These are a few snippets of life growing up with my father:
The Boat Ride
When I was 14, my dad asked me to go boating with him in the Delta. I felt so happy and special to have one-on-one time with my dad, who typically was too busy working to spend time with me, or who brought his work with him when we went to a place like Marine World. I was excited on the trip to the Delta, and when we got in the boat and my dad had rowed us out from the harbor, I eagerly and delightedly reached for the rows, asking to have a go at it. “No!” my dad yelled, throwing a fit. “I am rowing. This is my boat!”
I am a writer but have a hard time bringing to words the sensation I felt then. Humiliated. Betrayed. Used. Trapped in the damn boat. Here I’d thought we were going on a father-daughter, fun-filled trip, but no. It was all about him, and I was just – what? What was I exactly? Why did he want to go with me anyhow?
At some point into the trip, my father offered me the oars. I remember feeling so utterly crushed and dejected, and I’m sure it showed on my face.I was just sitting passively in the back of the boat, waiting for the horrible outing to be over. Guilt must have overtaken my dad. But by then, I did not want to row. I just wanted to go home. Which, as I recall, I did not say. I just said I did not want to row.
My memory is faint on this next part, but as I remember, he kept cajoling me to row, and finally I did. But I was not happy. I think my emotions neutralized by somewhere in the trip, which was pretty typical of family dynamics. There was all this substandard, egregious behavior, but then, because I was always looking for the good and positive and love and enjoyment and connection, I would find something to grab hold of and bring myself around.
During my middle school and early high school years, my dad kept taking me to a kite shop, to make and fly a kite together. Why did we do this? Because as a kid, my dad loved making and flying kites. Did my dad ever ask me if I liked making and flying kites? No. That was not how things went in my household. My dad would buy you a present that he liked, not that you liked. And you had better damn jump up and down in gratitude – and I literally mean jump up and down in gratitude – for him going to such trouble to think of you. Even if it was tiny. Even if you hated it. Like the kites.
I did not, for the record, ever have an interest in making or flying kites. Maybe in the beginning it was interesting, but it was never my thing. It was his thing, and I was brought along for the ride. Like on the boat, but under the guise of being an awesome dad to me. I think I probably would not have come to hate kites if the damn things were not pushed down my throat, if there was some room in my family for me to express my personality and my true interests, to say I did not like something, and for someone to genuinely care and readjust our activity. But there was not. I don’t virulently hate kites anymore, but I still get uneasy feeling when I see them.
Struggle for Justice
In the Iraqi Jewish tradition, which I upheld heart and soul throughout my childhood and young adult life, it is tradition to shoot capguns when the name of Haman is recited on the holiday of Purim. In the Ashkenazi (centeral/eastern European Jewish) tradition, it is traditional to rotate groggers – which in Iraq, as I understand it, were used for celebrations. So every year, I summoned the courage to be the only person in the synagogue to shoot cap guns and to take the heat, occasionally, when someone was irritated for one reason or another.
Standing up for my tradition. The tradition handed down to me by my dad. One would think my dad would be proud, right, and want to support me as I upheld the tradition. But when I was 14 years old, we attended the Iranian congregation in Burlingame – in a space on the grounds of the Ashkenazi synagogue. Everyone in that congregation used a grogger or simply yelled, “boooo!” and stomped their feet when Haman’s name was read. I’m not sure if that was a manifestation of assimilation into the Ashkenazi tradition, which is ubiquitous, or if Iranian Jews never used cap guns. At any rate, I – decked out in my Queen Esther custom – did.
A random Ashkenazi man, probably in his early 60s, approached me mid-way through the service and told me to stop shooting the cap gun. As I had done in previous such encounters, I explained that it was the Iraqi Jewish tradition. The man, with no authority whatsoever in the congregation, ordered that I stop. I stood my ground. I believe I said something along the lines of how it was customary in the Middle East, that we were in a Middle Eastern congregation, and that we went out of our way to come to a Middle Eastern congregation to observe our tradition.
I continued to shoot the cap gun when Haman’s name was uttered. The man hovered over me, then assaulted me – grabbing the cap gun and trying to wrench it from my hand. A struggle ensued, and I yelled. I saw my dad watch. Just stand there and watch. The man was so aggressive that he caused me to bleed. I remember looking at my bleeding hand, then at my dad, traumatized, as my dad just looked back at me like a passive observer. He did nothing, said nothing.
Distorted Views of Power
When I was a young girl, I believe somewhere between 8-10 years old, my dad told me that I had as much power as he did – in the context of our conversation meaning as much power over him as he had over me. (I don’t remember details, but I believe the conversation started with me bringing up an issue of how he had hurt me.) I remember looking up at him, this man who was twice my size, on whom I depended for food and shelter and love and security, and it just did not make sense to me.
Thanks a Lot
Throughout my childhood, my family would go to the home of a family friend for Thanksgiving. The father, FN, was an Italian non-Jewish man who had married a Jewish woman. MN was his son, a few years younger than I. The mother had left years earlier, and FN was raising MN on his own. They had a cuddly and beautiful German Shepherd dog, whom I adored.
Thanksgiving was always drizzly and grey – weather I loved. FN and MN lived in a modest home in Orinda, on top of a big hill that was basically like a huge and wild backyard. I have very fond memories of celebrating Thanksgiving there, eating stuffed Turkey that my mom had prepared (one of the only two things she could cook), along with gobs and gobs of ice cream (which we ate first, because we kept kosher).
The house always was clean and orderly, unlike my family’s chaotic and messy home. In addition, there was this sense of peace, serenity, warmth, and closeness that I felt when I was there. A coziness. MN, the dog, and I would play with each other, while the adults talked. I don’t remember where my sister fit into the picture during these visits – probably hanging out with my mother. I do, however, remember her absence there during high school.
I was probably around 15 or 16 when the incident happened: I was at the kitchen sink, I think doing something with the ice cream. FN came over and told me to do something other than what I was doing, which didn’t make any sense to me. I think we had some difference of opinion over the order that things were being eaten or something. In the conversation that ensued, I remember standing my ground and trying to reason with FN, as he commanded me to do this or that, in an authoritative tone. I did not back down. As a child, especially as a girl, it took a lot of courage to stand up to adults, especially men, who expected girls my age to just defer and complacently go along with what they were told to do.
Quickly, FN’s tone became very harsh and aggressive. I am fuzzy about whether there was some physical struggle. I seem to recall he was trying to grab something from me. What I do remember clearly is that he called me, in a contemptuous voice that practically spat at me, “a spoiled brat.” Mind you, I loved this man and very much enjoyed his company. Among other things, I always cherished the gifts he gave me for the holidays, like the mghilla, the Book of Esther, which I read from for many years.
I distinctly remember feeling shocked, deeply wounded, misunderstood, and hurt. I believe there was some argument that ensued. Throughout it all, my father sat at the table and watched. He did not utter a word in my defense. I felt insulted, humiliated, and very shaken up. My mother, who typically not only deferred to my father but also sold me out to him throughout my life, behaved out of character and defended me. I don’t remember if she said anything to FN – I have the feeling she said at least a few words to make me feel defended; and I can’t remember if it was at my behest or not, but I do remember that my mom got me out of there.
My dad, to the contrary, elected to stay.
When I asked my dad why he didn’t’ stick up for me, he said, “You were doing a good enough job on your own.” Because, you know, a teenage girl doesn’t need any support whatsoever for standing her ground, taking up her space, and insisting on being treated with dignity. And because there is no need for a father to indicate that it is not ok to disrespect his daughter.
I refused to go back to FN’s house for Thanksgiving ever again. Years later, FN said to my dad – not to me – that he regretted what he had done. Not because he had hurt me, mind you, but because he had ruined the Thanksgiving tradition, and he missed having us over.
A number of years later, I heard that FN died.