A vivid, yet unbidden memory surfaces: I was probably 9 or 10 years old that summer. A summer made even more warm and delicious with the anticipation of having a pool installed in our own back yard. And not just some rinky-dink little kiddie pool. An in-ground pool with a diving board and a deep end that went down 10 feet. I watched with fascination as the trucks rumbled through the yard, trampling my father’s beloved landscape. Prior to the decision to put in a pool, my father would take his morning coffee outside and sit in the bucolic surrounds of his well-manicured and lovingly tended lawn and flora, overlooking what he proudly called his *ponderosa*. Though we would tease him about his terminology, I don’t think any of us were unaware of the sacrifice he was making by having his treasured lawn and landscape utterly decimated to be replaced by a cement pond that would dominate every inch of space behind our house. I certainly felt for him, especially knowing he didn’t even swim. Not that my excitement was abated one bit by my sympathy.
After a few days of digging, the crew hit a snag. The water level in our yard was too high to use heavy machinery. They would have to dig the pool by hand. The trucks were removed and a new crew was brought in. They were probably only in their early 20’s (if that) but these guys looked like titans with Adonis-like bodies to me. Herculean strength and stamina emerged as muscles bulged and rippled with every swing of the pickaxe and thrust of the shovel. Sweat ran in rivulets over naked backs, well-muscled abs and adam’s-apples that bobbed as they guzzled water to replenish what they lost in their grueling work under a hot sun. I watched with a gripping yearning to be one of them. I idolized them, projecting images of them onto what I wanted to look like when I got older. The jealous aspiration I felt was perfectly excruciating.
One day I crept around the side of the house where a corner of it abutted the woods. I could still sneak peeks at the men working in the back, but I was pretty sure they couldn’t see me there on the side. I found a sturdy branch with a curved end that I could use sledgehammer-style as a digging tool. I removed my shirt and got to work. It wasn’t easy. But I was stoked as, in my mind, I worked alongside those other guys. And by the end, though I hadn’t worked up a single sweat droplet, I had a fairly decent sized, though shy of pool-sized, hole in the ground. I replaced my shirt and went inside.
I don’t know if it was the next day or a few days later that my father approached me sternly and asked to speak with me. He bade me follow him out to the yard where he pointed gravely at the hole in the ground next to the house. He asked if I had any idea where it had come from. The sweat that had eluded me only days before sprang in cold trickles, a result of my panic and a clear indicator of my guilt. My mainest concern was whether I was in trouble for being outside shirtless; a crime I was repeatedly scolded for by my mother. Had anyone seen me without my shirt? I doubted it was any of the pool guys. A neighbor? But the more my father pressed, the more I realized he was singularly focused on the hole. He had actually been prepared to blame Peter. Boys will be boys and all that sort of rot. But Peter clearly had no idea what he was talking about. I looked up at him with my benevolent brown eyes, so similar to his own, and he melted, scooping me into a hug and telling me not to dig so close to the house next time. Daddy’s little girl escaping unscathed once again.
I was always daddy’s little girl, right from the get-go. He had the song, sung by Al Martino, on a 45 vinyl record. And any time he was feeling particularly moved (far too often for my liking), he would put it on and as the turntable scratched out static in those seconds before the song began, he would set me up to dance on the tops of his feet. “You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice”, Al would croon. My father would squeeze my hands as I gripped his thumbs, and dance us slowly around the room. I’d look down at our stacked feet and fight the tears that came every time. I was always sensitive. Overly so. And I think even way back then as I listened to the song I knew I wouldn’t have him forever. That lump in the back of my throat would tighten as tears of anger and frustration joined the sentimental journey. I was not daddy’s little girl. Nor did I want to be. I didn’t want to be anyone’s little girl. I wanted to be a boy.
My dad knew I was gay. I came out with a burst of jubilation at the tender age of 14. I thought I had found the answer to the plaguing question of what was wrong with me. Finally, something made sense to me and I was eager to share the reason for my fundamental wrongness. Let’s just say, it didn’t go well. My mother called my father at work, screaming hysterically and incoherently into the phone and then hanging up. My father arrived home in record time. He entered the house huffing and puffing as if he’d run the 10 miles from work. With a cigarette in each hand, he stood in he doorway and, chest heaving in uncontrollable panic, he asked, “Which one of the kids is dead?” I might as well have been. At that point I actually wished I was.
It was one of the first and last conversations I had with my father about my *wrongness*. He made it very clear that he did not accept that lifestyle, nor would he ever understand or support it. He set a very firm-don’t-ask-don’t-tell boundary that I never even dared to approach never mind cross. He met my *friends* and treated them kindly. Though I’m actually not sure my father had the capacity to treat anyone unkindly. We never ever talked about me, my girlfriends, my dates, my differences, being gay or anything remotely resembling any of those topics. After my parents divorced, my father and I maintained a father-daughter relationship that was loving and loyal but not close. I attended his second wedding, alone, wearing a tuxedo. But as I have referenced many times already, it was the 80s and unquestionably female rockers like Annie Lennox were wearing suits and ties. And anyway, my hair was long and I wore plenty of makeup. Over the next years we grew more and more distant, though no less loving.
I often wonder what my father would make of my life now. I have no doubt he would be wildly crazy in love with his grandchildren. And I am immeasurably sad that he never had the opportunity to be Grandpa Joe to them and they never experienced his love or got to dance on the tops of his feet. I know for certain that he loved me as best he could (despite my mother telling me two weeks after he died that he hated me). And I know that he was proud of my accomplishments: my college degrees, my careers. But of who I am?
Unembodied I am very much like my father was in the world. I am kind and compassionate, loving and loyal. I can be gregarious and self deprecating while utilizing the natural comedic timing he passed down to me. I love to make people laugh and I am a fierce advocate, supporter and companion of the lonely and downtrodden. I have his work ethic and his small tolerance for slackers. I also share his unfortunately short fuse and rather shallow pail of patience. Being so alike in so many ways made our relationship complicated. Being too much alike we often clashed or at least rubbed one another the wrong way. But our kindred spirits were more often a source of pride and pleasure and connection.
The essence of who I am is so fraught with shame for me, how could it have been otherwise for my parent? It is beyond painful to know that my father did not approve of who I was/am on so basic a level and there is no chance for me to rectify that now that he is gone. I wish I could have been the son I wanted to be while also being the daughter he wanted me to be. I feel like I failed us both.
Like any child who has lost a parent, I miss him. I miss his easy demonstrativeness, his bear hugs and scratchy kisses. I miss his hysterically silly demeanor, his spot-on quirky viewpoints and his full-body laughter. I miss his strength and his counsel. I continue to seek his advice in the quiet recesses of my heart and mind. But about cooking or work or making my way in the world. Not about being gay or trans. Never about that. His absence leaves a great hole in the fabric of my life, but he takes with him some of the disapproving restraints his unwillingness and inability to accept me placed on me. Without his judgments, I am free to explore who I am, to create the loving, amazing family Emily and I continue to create. And one day, hopefully, maybe, I can come to the understanding that I am not wrong, I am merely transgender. And then figure out what to do with that. I could never have considered, never mind pursued, living life the way I am while my father was alive. For me, in the best of his ways, he is still with me. It is his more problematic points that have gone to his grave.
The Humanist Hugh Robert Orr wrote: They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind. In those whom they have blessed they live a life again, and shall live through the years, eternal life and grow each day more beautiful as time declares their good, forgets the rest and proves their immortality.