by Kelly Salasin
“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”
A four-year old girl stands with a tiny suitcase in hand as a passenger ferry pulls into dock. When she spies her father on the second-story deck, she jumps up and down, shouting, “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”
Surprisingly, that little girl is me (almost forty years ago). I can still remember the smell of the docks warmed by the summer sun, and the sounds of gulls flanking the ship as her stern squeezed itself into the tight embrace of the piers.
“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” I hollered, tugging my Nana’s arm into the air with each leap. I had come to spend my first overnight at my Nana’s house in Rehoboth, Delaware, and we had a wonderful day. We picked berries, walked along the boardwalk, visited the beach. I plucked ripe tomatoes from her garden and met the frog who visited her there.
But when the call came late that afternoon to check in on me, it was all over. As soon as I heard my father’s voice over the phone, I fell to pieces, saying that I wanted to go home… right then.
Decades later this response seems a minor miracle–given my father’s lifetime indifference to the emotional aspects of parenting; and the increasingly challenging relationship we shared as I aged.
Even more amazing is the fact that I wasn’t down the street or across town, I was in another state–and a couple hours away–including a ferry trip across the Delaware Bay.
The story grows even more climatic, as my penny-wise, pragmatic father, forgoes his plans to have my Nana board me (so that he doesn’t have to pay for the return trip)–and crosses the ramp himself to lift me into his arms, unable to resist my excitement.
“That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”
This phrase has taken on mythical qualities in the legacy of family, but you’d have to hear like I do with the twang of my Nana’s Delaware accent. She retold that story on each visit we made to her beachside town so that by the time that I was in my twenties, I no longer knew if I recalled any of it from experience, or if it was simply her telling that I knew so well.
But it doesn’t matter, because it served the same purpose: it anchored the affection between my father and me–for a lifetime. Perhaps, Nana, in her grandmotherly wisdom, knew that we would need to draw upon this for many years to come.
As I grew up, it was my mother whom I found easier to love. She and I had more in common and easily became friends as I entered adulthood. With my father, things grew increasingly difficult, particularly as I began to spread my wings, and even more so after my parents divorced and my father remarried.
My dad had been the one prone to anger and erratic discipline, and increasingly absent from our lives. He had always provided for our family, and we were proud of his work as a surgeon, but what we really wanted was his time and affection–something he never seemed able or comfortable enough to give in any large doses.
And yet, strangely enough, it is his shining moments of devotion that are strung along in my mind’s history of our dance together. At eight years old, I remember the day when I discovered that my mother had disposed of my beloved “blankies,” telling me once and for all that I had grown too old for them. This triggered an episode of hysteria that typically my father would dismiss with a fury, but instead it was he who listened to my tears when he arrived home from the hospital. Like a knight in shining armor, he rescued my blankies and returned them to me– pleasantly amused at my passion–and the simplicity with which he could be my hero.
In looking back, perhaps it was my father who was the more tender-hearted one of my parents after all. He certainly was more prone to the range of emotions that accompany one who lives from the heart. Or maybe it was simply that his moments of grace were so few and far apart that they took on larger-than-life proportions. Whatever it was that possessed him to sudden strokes of fatherly greatness, the memory of his heroic acts last to this day.
My favorite story is not the “That’s my Daddy” tale that my great-grandmother loved to retell, but another precious moment that occurred just between the two of us. It is a moment that has been forever etched into my heart because of the unforgettable intimacy that it held.
It was a snowy day in downtown Philadelphia, 1969. I had just turned five and was waiting outside in the cold for my daddy to pick me up from kindergarten. He was in his third year of medical school at Jefferson. He forgot me.
Schools were different in those days. They didn’t keep track of every child and there wasn’t someone “on duty” who sent me inside to wait. In fact, when I trudged through the unexpected snow back to the school entrance, I found the janitor locking the doors, and learned that my only option was to re-enter this imposing stone building from around the back–which seemed frighteningly far away to a little girl who was certain that her father would not find her there and that she’d be left forever.
Because I was told to wait out front, I did, shivering as the snow fell upon me.
My father never did remember me until he arrived home that afternoon an hour late and my mother asked “Where’s Kelly Ann!?” By the time he sped up to the curb, my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and tears were frozen on my cheeks. My young father quickly lifted me into his arms, turned the heat all the way up in his car, took my hands in his and warmed them with his breath. Then he removed my socks and shoes and placed my frozen feet– and this is the best part–under his shirt, snug against his belly. We rode home like that, our bodies touching, his warming mine.
To this day, that act stands out as one of the most loving moments of my life. In fact, I repeatedly challenge my husband’s devotion by insisting he warm my cold feet against his belly each winter night.
Sometimes, when I find myself filled with resentment for my father’s failure to strive for any of the “Hallmark” standards of parenting, I see that little girl with the suitcase in hand,
And I decide to give this love story another chance…