My father has always been the quiet sort – more comfortable in solitude, reading a good book, rather than interacting with family or friends. He was raised by stoic, rather stern parents, who rarely expressed affection or communicated in any emotional way – so it’s no surprise he also had those traits. As a result, I grew up not really knowing or understanding my dad – alternating between feeling apprehensive about his periodic angry outbursts, yearning for him to be loving and affectionate (and feeling unloved and unwanted when he wasn’t), and finally feeling angry, resentful, and cheated that I didn’t have the kind of warm, demonstrative, invested father that my friends seemed to have.My mother, who HAD one of these jovial, affectionate fathers, but lost him when she was only twelve, wanted my sister and me to be closer to our dad. She came up with the idea of “Daddy-Daughter Date Nights.” The premise of these dates was that my father would spend quality, one on one time with each daughter – so every other month or so, when it was our turn, we’d go out with dad. I think these dates were as excruciatingly awkward for my father as they were for me. We didn’t know what to say to each other, so the conversation was stilted and hesitant. The discomfort fed on itself, becoming larger and more overwhelming – so by the time the night was over, I think we both were relieved to go home.
Sometimes my dad would try to find other activities for us to try, where conversation would not be required. Movies were always a pretty safe choice – and once, my father took me with him duck hunting. I think it may have been his first time duck hunting – I know it was MY first and only duck hunt (if you don’t count the Nintendo game). I remember it was cold, and wet, and we had to trudge through marshy fields and crouch down in the brush and weeds so we wouldn’t be seen. I was a fidgety tween, and dad had to remind me often to be still and quiet so I wouldn’t scare the ducks away. In the end, we got one, rather small, duck and took it back to my mother – who had no idea how to pluck or cook it – let alone how to pick all of the bird shot out of its little carcass.
As I got older, the dates gradually stopped. So, when I was 16 and approached my mom one day to ask if she would take me to a new, R-rated, movie that all of my friends were talking about, she said, “Why don’t you ask your dad?” You may have heard of the movie — it was just a little film about a sheriff, a beach-side community, and a large, hungry fish – they called it “Jaws”. So, when he came home from work, I asked, “Dad, do you want to go to Jaws with me?” He didn’t seem to think twice as he shook his head and responded, “I don’t think so.”
I was taken aback – and a little hurt – I didn’t ask my father to spend time with me often and to be so quickly and easily dismissed stung a bit. I returned to my mother, letting her know that dad had refused and I really needed an adult with me to get into the movie. She advised that I needed to be more persistent – perhaps he’d had a bad day at work – I should try again the next day.
The next day was a Saturday and we had a day trip planned to nearby Bear Lake, where they grew the best raspberries on the planet. My sister and I loved to go along, because we always stopped at the drive-in to get raspberry milkshakes. If you haven’t had a Bear Lake raspberry milkshake, well – you haven’t lived! And….now I’m craving one…in the middle of winter, and Bear Lake is over 700 miles away. Sigh.
On the drive back home, after I had sucked down the last of my milkshake and worked up my courage, I tried again. “Dad, I want to go to Jaws – will you come with me?” He made brief eye contact with me in the rear view mirror and shook his head again, “No, thanks.” My mother was turned diagonally in her seat, where she could see both of us. I shrugged at her as she raised her eyebrows in surprise and frowned slightly. She said, “That sounds like fun!” and motioned with her hand that I shouldn’t give up and to try again. “All my friends went already and they liked it,” I explained, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Through the mirror, I could see my father’s lips purse and he shot me an exasperated look. “No, Jana!” He exclaimed in a frustrated voice, “NO! I do NOT want to go JOGGING with you!”
My mom and I looked at each other and burst out laughing, realizing that there had been a massive failure in communication. We both started talking at once and my dad quickly comprehended the real request and agreed to be my date that night to see Jaws.
When we arrived at the theater, it was packed. We couldn’t see a good seat on the first floor and went to the balcony, squeezing into the only two seats together we could find – on the second row, behind two, very tall, basketball playing type fellas. I was not happy as I craned my head this way and that, attempting to find a spot where I could see the screen. Have you ever seen Jaws? The first person who gets eaten is a naked girl who goes for a solo swim after some drunken sex (my poor, Mormon father was probably horrendously uncomfortable watching THAT scene with his teenage daughter!). It was a scary, graphic death – and apparently more than the two basketball playing type fellas in front of us had counted on. They both got up and left the theater, leaving dad and I with a clear view for the rest of munching and killings. That daddy-daughter date left a HUGE impression on me. I’m still slightly freaked out when I swim in the ocean and I don’t even like swimming alone in a pool – but that part may be because I once saw a James Bond flick where sharks patrolled the bad guy’s pool – so sharks in a pool? It totally COULD happen!
My favorite daddy-daughter date of all time was when I was much older. In fact, I was a wife and mother by that point. My father invited me to meet him and my mom at a demolition derby while I was visiting my hometown. I’d never been to a demolition derby – but I had just gotten a tattoo earlier that day, so I was feeling appropriately white trashy. I was surprised to learn that a demolition derby is FUN! I picked my favorite car and yelled and cheered with the crowd as it dodged and weaved, was hit and hit other cars, and finally was T-boned into submission. I still remember looking at my dad, who was looking at me and laughing, obviously delighted that I was having such a good time.
After the derby, we followed the crowd to the food tent and enjoyed some barbecue – and then the music started. My dad took my mother to the floor for a sedate dance and, when he returned her to the table, he asked me if I would like to dance. My husband, Doc, is NOT a dancer – even though I’ve begged and pleaded over our many years of marriage for him to take lessons with me. My thought is that if he took me dancing once a week, we could spend some quality time together doing something fun, my cardio exercise would be handled in a pleasant way, and perhaps I might be a little slimmer with a lot more stamina. But Doc is not interested in that sort of nonsense, so I hadn’t gone dancing since dating The Dancer as a teenager. When my dad invited me to take a spin around the floor, I was happy to accept – and then I learned something I never knew. My dad is a great dancer! He whirled me around and led me through spins and turns until I was giggling and out of breath (note to Doc: dancing IS great cardio exercise!).
I haven’t lived close to my parents for many years now, so my daddy-daughter dates are few and very far between. While dad and I sometimes still find it awkward to have conversations, I like to believe that now that I’m an adult and parent (and have had years of therapy), I can understand better that my dad was a product of his upbringing (as I was) and that he parented me the best he could with the tools and knowledge he had at the time. I don’t know how many more years my dad will be around – but I hope we can go on a few more daddy-daughter dates and have a lot more awkward conversations before he moves on.