Jewish World Review June 15, 2000/12 Sivan, 5760
It was the Detroit definition of Big Car, with lush white sidewalls and creamy white carpets, seats so thick and soft that a little girl could get lost in them, snuggled down deep in the leather next to her Daddy. I was waiting to be picked up at Ginger's birthday party, and I wanted to show off the maroon Cadillac. Most of all, I wanted to show off Daddy.
I was 5 years old.
That was the beginning of my memoir of my father and me ("Like Father, Like Daughter: How Father Shapes the Woman His Daughter Becomes''), and the root, branch and flower of my Father's Day recollections. Daddy was Mr. Magic, a big man with a big car. When I grew up I knew I had to write about him to recall the happy memories of being "Daddy's little girl'' as well as, later, Daddy's special friend.
When I was small, he was always larger than life, even though he wasn't tall. He was the handsomest man in the whole wide world. I teased him that his wavy black hair looked as though it had been colored with shoe polish because it had such a glistening sheen. I loved to dance on his shoe tops, knowing exactly what it meant to be walking on air.
When I was 5 years old I "married'' my Daddy. My father bought me a corsage with tiny pink roses. My mother was my matron of honor. My brother conducted the ceremony. At the end, he put a jigger in a handkerchief and asked my father to step on it, as a groom does at the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony. My father missed, and the jigger rolled across the floor to settle under the sideboard.
"Maybe the glass isn't supposed to break when you marry your father,'' Daddy said.
Such innocent times. You could spin all kinds of Oedipal theories around "the wedding,'' but as I look back I feel extremely fortunate. I had a father I loved and who loved me. For the memoir I wrote of growing up with my father, I talked to lots of women who enjoyed similar experiences. The happiest were those who grew up in intact families where mom and dad had a loving relationship, like my parents did.
The kind of man our mother marries sets the example, for better or worse, for what their daughter will expect of men when she grows up. From hundreds of interviews, I found that a woman from a close-knit family such as mine experienced a powerful imprint from the first man in her life. Quite simply, he exerted a strong influence on her sense of self, her femininity and competency.
When Diane Sawyer interviewed me on the inevitable book tour, she balked at the mention of femininity. "Isn't femininity what feminists want to leave behind?'' she asked, flashing her eyelashes with feminine ferocity. That was at the height of the women's movement, when the governing cliche was that women could be men.
But I wasn't talking about fake femininity. My father was quick to compliment me when I wore a new dress or changed my hairstyle, and I basked in his praise. He also expected me to get good grades and to study hard. He started saving for my college education when I was young.
We hear a lot today about low self-esteem. Women who lack attentive fathers can be especially vulnerable to ambivalent feelings of femininity and competency.
We've always known the importance of fathers for boys as role models, but it's still more difficult to talk about fathers and daughters. Several feminist leaders, including Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Kate Millet, had terrible relationships with their fathers, and this fueled their political attacks on the nuclear family.
There are lots of reasons for fatherless families today, but only the goofiest goddess-loving radical feminists defend this as "good.'' A child feels the loss and fears the abandonment of both father and mother. That's elementary.
My father died suddenly 12 years ago, when I was driving home to Washington from the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. I had talked to him the night before, playing the pundit and telling him why Mike Dukakis, who had just won the Democratic nomination, wouldn't be elected president. He agreed, but he was more concerned with telling me how much he liked the new photograph accompanying my newspaper column.
"You look darlin', Sue,'' he said.
Those were the last words he said to me. I play them over and over in my head on Father's Day.
And on every other day,
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors