LIFE WITH FATHER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had a very strange and strained relationship with my father. In his defense, he was 59 when I was born and newly married, for the first time. He had been a confirmed bachelor, living alone, for a long, long time.

Then suddenly he had a young wife of 33 and a child. Culture shock on all fronts. To his discredit, he never really tried to become more child-oriented and he never reached out to me at the various stages of my life. My Dad and Mom adored each other and had a wonderful relationship. But Mom could never get him to change his ways with me.

Dad played the piano for me a lot through my childhood.

Dad was a practicing psychoanalyst, a teacher and a published writer in his field. He lived in an intellectual ivory tower and was totally absorbed in his intellectual pursuits. That left little room for me. He would often walk by me in the hallway and not see me or acknowledge me. On other days, the only thing he would say to me was, “Where’s your mother?”

He also yelled a lot. He yelled out of anxiety rather than anger and was never mean or demeaning to anyone. Nevertheless, because of his aloofness combined with his yelling, I was scared of him. I usually didn’t want to be alone with him so my Mom had to be an intermediary between us. This made Dad feel hurt and rejected by me and created a vicious circle.

Me and my parents when I was 11

When I was about nine, my mom finally decided that we had to confront one another. She insisted that I tell my dad, to his face, that I didn’t like it when he yelled. I was frightened, but I did it. I’ll never forget my dad’s response: “Do I yell?” Dad then proposed that whenever he yelled, I should tell him he was yelling and then tell him to stop. It didn’t really reduce the yelling, but it reduced the tension between us and banished my fear of him. After that, whenever he yelled, I just yelled back.

Our relationship was epitomized by our dinnertime ritual. Both parents worked at home, as therapists. Dad always got out of work for dinner before my mom did. So we would sit at the dinner table, each at opposite ends, waiting for my mom. In silence. As soon as Mom arrived, we would all begin talking. Our conversations were lively, interesting and often filled with laughter. Both parents were interested in what I was doing and what I thought about whatever we were discussing. But the conversation was rarely between just me and my dad.

Me and Dad when I was around 22

When I got old enough to have serious intellectual conversations about history, current events, anthropology, etc., my dad and I had many on-on-one exchanges. One summer during high school, I read books on ancient Egypt and Dad and I shared many conversations on that topic. In high school, I started helping my Mom edit Dad’s writing. That provoked some heated discussions,

When I moved away from home, our phone conversations were short and stilted. We’d say, “Hello. How are you?” and then usually Dad would say “Here’s your mother” and turn the phone over to her.

Mom and Dad when Dad was in his late 70’s

My dad cared about me and worried about me a lot. He just shared all this with my mother, not with me directly. Mom would report to me about what my father thought about what was going on in my life. We would have three-way conversations when I had serious issues and Dad would be attentive and insightful. This only made it more painful to me that we could only have these conversations when my mother was present.

I realize now that in many ways, my dad was more in tune with me than my mom was. He was also usually more likely to say, “Let her do it her way. Don’t push her.” My mom was more controlling and had a fixed idea of what my life should be.

My favorite picture of Dad in his prime

The last thing my dad said to me before he died, was, “What did I do to deserve a daughter like you? I didn’t deserve you.” I replied, “You’re right. But I love you anyway.” I guess for us, that was a form of closure.

11 thoughts on “LIFE WITH FATHER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I think the relationship of a daughter and her father is terribly complicated especially back then. I don’t remember either one of my parents ever saying that they loved me yet I knew they probably did. I too was afraid of my father and I really disliked it when he repeatedly brow beat my brother every night at dinner. To this day my brother has difficulty sitting down to dinner.
    Leslie

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  2. You are lucky you managed to have at least a speaking relationship with your father. By the time mine died, we had stopped speaking for years and there was no likelihood of any kind of “fix” to the relationship. Rumors to the contrary, all relationships with parents are not “good” and “noble.” Many of us had difficult or even impossible relationships with parents and sometimes, with siblings too. The best part of childhood is often not what we do with our folks, but what we find in this world without them.

    Would I have like that “golden, Hollywood ending” to my parental relationships? The one in which my father said he was sorry, really truly sorry and such a terrible thing would never happen again? Of course. But it wasn’t ever going to happen because most of the really bad fathers don’t apologize. They don’t know how. Your father was simply not really “built” for fatherhood, but you respected him and his work and admired his intelligence. Mine was a bully and a pedophile and whatever else he accomplished, I was never able to get past those basic facts.

    And all I would have had to do was pretend “nothing ever happened.”

    My father was NOT invited to my brother’s funeral. Garry had to tell him (being the man in the family who could find a way to say anything and make it sound like a compliment!) … and thus, he was not there. I disliked him. My brother hated him. Both of us with very good reason. Actually, by the time she died, my mother loathed him too.

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  3. Parents who abuse their children are a whole different category of parent. There is no reason to have a relationship with these kinds of parents when you’re an adult. I can’t imagine what you and your brother went through as kids. I’m amazed you had a relationship with him at all when you left home. You were right to baan him from your brother’s funeral. He had to understand that what he did to you was wrong and would never be forgiven!

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    • I don’t know if he really understood the why of it, but my sister-in-law said she’d rather not have the funeral than to have that bastard in her home. I completely understood, but I knew this was not the time for a big confrontation … which is why Garry got the assignment. None of us could even talk to him.

      He always told his “wives” — he had two following my mother’s death — that he had no idea why his kids didn’t like him. No idea at all. Complete mystery.

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  4. it is so interesting to me, those last words to you as he neared death- it seems like an apology and admission that he knew how wonderful you were but was not capable of acknowledging it. I think men’s roles have changed over the years and in today’s world fathers are more hands on and open with their emotions. I was fortunate to have had a father who always listened and shared and I knew I could talk to., much more so than with my mother. As a child in the 1960’s this was still unusual, most of my friends had stilted relationships with their fathers.

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