I remember spending Saturdays with my Dad …as father-and-son.

audience-clappingWe would go to the movies and eat popcorn together.  It was in the darkened theater (the neighborhood Nortown was decorated like a wonderful villa by the sea, with stars twinkling high above in the dark night-sky ceiling) that I tapped into my alternate source of knowledge — the splendor of the world of the movies.

As I watched the beautiful people move across the screen in furs and limousines, I knew I belonged to that life. I would wear those lovely gowns and jewels, dance ’til dawn on the plush lawns rolling down to the whispering sea and travel to far-off places.

My Dad encouraged me, affirming that I could do whatever I set my mind to do. He told me, “Be a leader, not a follower.” He said, “Myrna, the world is your oyster.” I believed him.

Back in the real world, my father finally found his niche after a record twenty-six jobs in one year.  He began a career in the roofing industry which led him from laborer to founder and eventually owner of a substantial contract roofing firm in our city. Then, never having graduated from high school, he went on to educate himself in the history of the world, in literature, mathematics and business.

Now, we spent our Saturdays in his office. I amused myself with yellow pads of paper, the old Smith-Corona, paper clips and rubber bands, while Dad worked on his proposals and his education.  The message was clear: hard work would bring its own rewards.

The rest of the message, though subliminal, was also coming through loud and strong: rewards come in the form of necessities only. You get what you need to survive, and then, maybe, if you are lucky, there would be a little left over for luxury. “Real life” was no place for frivolity or extravagant dreams, because no matter how hard  you worked, you couldn’t live like the people in films.

My ten-year old confidence was beginning to be shaken.

The path that led up to that point in time had been long and rocky. Growing up in the fifties, I drew most of my knowledge of the world from two disparate sources: the confusing reality of my everyday experience and the bright fantasy of the movies. Reality was a one-bedroom apartment in which I lived with my parents and my two younger sisters, Susan and I had our beds in the dining room, and Carol, “the baby,” slept with my folks in the bedroom.  Occasionally, an aunt or grandmother would come to live with us for an indefinite period of time, and then, I, as the eldest, would give up my bed to sleep on the living room couch.

I really didn’t mind this because sometimes I heard the most astonishing conversations when when the adults thought I was asleep. We were poor (or so I was told) and my mother seemed to go in and out of periods of “nervous exhaustion,” during which my Aunt Ann would come to stay with us while Mom went away someplace for “hot baths.”

My father worked very hard.  His own background was stark and deprived – a bad memory that he never completely revealed in one piece. It was only by fitting together all of his inadvertent comments over the years, that I was finally able to put the whole story in place. Raised during the Depression, with little food to eat and rats on the floor where he slept, my Dad was tossed out on the street and the age of twelve, with orders to bring back food for a loveless family. He provided — when he got meager scraps of bread and cheese (sometimes a wilting head of lettuce). He assumed the role of the “head of the family” and providing for them was his job.

Those barren years shaped his view of life — his fears and unfulfilled needs rendered him unable to participate in joy or demonstrate his deeply hidden love and concern. Without a mode for demonstrating warmth and affection, my father had no way to enjoy his family, then or now. His only function was that of breadwinner …and that was the purpose of life.

My father always wanted a son. In his era, men considered having a son to be a confirmation of manliness and of course, there was the carrying forth of the “family name” to be considered. After my mother gave birth to her fourth daughter (the first had died and I was actually the second born), the doctor informed my Dad that his wife’s health wouldn’t endure another pregnancy. So Dad was forced to give up his quest for a male child. Instead, he proceeded to make me “first daughter,” his son-surrogate.

This was to be a mixed blessing.

At the age of seventeen, I graduated from high school with hope for a college education and a journalism career. But something happened that put an even deeper crack in my self-confidence. My Dad abandoned me. No, he didn’t physically leave, but psychologically he wasn’t there any more.

It felt as if he had turned to me after I had finished school (honored as a member of the National Honor Society) and said, “Now you must go the way of all women before you. Get married and raise a family.”

“But Dad,” I thought, “You always told me I could do whatever I wanted. You said I should be a leader. What about all those messages?”

Within my internal dialogue he always replied, “You are a woman and must follow a woman’s road in life.”

Confused and disappointed, I managed to struggle through one semester, but with no support or external source of reinforcement, I finally succumbed to his expectations, society’s expectations and my own lack of belief in myself. I found a husband, got married and had two children.

…from “Stages of Life” by Myrna Leigh

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