Demystifying Dad

Woman and her father

For years I struggled with how to befriend my father as if he were just a peer, just a normal person. But there is something silent and mysterious and austere about fathers, even the ones (like mine) who are funny, happy, mostly forthcoming guys.

In 2004 I had been living in a different city from my parents for seven years and was finishing a Master’s Degree. My dad and I went out to get ice cream one evening when I was home and he said, “Lizzie, tell me about your thesis!” He knew I had been working hard on it.

So I began to talk…and within a minute my father had fallen asleep. Seriously, we were sitting in the car and he just fell asleep. I was midsentence when his first snore sounded.

To his credit, it was after his bedtime of 8pm. So there was that. Basically, every time I tried to have a heart-to-heart with my father, something like that happened. It was tricky to get him to stay on track.

Fast forward to 2011. I wrote a personal essay about my father, his nuanced sleep habits, and his surprising obsession with the Japanese sport of sumo wrestling. I called my essay “Awake with Asashoryu,” named for the bad-boy sumo wrestler my father loved. The essay was great fun to write, because my father is a topic that puzzles me, and writing is how I make sense of things. It was also sad, dark: a nighttime piece, an elegy to the role of daughter in my life, as it twinkled and paled to make way for the role of mother.

But then the miraculous happened—somebody actually wanted to publish this piece! This incredibly personal essay about my dad! Oh lord. I had worked hard on it: getting it just right, as honest as I could be, both about who I am and who he is. And I didn’t know what I should do. One of my father’s many quirks is that he runs a daily google search on all news about my family—my brother’s acting notices, my literary goings-on about town— and he sends them to us all. I knew he would definitely find out about this essay.

So I took it head-on. Next time he visited Boise (which everybody in my family does regularly now—one of the many perks of having a new baby: see Great Guest-pectations), I invited him to come over after dinner so that I could read something to him. We poured glasses of red wine, but he didn’t drink his. I think he was nervous. Here I was, his wacko first-born daughter, this pseudo-hippie-minimalist-girl who makes her own baby wipes and who sheds belongings as a hobby, who has gone through so much school and yet by all IRS accounts is unemployed. His daughter who quit a perfectly decent teaching job at the high school where he used to teach, in order to move to Idaho and write full time. Here I was, asking him to listen to something that I wrote.

I read him my essay from start to finish. He listened…and he stayed awake. And what astonished me the most: He laughed! He laughed again and again. My essay that I had thought was so heart-wrenching, so sad and dark, so completely wrapped by the dark themes of mortality and the passing of the torch from being a daughter to being a mother—he thought this essay was wonderfully funny. After a few surprise laughs, I began to ham it up, reading it as if for a comedy effect. He adored the depictions of me, of him, of our life together.

This evening transformed my relationship both with my dad and with myself as a writer. I had dared descend into deep, vulnerable territory with him, and he had gone with me into my underworld. The humor he found there transformed the story. My essay was about all of the things I thought, but it was also about the quirky things, the mad obsessions, and the love that daughters inherit from their fathers and never, ever shed. I learned that a story changes for the writer with each new audience, as long as that audience truly listens.

I was so proud of my dad that night for listening. And both he and I were proud of me for going my own way, and for sharing that way with him.

—Elisabeth Sharp McKetta