing) way they fit together and draw the eye, whether they enhance or overwhelm you – is the foundation of dressing well and the thing I need the most help with. Our eye is most pleased by the ‘golden mean’ that occurs in nature (remember the Fibonacci Sequence in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code?). We don’t like to see things cut in half; instead we like proportions of 1:2, 2:3, etc. In rough terms, dressing this way in an outfit of two or more pieces means we’re putting one rectangle on top of the other – and one should be longer.

Volume. When we’re not feeling good about ourselves, we want to hide. If we don’t like how we look, we tend to hide in lots of fabric. Feeling heavy or old? Bigger clothes. We swamp ourselves in fabric thinking we’re hiding our perceived flaws, and only succeed in making ourselves look older, heavier, overwhelmed, and often accentuate the very ‘flaws’ we hoped to conceal. This was a huge one for me – I was actually wearing a lot of my clothes at least a size too big. It’s OK to wear voluminous items – but one at a time. Now if I want to wear a flowy shirt, I pair it with skinny jeans; trouser-cut pants mean a more form fitting top or jacket

A word to my short sisters. I’m a petite (under 5’4”, no matter your weight). When you’re short, you have less wiggle-room in which to create the right proportion, and the volume principle becomes even more important, as it’s easy to look like our clothes are wearing us, instead of the other way around. A butt or thigh-length shirt with pants cuts me exactly in half and makes me look even shorter; I have to end all my tops at the high hip. And the most important thing to have with me when I shop, is the camera on my phone. When I’m considering buying something, I take a full length picture while I’m trying it on (I know, but if I can do it, so can you). Many times something I thought worked when I looked in the mirror was revealed by the photo to be the wrong proportion, wrong size, or wrong color. Always believe the photo, not the mirror.

The more I learn, the less fashion feels like a frustrating search for something that will make me OK, and the more it becomes a way I care for myself.