Oral Hygiene Queen

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Location: Midwest, United States

I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Had a Dad, Part VII

I’ve thought a lot about what happened between the time I was eleven and calling my dad at work every day at lunch time and when I was sixteen and would barely respond when he spoke to me. My dad was a great dad for a young kid. He was patient, involved, caring, sympathetic, and fun. And he loved having someone to hang out with and goof off with, someone who respected him and took his advice and never challenged his wisdom or authority. But after about twelve, I started to grow up. I no longer wanted to hang out with my dad all the time. I found his corny humor less and less funny. I began to tire of his constant advice, and his habit of reinforcing and reminding me of his advice. And the more I grew up and tried to pull away (the way every kid needs to), the more he held onto me and tried to keep things the way they were.

It seemed like it happened fast. Maybe there was an intermediate period in eighth grade, ninth grade, where I was getting irritated with him but held my tongue, tried to hide it. I have always been naturally filial, inclined toward showing my familial elders affection and respect. But by my sophomore year in high school, my dad was pushing it. I wanted my space, my privacy. I wanted to stop being such a kid. My dad ignored every cue I gave him. I’d say “Good night. I’m going to bed now,” and he’d chime “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” And there was a long period when I’d say, in the most bored and patronizing voice I could stand to inflict on him, “And if they do, with your shoe, beat them ‘til they’re black and blue.” It’s kind of amazing, actually, that I continued to participate - even in a bored teenager voice - in this ritual that we'd been doing since I was four. Any other teenager would have said “God, Dad! I’m not a baby anymore. Can we drop that shit?” But I kept responding, I guess because it seemed less cold to respond in a snotty voice than not to respond at all. And I just wasn’t capable of actually slapping him with an honest slam. Eventually I just stopped responding with my half of the cutesy rhyme. But I never said “Dad, face it: I’m not a little kid anymore. You have to let go of the bedbug thing.” And so he kept saying “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite,” in spite of the ringing silence that followed.

Maybe I was part of the problem. Maybe if I’d been more of a normal teenager, capable of supreme harshness (the way many of my friends had no problem saying what seemed to me the coldest shit to their parents), I would have broken through the cocoon of denial my dad surrounded himself with. Maybe he would have been forced to face up to the fact that I was growing up and he needed to move on. Maybe not. This is a man who is capable of deep denial, who continued to answer the question “How are you?” with his pat sunny answer, “Above average,” even when he was unemployed, living in his car, and missing his two front teeth.

That all happened later. I’ll get to that.

Whatever the potential of my dad waking up and realizing that he needed to let go of me, I was not capable of sending him that wake-up call. I have a deep-seated propensity for social guilt, especially familial guilt. I hate to make someone feel bad, even if I do it unintentionally, or even if the person actually deserves it. And more and more, my dad deserved it. Maybe even needed it. But I couldn’t bring myself to hit him full in the face with that slap of reality.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Had a Dad, Part VI

My friends liked my dad. Often he’d take me to the movies with a friend, and rather than just dropping us off and picking us up again, he’d go to the movie with us. I never minded this, and my friends never seemed to either. This was probably partly because my friends were all basically geeks like me. My bad-kid phase was very short-lived. It came to an abrupt halt when we moved from Chicago to a small city in Wisconsin, a move that struck me as the perfect time to recreate myself in a role I was more comfortable in. I had realized that I wasn’t very good at being bad. I always seemed to be the one who got caught. I would lie, then forget that lies require confident follow-up lies, but I’d forget to maintain it and give myself away. It was too much work, and I was starting to realize that many of the things I loved to do – like reading books and drawing pictures of horses – didn’t really help me fit in with the crowd of precocious ruffians I’d fallen in with. So in my new town, I quickly went back to being just a simple bookish dork, with bookish dork friends who saw no problem with my dad tagging along, even though by sixth grade all of my other friends’ parents just dropped us off at the movies and punctually returned again at the end of the show.

My dad was different than the parents of my Wisconsin geek friends, though. While some of my Chicago friends had young, hip parents along the lines of my dad, or even old, hip parents like my friend Andrea’s vegetarian chef dad and beatnik painter mom, my Wisconsin friends all had very staid, predictable parents. My dad was the “fun dad,” the “cool dad.” He made jokes that seemed funny to us at the time and enjoyed the dumb comedies we wanted to see (Airplane comes to mind, as does the Jerk). And, though we weren’t rich, he was generous with me and equally generous with my friends. He’d pay for everyone’s ticket and buy us all candy and a big tub of popcorn to share. My dad was always popular with my friends. He was charming; he made them laugh. And this was great when I was eleven or twelve, because I wanted my dad around and would’ve felt terrible if my friends hadn’t. But later, in high school and college, when conflicts between him and me became the norm and I mostly just wanted him to leave me alone, the popularity of my dad among my friends was sometimes hard for me to take. I would complain to them about how corny and embarrassing he was, how he pestered me to follow his constant advice, how he didn’t respect my privacy, and they’d just look at me in disbelief. “Your dad? But he’s so nice. He’s so funny!” I felt like there was no one I could unburden myself to with regard to my mounting dad frustrations.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Had a Dad, Part V

The fact that I still adored my dad in an unambiguous and uncomplicated way when I was eleven is perhaps more remarkable. I was no longer completely obedient. I had fallen in with a bad crowd at my Chicago grade school, kids who had starting to smoke and wear thick black eyeliner back in fifth grade. Now I was in sixth grade, and I’d begun dabbling in shoplifting, experimenting with skipping school when I thought I could get away with it, and lying to teachers on a semi-regular basis. But none of these experiments in juvenile delinquency translated into rebellion against my dad. I rarely lied to him, at least not on purpose, and I never talked back to him or strained against his authority. His was, of course, a particularly gentle brand of authority. But I don’t think that matters. When kids are trying to be bad, they don’t need an especially strict or harsh parent to rebel against. Still, I never rebelled against my dad. When I was caught slipping a lip gloss into my pocket while I was at the drug store with my dad, and we had to go to an office in the back of the store and be interrogated by the grim-faced store detective in his shiny-kneed polyester slacks, I wasn’t sure what my dad meant when he said, “You can be sure that E. will be punished when we get home.” This time, I thought he might really mean it. I was punished, but not much more harshly than if I’d gotten caught stuffing clothes under my bed when I was supposed to be cleaning my room. I merely got fifteen minutes of “sitting on a chair,” and a short lecture. It was the lecture that got me, though. My dad didn’t yell. He didn’t don his clench-jawed mad face. He just said, “That was not smart. Don’t ever do that again,” then added, “Don’t you know that if you want a lip gloss you can just ask me, and I’ll buy you one?” He seemed tired and sad with disappointment, he seemed to assume this was the first time I’d ever done something like this, and I felt terrible. I remember resolving never to shoplift again, then thinking maybe just never with my dad. Then I realized that if I got caught again, my dad would hear about it whether he was with me or not. So I resolved never to get caught again. 

But even in this brief period where I was toying with the idea of being bad, my dad was still my best friend. I went home for lunch to our empty apartment, and while I ate my sandwich and apple, I’d call my dad at work and we’d talk on the phone. I did this every day. When I was in sixth grade. I have no idea what we talked about, but we talked. For ten minutes, maybe fifteen. And then we’d hang up, just like that. Later, when I went off to college and talking on the phone with my dad became an exercise in discomfort and trying to get off the phone with him an exercise in frustration, I looked back on these little daily phone calls with amazement.

We still went to the movies. Maybe I was a little embarrassed if I saw a kid from school there with a bunch of friends while I was there alone with my dad. But I just felt that flush of social mortification, then moved on. Once my schoolmates turned to go into their theater and my dad and I walked on to ours, it was over and I didn’t think about it anymore. I didn’t consider that I might just stop going to the movies with my dad. That was not an option.

At some point during sixth grade, I heard some sad story on the news about someone dying, someone with kids, and the story focused on the family’s loss, the kids left behind without a mom or dad. It struck me that my dad could die, a thought that was too horrible to contemplate. Like all kids, I worried about the people I loved dying. My mom had been a chain smoker, and when I was seven or eight I essentially badgered her until she finally quit smoking. In fifth grade, my grandpa had come down with some mysterious illness that made him fall asleep without warning, once while he was driving. I worried a lot during that period that he would die. But I lived with my dad most of the time, he was the one who was there every day, and he was always healthy and had no particularly dangerous habits. It never occurred to me that he might die, until I heard this story that day in sixth grade. It made me feel so awful to think about losing my dad, about him dying without knowing how much I loved him, how much I really really loved him. My family has always been very demonstrative, and my mom and aunts always told me they loved me, and I told them I loved them. My dad and I said “I love you” every day, probably multiple times a day most days. But still, I had this fear that my dad would die and I wouldn’t have expressed to him just how much I loved him. So I started hiding little notes all over the house, in places where he would find them, that said “I love you, Daddy!” or some variation on that. Back then, I almost always addressed him as “Daddy.” I’d hide these notes inside his dress shoes, in his vitamin bottles, tucked into his folded t-shirts toward the bottom of the pile.

My dad taped those notes up over his dresser and his desk. When we moved into my grandparents' house later, when I was in high school, he transplanted a couple of them to his new room in their basement. They stayed there for years, the construction paper fading and getting soft around the edges.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Had a Dad, Part IV

When I was five I wanted to marry my dad. I look back on that now and in addition to the thoughts anyone might have meditating on such a memory (Wow, how cute. Wow, how weird.), I think “How the hell did we get here from there?” How could I have been so uncomplicatedly, unambiguously affirming of my dad then, and how did things get so complicated, so ambiguous, so absolutely not affirmative?

Maybe every kid adores their dad at five. When I was five I figured out that everyone pretty much has to get married, and that girls have to marry boys. I know now that neither of those things are true, but at five that’s what the world I was busy figuring out told me. This was bad news. The idea of marrying a boy did not appeal to me, not at all. I recall wracking my young brain for a boy I’d be willing to marry, and none of the boys I knew qualified. Then it occurred to me that my dad was a boy. What a relief: I’d just marry him. I told him about my plan as we were driving west on North Shore Avenue in his big gold Buick, before it got the dent in the front left fender. He smiled and told me he loved me very much but that girls can’t marry their daddies. I’m sure I asked why and I’m sure he explained it somehow, though I don’t recall his explanation. But I do remember that as we talked about it, he figured out what inspired my idea, and he told me that someday I’d probably like boys better than I did right then. And I recall vividly that he said, “And, E., if you don’t want to get married, you don’t have to.” What a relief.

And what a great dad. This was classic Daddy. He listened to me. He did not laugh at me. He took my thoughts, my worries, my hopes seriously. He always seemed to find a way to explain things that helped me make sense of the confusing and sometimes frightening world of grown-ups. People often romanticize childhood, and though I had a happy childhood, I don’t look back on it wistfully, wishing I could return. A big part of childhood was getting in trouble for breaking rules I had no idea existed. My teachers, my grandparents, my babysitters were always taking me to task for doing something that no one had yet informed me was wrong. My dad didn’t do this. He seemed to have a very clear sense of what I knew already and should be held responsible for and what I didn’t know and should be taught before I was scolded. And he erred on the side of teaching me something I already knew a second time rather than scolding me for something I didn’t know was wrong.

But five is a pretty easy age, as far as a daughter adoring a dad goes. It’s probably not that hard to be a great dad to the kind of affectionate, obedient, and cute five-year-old I was. The fact that I still adored my dad in an unambiguous and uncomplicated way when I was eleven is perhaps more remarkable.

And that is where I will begin next time.