A letter to my father

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Dear Dad

I know it’s against the rules to blame anyone, but I blame you. I’m all grown up now and should know better, even so, it’s hard to get beyond that sense that I keep chasing you in all these men I’ve met over the years who turn out wrong, not because they themselves are wrong but because they’re not you, the you I needed when I was little.

You even spelled my name wrong on my birth certificate, not that it was you who spelled out the letters. You must have gone to Births, Deaths and Marriages to register my name and sat in a small office with a clerk whose job it was to take down the details. And you got it all wrong, my name spelled in the English way and not the European and even the births of my other siblings, the ones who came before me, you listed in the wrong chronological order.

How could you do that? Were you addled, too overwhelmed by the birth of your seventh child, your sixth child living, to notice that the clerk put down a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, to notice that the clerk listed your first born daughter as younger than her older brother.

These things matter, to me at least, even if they did not matter to you. It’s the order of things. The way we’re put onto this earth to live out lives in a certain order in families from oldest to youngest, but you paid it all little heed. We could all be one just mess of children, each one indistinguishable from the other.

And then that decision to name me after my mother, your wife. What about that decision? Did you have a say in it? I found out later I should have been named Petronella after your mother, but my mother told me you hated her so much, your mother that you wanted none of your children to be saddled with that name. That was good of you. Bad enough to be saddled with my mother’s name but then to cop your mother’s name, the one you supposedly hated, far worse.

You were tall and intelligent enough to beat Barry Jones on Pick a Box not that you’d have tried. You’d have had to front up on the television screen in front of all those viewers. Not for you the performance, at least not one held in public. You preferred your own company but then from time to time when you grew lonely you took off in search of one of your daughters, one would do, preferably the oldest but if she was not available and my mother was nowhere to be seen you’d go after me or one of my younger sisters.

But I was smart, Dad. I knew how to avoid you. I knew how to make myself invisible, as thin as a sheet of paper. I knew how to slide from room to room on tiptoes, silent as a beetle and just as small, and you did not see me as I slid down the hallway past those double glass doors that led into your chamber whenever you called out my name.

You called and you called and the more you called the more I plugged my ears and hid from view, from you, from everyone. Out back to the laundry toilet with the door closed tight even without a lock. You refused locks in our house. You wanted access at all times but you could never access me, could you Dad? You could never get to me, inside my body, under my skin or into my brain.

I held firm. I held you at arm’s length and now I have to suffer the consequences, the guilt that slides like treacle down my back and sticks to every pore of my skin, making it hard to breathe.

My younger sisters weren’t as smart as me. They heard your call. They came when you called. They went into your bedroom and closed the door behind, and even though they were five and eight and I do not know what happened behind that door, nor am I ever likely to know because the older one of those sisters has sealed her lips tight like a clam and she will not speak to me nor to any of the others and the younger one cannot remember other than to tell me how ten years later when she was fifteen and we older ones had all left home, she heard you at her doorway late one night.

She knew you were there. She knew you were naked. She could see your silhouette against the hall way light. She knew it had reached the stage it was her turn, but our mother arrived in the nick of time.

‘Leave her alone,’ our mother said and you skulked away like a rodent. Never to pester her again, except in her nightmares.

As for me, you still appear in my dreams, not as often as before. I can still feel your presence at night in the dark when I tread over cold tiles to the toilet and hold my breath fearful of your touch. Always your touch, the touch I avoided throughout my childhood, the touch I feared that has made me now into a woman afraid, afraid of closeness, afraid of penetration, a woman who has sealed herself off from too much bodily connection. And I could not reclaim my body long after you had left. No body, no chance of penetration, no chance of invasion, no chance of the burning touch that drives even stronger people mad.

1953-41

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14 Comments on A letter to my father

  1. Karen C
    October 16, 2016 at 8:51 pm (11 months ago)

    As chilling as those cold, cold tiles.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 18, 2016 at 11:55 am (11 months ago)

      Thanks for resonating, Karen.

      Reply
  2. Jim Murdoch
    October 16, 2016 at 10:01 pm (11 months ago)

    My brother got his first daughter’s name wrong too. She’s called Lee Ann but I think his wife was expecting Leigh Anne or something fancier (her mother had a bidet). He would’ve been about seventeen when Lee Ann was born and not the most thoughtful of people; he had a lot of growing up to do and has done over the years. My brother wasn’t as smart as me. Academically, yes (all three of us kids came top of our classes at one point in our lives), but he lacked savvy. I knew where to hide things where they wouldn’t be found; he didn’t seem to mind getting caught and revelled in the attention of being the bad kid. Only years later did I realise what that was all about. I can be slow too.

    I get the therapeutic benefit of writing letters like this and have written one in the past which was never posted but I’ve never felt the need to write one to my dad. I’ve never felt injured by him although others have been. That his actions affected me, and moulded me, I won’t deny and I don’t think myself deluded or blinkered when I think about the past and the things he did but for the most part it’s not up to me to point the finger. “When you point one finger, there’re three fingers pointing back to you,” so Jesus said although maybe not in those exact words. He probably said something like “Hate the crime, not the criminal” too. He definitely said, “Let him who’s without sin cast the first stone.”

    There’re things in this life I’ll never understand. There was a time when it wasn’t enough to know stuff. I liked knowing stuff and I still get a kick out of discovering new things but although knowledgeable I do have to accept that I lack insight. I really don’t understand why people do the things they do. And that includes me. It took me a long time to sort that out in my head. I don’t know if you remember the priest in ‘Milligan and Murphy’ where he explains to them that there are no reasons for unreasonable things but that was nothing less than an epiphany for me being able to string those few words together. Many of the things my dad did were unreasonable but that’s the case with all of us and I’m not sure there are layers to unreasonableness; our actions either make sense or they don’t. My brother’s did. Not on a conscious level. But looking back it’s easy to see the cry for attention for what it was and he was nowhere near as “bad” as he would’ve liked you to think at the time. Having cited that as an example I’m fully aware that I’m opening up the possibility that I’m wrong and that if you dig deep enough into the most seemingly unconscionable behaviour there’ll be something if only a sled with ‘Rosebud’ on it which has long since been incinerated and is beyond our grasp. Who knows? Who needs to know?

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm (11 months ago)

      The unsent letter, Jim, as you know, can be cathartic, therapeutic and a way of creating that record of the past. And then the fact that people can sometimes get the spelling wrong adds to the confusion, which we often find when we go back over old records. I’m with you on how hard it is to understand why we do things at times. Though to me it’s always worth a ponder. Thanks, Jim.

      Reply
  3. Louise Allan
    October 17, 2016 at 4:48 pm (11 months ago)

    You’ve made me cry, Lis. For you, the young girl who was only trying to protect herself but felt guilty for doing so, and has felt guilty ever since. I know you know that the guilt isn’t yours; it’s your father’s. You were a child. I wish I could hug you right now.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 18, 2016 at 11:53 am (11 months ago)

      You also know about the pain of a young girl, Louise, one who suffers under the weight of a damaged parent. Thanks for the support.

      Reply
  4. Christine
    October 17, 2016 at 8:04 pm (11 months ago)

    A stunning piece of writing, Lis. Spare. Truthful. And as others have said, the things that happened here are too much for a child to have to bear.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 18, 2016 at 11:52 am (11 months ago)

      Thanks Christine. I wrote this during my week away after I’d been exploring other topics. It came in a rush as these things do.

      Reply
  5. petrujviljoen
    October 20, 2016 at 2:12 am (11 months ago)

    The guilt is a killer. Have you read any of Violette le Duc’s work? La Batarde particularly, also Asphyxia and there are others I don’t remember the titles of. She’s a difficult read, most people say.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 20, 2016 at 10:04 pm (11 months ago)

      I hadn’t heard of Violette le Due but checked her out via Google. Such a sad story and yet also one of wonderful success. Thanks for introducing me.

      Reply
  6. Nan Mykel
    October 20, 2016 at 4:45 am (11 months ago)

    I’m struck by both your writing skill and content. Petruvillen (sp?) referred me to your site after I posted a dream I had last night. I look forward to returning to it

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 20, 2016 at 10:05 pm (11 months ago)

      Dreams are wonderful. They show us new ways of being out of old ways. Thanks for the visit.

      Reply
    • petrujviljoen
      October 23, 2016 at 8:17 pm (11 months ago)

      It’s Petru Viljoen Nan. Petru villen (the villain in the piece) – we all feel like one don’t we? 🙂

      Reply
      • Elisabeth
        October 26, 2016 at 11:25 am (11 months ago)

        Yes indeed, Petru. We can all feel like villains and some of us are in one way or another.

        Reply

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