I've been thinking a lot about the feminist label, and about my own personal journey towards it.
Am I a good feminist? I'm often uncertain.
Was the framework established long before I was making my own decisions? You be the judge.
My dad's idea of cooking is making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sometimes, if he's feeling nostalgic, it will be a butter sandwich - but that's another story. He doesn't clean. He dries the dishes after my mother washes them, and now that the kids are out of the house, he unloads the dishwasher. He may know how to do laundry, but I have never seen it happen. He does not iron, but he is always freshly pressed.
He did paint the house. I remember coming home from the pool on the afternoon he had fallen off the ladder. I'm not sure if he had locked himself out of the house, or if he just didn't feel like going in, but his bald head was scraped and bleeding, and his arm was very much broken. He was annoyed because he was hot and dirty, and didn't go to the doctor for several days. He's still grins if you mention it. "I wanted to see if I'd bounce," he told his kids, most of them crying. His smirk made us all laugh.
He mowed the lawn. Dad loves to mow. It's his quiet time. He also raked the leaves in the fall, and took the garbage to the curb. Dad did the outside chores, and Mom did the inside ones.
Dad earned the money, and Mom stayed home with the kids. As a teenager, he worked fourteen hour days, every day but Tuesday. Sometimes he would come home and Mom would make him lunch. On short days, she would hold dinner until eight, sometimes nine o'clock so that we could eat together. On the long ones, she would plan meals around what tasted good as a leftover. Dad's plate was always on the second shelf of the fridge, and we'd pour him a giant Coke to drink while he ate.
You can imagine my discomfort at the thought of referring to my father as a feminist.
Dad was raised in the South, in the 1950s, by a single mother. He lived within an hour of his hometown for the entirety of his mother's life. We spent some time abroad, but he eventually left that job and moved back us all back to his home, buying the grocery store where he had worked as a child.
That must have been a big moment for him.
I don't remember her, but from stories, Grandma Cybil was ferocious. In an era where it was scandalous to be a woman alone, her husband left. Rather than remarry, she devoted herself to raising her son. Rather becoming an object of pity, she became something of a town legend. Decades after her death, complete strangers would stop me to chuckle and say, "Your Grandma Cybil was quite the lady." All of Dad's childhood stories have a line in which some adult said, "You better hope your Mama doesn't find out about this."
The beatings are implied, but I know from my father that she never lifted a hand to her son. How she corralled the boundless mischief that is Dad - I can only imagine. But she did it by herself, and everyone finds that impressive.
Grandma Cybil worked a multitude of odd jobs to support her family. I can't imagine much was available for a lone woman in the 1950s, but she made it work. At one point, she cleaned inside a nuclear facility. My father is convinced that ultimately, it caused the leukemia that killed her - but Dad's clothes were always clean and pressed and he was always on time for school, and then for work. There was always food on the table. Grandma Cybil didn't take charity from anybody.
I don't know the details because he doesn't like to talk about them, but I know that she kept my very mischievous father on the straight and narrow so that she would retain custody. She made him attend a weekly dinner with his father's parents, so they had no room to complain that they couldn't see him. He had a perfect GPA, because Grandma Cybil demanded perfection from her son. No one was going to have any excuse to take her son away.
When it came time for college, the perfect GPA came in handy. My father attended an extremely prestigious university on merit-based scholarships, eventually earning a masters and owning several businesses. He visited his mother every weekend. He mowed her lawn and painted her house. She did his laundry.
As a father, I'm not sure if Dad had a feminist plan. I can't decide if he sought to create a little girl who knew her worth, or if he was just mimicking what he had seen in his mother. I know that he wanted me to be independent. I know that he was proud of me for being smart.
In an area of the country where daughters are "daddy's girls" praised for their pretty dresses or their pleasant demeanors, my dad swelled with pride because I was self-possessed and stubborn, just like him.
One of his favorite stories took place on a business trip to Mexico. I played with his colleague's children, despite the language barrier. (I do not remember the kids. I do remember chasing a chicken.) After a busy afternoon of hand-gestures and fun, Dad asked me if I'd like to learn to speak Spanish. "I already know how to speak," I informed him coldly.
I was four. He was delighted.
I remember playing with Dad. I was obsessed with My Little Pony, and he had bought me a castle, complete with throne and a tiny dragon. My favorite pony, Galaxy, was to be queen and wear the crown. I chose her because she was the prettiest; she had a gemstone where her eyes should be, and she was a unicorn, which was obviously superior to the other ponies who were just horses, or occasionally had wings.
Dad was playing the dragon. His name was Spike. I don't remember how it happened, but at one point Galaxy left the throne and Dad staged a coup. Spike was king. I insisted that he couldn't rule because he was ugly and Galaxy was pretty, but Dad just laughed at my childhood fury.
"It doesn't matter who's the best-looking. It just matters who's on the chair!" For years afterward, he would taunt me with, "Spike's the king!" The message was clear.
Before my teenage years, Dad was only angry with me on a handfull of occasions. On one of them, our teacher had helped us choose our future careers and we had worked on an art project illustrating what that would look like.
My teacher had assigned me "housewife" despite my certainty that I wanted to be a veterinarian. As a second-grader, desperate for approval, I had obeyed without protest.
When I showed the project to Dad, proud of my work, his demeanor went dark. "But you want to be a veterinarian."
Again, in my lame second grade way, I explained that the teacher had told me what to do, so I had done it. He asked if I had protested; I had not. He asked if I had asked questions about why. I had not.
That was when things got scary.
It's one of the only times I remember my father being physically intimidating. He put his hand on my shoulder and held me to the kitchen chair. When he's angry, he grits his teeth and they make a creaking sound. His teeth creaked and he put his face so close to mine that I could feel the ends of his mustache, and the danger vein in his forehead pulsed, rhythmically.
"Don't ever let me hear about you doing something without asking why again. Ever. The people in our family think for themselves."
When I was given detention (repeatedly) in high school for following this instruction (with all the tact of a teenager, I'm sure), Dad would laugh. Questioning authority was frowned upon in our community, so I was in trouble often. I'll never know what he said behind closed office doors, but the detentions rarely stood. Teachers resorted to threats like, "What will your father think when I tell him this?"
I got the distinct impression they thought he would beat me, but the detentions stopped eventually. Sometimes, they would go by his business to tattle. I'd see them there sometimes, glaring smugly as they left. I've always wondered if they knew that when the door closed, he'd laugh that slow, quiet laugh that meant he was proud of me.
The people in our family think for themselves, Kid.
Stay tuned for the (possible) next installment, in which we explore the complications of puberty and sexuality.