Fathers and Daughters

I am an inveterate letter writer.  And I am never far from a pen, as virtually everyone who knows me, and has seen the perpetual pen-in-chignon look about me will attest.

I write letters to send; I draft missives  specifically for the purpose of not sending.  And I love to read collections of correspondence.  As I mentioned on Facebook a few days ago, no matter your politics, you might find President Reagan’s letters quite brilliant – they’re beautifully, artfully written.  People idolise him for a variety of reasons – for better or for worse.  They forget that Ronald Reagan remains, quite forgettably and humanly, our only divorced president.  As Governor, he brought no-fault divorce to California; started the wildfire that began on the 1st of January, 1970, and ended forty years later, in the Autumn of 2010, in New York. 

New York was the last state in the Union to adopt the no-fault regime – the law went into effect the week Andrew and I filed our final divorce papers after a year of gut-churning; legally-mandated separation under the former requirements.

That aside, and neverminding your taste in literature, the collected correspondence of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin is also quite a read.

Anyway.

I had dinner with my friend Derek last night, and he said: I felt like you just needed someone to listen.  And he’d pegged me just right – just so.  Though letters, in some sense, are listening.  They are writing to an audience of one, and they are not easily or quickly disseminated.  They are a private conversation.

Derek is the father of an adorable daughter, who recently turned three, and we were laughing and sharing stories of our lives and discussing who we were and who we had intended to be.  He was in the City for visits and meetings and such (he lives in the Philly area), and with regard to something we were discussing, he said, I do this for the kid.

Which got me thinking about fathers and daughters. 

My father and I are close now.  But when I was young, he travelled, and often the only moments I had with him were over the breakfast table.  He would make coffee and I would have cereal, and he’d offer up platitudes dressed as pearls of wisdom:

Now, Meredith, never let them see you sweat.

Never back down from a bully, sweetheart.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

(Incidentally, Strand does a fantastic impression of my dad…)

The last one – the one about breakfast – was the one that had always stuck with me.  Through school; through my university days; through law school and beyond.  It was always me and a bowl of cereal – hot or cold.

And then I got sick.  Which is a nice way of saying that the eating disorder that had always nipped at my heels finally consumed me.  By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was powerless against the world – or at least, against New York City, and marriage, and BigLaw, and all of the scary things that came with being a grown-up – and controlling my body seemed the only way to right the ship.

But even then, my father’s voice was in my head:  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Barely hanging on, I clung to breakfast.  In the days when I ate nothing, I still made my way through oatmeal. 

I wound up in hospital; I went through intensive treatment.  My eating disorder nearly killed me.  But it didn’t.  Because breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and I knew enough to eat that, and I had a place to start to begin again.

My father never knew (until now, I suppose) that his life lesson quite literally wound up saving my life.

The week Andrew and I filed for divorce, a little ways out from the worst of the dark days of All That, my dad sent me a letter.  It came by email, but I’ll call it a letter nonetheless.  He told me he was proud of me – of all of the things I had done — from my academic accomplishments, to my philanthropic work, to choosing an uncertain but happier future over an unhappy marriage, to facing recovery.

I cannot imagine that was an easy thing to write.  And in times of struggle, I read the note, and I remember that I survived a difficult thing, and while there was no one to hand me a medal at the end, my dad was proud that I had come through as I had.

I waxed a bit poetic about my father over dinner.

Derek asked me something to the effect of: But with fathers and daughters, even if you’re close, don’t you have periods of time where you separate and come back?

Yes.

He showed me pictures of his girl, with her big smile and his proud papa voice narrating her adventures on the screen of his iPad.

Fathers and daughters.  

The point, I suppose, is that words are an awfully powerful thing, however they are delivered.  The things that we think are mere platitudes turn out to be lifelines.  We separate and come back; we love and are loved in ways that we never expect, in worthwhile words that are not so easily shared.

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