June 2018

Daddies and Daughters: The power and the glory

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

One of my social media acquaintances recently posed the question: What did you learn from your dad? I thought long and hard about my response, realizing that I have no memory of my daddy ever sitting me down for a lecture or intentionally teaching me any of life’s great truths. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from him.

You see, dads have a special way of teaching their daughters what to expect from the world. They have a tremendous impact on a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth that can be positive, negative, or a little of both, but rarely neutral. If you are a dad who has been blessed with a little girl, you are her first hero and her first true love. You have the privilege of showing her how to interact with and respond to men, and the power to shape her morals and character. This doesn’t start at puberty. It begins the first time—and every time—you cradle her in your arms, dry a tear, kiss a scraped knee, hold her hand, catch her when she falls, help her with her homework, read her a bedtime story, give her a piggyback ride, dance her on your feet, or tell her you’re proud of her… The way you treat her will color her world and influence every future relationship.

Memory lane
In my early formative years, I remember Daddy walking out the door each morning in a suit and tie, smelling of Old Spice and Camels (the cigarettes, not the animals), his jet-black hair neatly slicked back with Brylcreem, “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya.” (Do you know they still make that stuff? Order yours on Amazon for that cool daddy look.) When five o’clock rolled around, I would begin watching for his return, peering through the glass jalousies, waiting for his hug and kiss.

He worked as an accountant for Wagstaff Motors in downtown Atlanta. I loved to visit his office, see the shiny new cars in the showroom, and get a candy bar and a Coke from the vending machine. Daddy liked fancy cars, and I got to ride in a variety of demonstrators. One of his dreams was to teach me to drive someday.

Tall, thin and pale, I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my dad wear short pants or go shirtless. He was self-conscious about his hairy body and, in general, not an outdoorsy person—although he did mow the grass on Saturdays (in long pants and a short-sleeved shirt).

Perhaps the most impactful lesson my daddy taught me was to appreciate my unique features. I think he recognized his insecurity in mine and did not want me to suffer from it. You see, I was born with a mole on my right cheek. As a little girl with a moon pie face, I was so self-conscious, that tiny dot on my face might as well have been Mount Vesuvius. By age 12, I wanted that grotesque thing off, and I pleaded with my parents to let me have it removed. The answer was no. I didn’t understand … until Daddy stepped in.

He showed me a picture of Marilyn Monroe, indisputably one of the most glamorous women ever to grace the planet, and pointed out the little black spot on her face. He explained to me that it was a “beauty mark,” and that many famous actresses and models penciled them on, because they were not lucky enough to have a natural beauty mark like mine.

From that point on, I wore my mole with pride. Today, I consider it a distinctive part of my face and would never consider removing it unless it became medically necessary to do so. That one daddy/daughter talk turned my self-image around. I was beautiful, because my daddy said so.

The second important lesson came a little later as I began to bud into a young woman. I had plans to go to a concert at the Atlanta stadium with friends. I was 13 and not officially allowed to date, but that didn’t mean the boys weren’t swarming. It was July, as I recall, and when I walked out in my patriotic red, white, and blue hot pants, i.e. extremely short shorts for you post-baby boomers, Daddy sent me straight back to my room to change. There was no way he was letting me out of the house dressed like that. I resented his interference at the time, but by disciplining me, he was teaching me about modesty and men, while indirectly helping me define my future style. I learned that a woman doesn’t have to wear revealing clothes to get a man’s attention. While I like wearing figure-flattering clothes, the lesson has stayed with me and helped me, over the years, to develop a more refined look that commands respect but can still turn a head.

By sheer example and perhaps a little osmosis, Daddy also taught me to appreciate all kinds of music. He would crank up the radio and snap his fingers to “King of the Road,” or hum along to a Sinatra tune. But what he loved most was classical music. We didn’t have a stick of furniture in our living room except for Daddy’s hi-fi (and later a used piano for me). He would load up a stack of 33s, i.e. long-playing vinyl record albums for the millennials (read about them on Wikipedia), and lie on his back on the floor for hours, listening to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Something must have seeped into my soul, because I continue to be mesmerized by the works of those classical composers.

Unfortunately, my dad had an illness that kicked in when I was just starting grade school and became progressively more puzzling and embarrassing. His personality would begin to shift, followed by wild behavior swings. Restless and more talkative than usual, he would disappear, sometimes for weeks at a time, not showing up for work and not contacting anyone. He would eventually come home, sporting heavy beard stubble, his hair and clothes disheveled—completely out of character for a man who was so meticulous about his appearance. This was followed by a few weeks or months of lying in bed, shaking, crying, and chain smoking. He saw multiple doctors in an effort to find out what was wrong. The illness had no name, but it had a generic label—the one they slapped on mental issues they didn’t understand in those days: nervous breakdown.

Shuffled in and out of mental hospitals, where he was electroshocked and pumped full of drugs, he would gradually return to himself again. But he could never hold down a job for more than a few months before being overcome with that urge to hit the road again. Today, this behavior pattern of extreme ups and downs is known as bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression) and can be managed with appropriate drug therapy. But in the 1960s, they had no clue what to call it, much less how to treat it.

Because of Daddy’s erratic mood disorder, he was frequently at home recovering, while my mom worked. I couldn’t wait to get off the school bus and spend the afternoons with him, watching Gilligan’s Island and playing games: Monopoly, Parcheesi, Go Fish, and Gin Rummy. I learned about winning and losing—about being a good sport. And along the way, of course, I got lessons in housekeeping, cooking, caretaking, and compassion.

When Daddy began experiencing extreme back pain, doctors were baffled again. Because of his history of mental illness, when their attempts to treat it failed, they chalked it up to “all in his mind” … until the day he got in the bathtub and couldn’t get out. As he screamed in pain, my mom called an ambulance. Exploratory surgery revealed massive tumors on his spine, which apparently originated in his lungs—finally, an illness that could be named, but not treated: cancer. Daddy never came home again. He died in the hospital, six months later, just shy of my fifteenth birthday when I would get my learner’s permit to drive.

You might say the most valuable message was, “Don’t smoke.” Daddy didn’t have to tell me. He showed me. And the lesson could have easily gone the other way had I chosen to emulate his behavior as opposed to seeing it for what is was—an uncontrollable addiction that got ahold of him and didn’t let go until it killed him. I was never tempted to light up a cigarette.

But the most profound truth I learned from Daddy was this: Everybody leaves, eventually, whether they intend to or not. No matter how much they love us, people get sick. They die. They abandon us. While this may seem like a harsh lesson for a young girl to have to learn from her daddy, it strengthened and prepared me for many future challenges.

To all the dads raising a precious daughter, remember that your words and actions will mold her personality and influence her choices, now and in the future. You don’t have to be perfect to give her a strong foundation. Be a tough guy, but make sure to let her see your tender side, too. Love her. Respect her. Protect her. Tell her she’s pretty, but don’t forget to tell her she’s smart and capable and worthy. Teach her well.
Happy Father’s Day!

  1. Linda Hopkins article about her Dad is a masterpiece.

    — Elisabeth Nantz    Jun 3, 07:08 am   

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