Written by @WomanWarriorJen
We didn't have a very good parting when we saw each other last fall.
Now you're gone and I've got lingering emotions which I can't put my finger on, so let this be a posthumous attempt at making peace with you... and me.
Any outsider who was present during our last minutes together might have said I was being a truly selfish and unfilial daughter for leaving you in your time of misery and need: feeling lonely, having tummy troubles (after eating some junk food you probably knew wasn't good for you), throwing up all over yourself...just feeling crappy overall.
I tried to stay as long as I could, helping the staff change your clothes and cleaning up your mess.
But the truth is you were always quick to let everyone around you know when you felt like shit – shouting and cursing for someone – ANYONE, to come over and pay attention to you!
A highly efficient way to get immediate medical attention!
But that also put the ones who knew you best to feel like they were walking on eggshells for a good part of their lives. We never knew when the slightest innocuous comment might set you off on a vicious verbal rampage.
You always seemed to pull through your aches and pains over the years, so I took it for granted that you'd tough out another episode of misery when I was last with you, despite your relentless cursing.
So, when I casually mentioned the bus coming at a certain time, you exploded and repeatedly shouted at me to get the hell out of there (your words) and “Who's going to take of me?! “
(The nursing home staff! That's what they're paid to do!)
I didn't want to bear your wrath and left but was upset enough that when I was halfway to the bus stop, I realized I forgot my red jacket.
Instead of facing you again, I pleaded with a staff member (with a guilty conscience) to retrieve my jacket from your room for me. I know she wasn't happy about that and I don't blame her! But she did it.
I really did not feel like being yelled and cursed at again, by you.
Despite that, she came to say goodbye to you at your memorial visitation...which we were appreciative of. I think she knew your character well and still liked you!
Maybe she was more patient and braver than me, I don't know.
Speaking for Myself
Now, I'm only going to speak for myself here, since this is about you and me, your youngest (spoiled) kid.
I thought I had a very unusual daddy while I was growing up. Y'know, kids compare their parents with their friends' parents!
What kind of father, especially a Chinese father, runs their family like he was still in the military?!
Dinner at 6 p.m. SHARP! (or all hell would break loose.)
Your favorite four-letter word was MOVE – used whenever you didn't think I moved fast enough for any task.
When you wanted things done, you wanted it NOW.
You didn't like for me to question your authority or express emotions, like crying. Such as when I accidentally left my purple and pink plastic flute on your tv chair and after you sat on it – splitting it in half -you exploded into a rage, stormed into my bedroom, randomly grabbed all the toys you could hold in your arms, and threw them into Mom's garden – and set it all on fire.
You saw tears streaming down my 4 year-old face and told me to stop it.
But I was secretly glad the neighbors next door called the police (burning plastic sure stinks!), who gave you a verbal warning!
On a lighter note, thanks to you, I can shine shoes as good as any sailor because on Saturdays, you'd say gruffly, “Come here!” Which I knew to mean that you were going to supervise me in our cold garage, shining the family's shoes for church the next morning.
I can roll up a sleeping bag as good and tight as any Boy Scout, also thanks to you, after you made me do it repeatedly one weekend afternoon til you were satisfied. I couldn't comprehend at the time why you thought it was so important for an 8 year-old girl to learn how to roll a sleeping bag up tightly!
What kind of Chinese father swears like you did when he is hot under the collar?
I never heard my Chinese friends' fathers use salty language! They seemed mild-mannered compared to you!
When you were irritated or mad as hell, every few words were curse words, even when we used to attend church. It was always:
“Goddamn you/it/him/her/them..!” etc.
You said it repeatedly like it was going out of style!
It wasn't until you dragged me along to a US Submarine Veterans of WWII meeting that your “unusualness” in my mind began to fade away. I was 13 years old and became the only child left at home, after both my siblings took off to live in different cities for their university educations. I wanted to stay home, but you wouldn't stand for your “little girl” staying home alone. No! You said I could come along and do my homework at the end of the table where the men were sitting. That was a thinly veiled order.
So what happened?
You and your sailor buddies sat down and then suddenly, their words became familiar to my ears amidst their cigarette smoke:
There wasn't a veteran sitting there who didn't fail to pepper his sentences without cursing!
And all I could think of was:
Omigosh! WOW. Dad's not the only one [who swears like that]!
That made me feel much better then, believe or not, that you weren't the only person I knew who swore, seemingly every day!
WHAT a relief!!
As it turns out, when the wives got together in the corner of the same room where the husbands were, Mom told me they said their husbands behaved similarly to you, towards their respective families.
Hurray! Our family wasn't alone!
Years later, I thought of that first time I heard your fellow veterans with their salty language when reading an issue of the National Geographic Magazine; there was a historical article on early seafaring with a Portuguese quote superimposed on a pretty fold-out spread of an ocean: The sea will either make you pray to God or curse God.
I can't imagine what went through your mind while you were serving in the navy submarine during WWII; but on a few occasions at dusk, I looked out at the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and thought it would be quite fearsome to be on or within those waters or any big body of water – and no land in sight.
Your temper was scary, Dad. Vicious. Palpable to the marrow of my bones. But you didn't reveal that to many outsiders. At least not from my point of view.
I confess, Daddy: I tried to bad-mouth you when I was going through the tumultuous teenage years. I was sitting in our living room with my Chinese girlfriends and we were commiserating together about how lost our parents were.
(As if we weren't!)
How not “with it” you and Mom were – mainly you!
In retrospect, it was more like an “I suffer more than you do!” affair; a selfish, teenage angst gripe session where each one of us was SURE we were more oppressed than our friends!
I was, in my mind, beyond doubt, the most oppressed of them all! How do you like that dubious honor?!
So, I opened my mouth and complained about how authoritarian, controlling, and possessive you were; how bad-tempered you were; how mean you could be. Nothing negative about Mom (sorry!).
My friends' jaws dropped open, as if I'd deliberately told them some tall tale. A lie. They stood up for you!
“Jennifer! HOW can you say such a thing? Your dad is SO NICE. Always friendly! I can't believe you!”
Their shock was almost palpable. Were my friends that blind, I wondered? Couldn't they SEE how you really were? WHY would I lie? Or were they being exceedingly polite? Was my father that good of an actor?!
It was at that moment I realized that anything else I said would be moot: they'd never believe me. Because it was very true: you were wonderfully charming and friendly to my friends and to many other people OUTSIDE of our immediate family.
You did not – or rarely - revealed your true colors to anyone other than your family. Yes we did get to enjoy your generous, cheerful side – but only when you were in a good mood.
My friends never heard you shouting at me, cursing and damning me to hell when you were irritated or angry.
Wasn't it HARD to maintain two personas, Dad? One for us, and one for everyone else? That sounds exhausting, to me. I saw the good, the bad, the ugly; relatives, friends, and strangers saw your charming friendly side. Seemingly oblivious to your true nature.
Except when you really didn't like someone! Then you'd let them “have it” with your quick temper and mean words.
Sometimes you looked at people who had dark complexions or those whom you perceived as “ugly” as if they were a huge, slimy piece of snot stuck on the dining table. If they said anything to you, even a friendly greeting, you'd sneer at them. Shouted at them when you answered them. Maybe cursed them, and then walked by them as if they were invisible.
I felt your disgust toward them creeping within me. It made me cringe.
What did they ever do to you to trigger your temper?! You once shouted at a male friend of mine, “What's HE doing in my house?” before I could even make introductions. You even had the nerve to loudly say, “He's ugly!”
I felt like I had to apologize to my friend and many strangers, for your rudeness, when you weren't looking.
Those incidents served to remind me thatjudging people based on their looks was a flaw I didn't want to share with you. That's not to say I haven't harbored stupid, stereotypical thoughts about others in my lifetime – I am guilty, too, not to mention feeling ashamed. As well as for losing my cool in public for no good reason.
I don't know how you managed to control your temper with non-family members, Dad, but you did a pretty good job of it, I think, as evidenced by my friends, many acquaintances, and strangers, who have always complimented you, to me, about how nice, charming, and friendly you were.
Does that mean you trusted me and our family more to be your true self? Violent temper and all?
You weren't always the best at expressing things and maybe it was partly a generational thing, as my sister shared after the military service for you. Goodness knows you tried, however “creatively”!
For example, friends and in-laws have complimented me over the years on photos I have taken; they know you were a photographer and want to know how you taught me.
Usually, I say to others that you would explain things to me and then expect me to “get it”, right then and there.
Do I tell them that if I had a photo that didn't turn out right, you'd growl with a painful wince,
“GodDAMN youuuu! You didn't liiissssssten to me! I told you to....!”
No, I just tell them I learned to show you only my good photos, because more often than not, I could anticipate exactly what you'd say to the bad ones: “You were too close!” “You were too far!” “Not enough light!” “How come you didn't do …., like I told you?” etc!
Your admonitions echo in my head whenever I manage to take a lousy photo: I can HEAR you, Daddy!
I thank you now for making me do your homework of sorting out dozens of black and white photos of a bridge or dam that you took while working for the US Army Corps of Engineers – to organize them for all the engineers you were working with.
Didn't matter about MY homework!
Actually, I'm sure it did: you ordered me to get the photos organized so you could have the photos ready to distribute to your colleagues the next morning – and likely assumed I'd be responsible about finishing my school homework.
If your objective was to help train my eyes (your words) for taking better photographs later, which I did not really appreciate growing up, I think it worked. That task helped me a lot to be a more thoughtful photo-taker, and not be so random about taking photos –despite me being a point-and-shoot kind of gal. You often made fun of me for wanting to be more simple-minded about photography and not caring to bother with the technicalities of your many expensive camera lenses.
Anyway, as you are part of me, I've unfortunately got some of your bad temper and easy facility with salty language...but on the brighter side, hopefully, I am of the more long-simmering variety than the quick, stir-fry style!
Living on the Edge
You told me long ago that when you were discharged from the US Navy after WWII, you wanted to see the country and asked to be dropped off in Boston, Massachusetts. I never saw your photos (if you took any), so wasn't sure whether you were telling me a tall tale, as you liked to joke around now and then.
(Like convincingly telling your sisters there was Irish blood in our family at a family get-together and making me promise not to tell them you were messing with them!)
After your memorial military service, I saw some important envelopes Mom had, and peeked at your discharge papers: sure enough, the discharge papers were issued in Boston, Massachusetts.
I must have gotten my “travel bug” from you, wanting to see different places on my own. Pure curiosity. You traveled alone often; I don't mind it, myself – I like it!
You spoiled me with day trips to places you thought I'd enjoy as a 12 year-old kid: Sausalito and Marriott's Great America, an amusement park. You even indulged me by agreeing to go ride with me on a new roller coaster: The Tidal Wave!
(What powers of persuasion I had back then to convince you to ride with me! Did you really want to go on there?)
That crazy ride sort of symbolizes our relationship, I think: up and down and all around!
And thanks for encouraging me to play carnival games to try and win prizes (like cute and useless stuffed animals to clutter up my room)...that was great fun at Marriott's – and at the California State Fair, for many years!
On another trip, you took me down to see my great aunt in Hollywood and to hang out with visiting cousins; as always, you told me to rest and take it easy before all the excitement that may come. It came sooner than I thought: I fell asleep but then in my dreams, felt the car moving sideways...
I woke up and there you were, head drooped and snoring away at the wheel; I looked up and saw that we were moving diagonally across the I-5 freeway! Omg! “DADDY! WAKE UP!”
All you said was, “Shit!”, quickly corrected the position of auntie's car we were in, then you laughed, and we went on our merry way...
I thought that was living on the edge!!
Another time, you took me to Reno, Nevada – the famous gambling hot spot. Up we drove through the mountains of the Sierra Nevada...you told me to rest as usual, and then in my dreams, I thought I heard a siren. The siren kept getting louder til I woke up and found you starting to doze off! I saw a police car in the side view mirror, on our tail.
Not much room to park on a narrow mountain road...!
The big cop opened the door on my side and leaned very close over me to talk to you – but you got mad and shouted at him: “HEY, HEY, HEY!! You're too close to her!”
After the policeman apologized, came around to your side of the car and gave you a ticket, you spewed out some salty words the moment he walked away!
Daddy, the Reno trip may have been a bit premature for me: I mean, what can a pre-teen girl do in a casino except become a one-armed bandit on the slot machines?! I was grateful that you convinced the man running the roulette table to let me play – that was a nice change of games to try my luck out on!
I hope I got my sense of adventure and love of travel from you, in spite of the potential near- death experiences of you falling asleep at the wheel more times than I am mentioning here!
I Must Add
Our fun wasn't limited to traveling by car!
In your later years, you and I went about town by bus, for half-day trips to shop for things we didn't need (but liked!) and watch people as they passed by while we ate lunch or just sat on a bench while you took a rest.
Years earlier, you turned me into a staunch advocate of public transportation because when Mom thought about transporting us to school by car, she told me you retorted,
“They can learn how to take the bus!”
And so we did. I did. I'm better at getting around town by bus than by car, especially in unfamiliar places, sometimes ending up on unexpected adventures when I can't read a bus schedule correctly!
Because of You...
If not for you, Dad, I wouldn't have been forced to think about art, music, literature, and many other things beyond whatever my classmates and I learned in school.
You often brought back little souvenirs from places you visited during your work years, such as necklaces made by Native American Indian artisans in Arizona or New Mexico. I'm sorry I didn't fully appreciate your thoughtful gestures of generosity at the time as you were very enthusiastic about “natural” art from local artisans – but it often seemed you bought whatever appealed to you, and didn't explain to me what was unique about the particular jewelry or art piece you bought.
You would just smile and say, “It's different, isn't it?!”
Okay, so call me spoiled! Maybe you hoped I would eventually appreciate whichever unique art piece you bought...and I did...but often years later, not immediately. I had to think about it: what in the world did Dad see in this particular piece? Beauty, obviously.
But you left it to me to figure it all out!
Which was the right thing to do.
Because of your many little gifts and trips to view the art displayed at the California State Fair art contests, I developed a wide appreciation for “different” art.
None of my friends were familiar with the big band swing music of your youth. At first, I thought you were living in the past!
But I grew to enjoy it a lot, especially after you tried to teach me a few dance steps because you said Mom wasn't interested and you wanted a dance partner. I can't help but think of you every time I hear the big band, swinging songs of the '40s.
Then there's classical music. You spent a fortune on shiny record sets and dozens of cassettes! You insisted I listen with you – which was a bit challenging for a restless young girl. If I made the slightest protest, you barked, “JUST LISTEN!”
I listened; I hope you're pleased that I grew to love classical music. And learned to play violin and piano – albeit a horribly lazy student when it came to practicing (sorry!). I wanted to be an instant genius to impress you!
Thank you for helping to instill a love for music in me: I have photographic memories of you sitting on the sofa with your eyes closed, huge stereo headphones on your head, losing yourself in one of Beethoven's symphonies.
Because he was deaf...and you grew increasingly hard-of-hearing; he was someone you admired and could identify with on some level. You didn't tell me that exactly, but you often pointed out to me that he was deaf – and look what he accomplished!
Literature & Reading
You helped instill a love of reading in me by taking me and my sister to the public library as often as we wanted and also so you could read all the magazines for which you didn't want to pay a subscription!
You didn't direct what I should read – my older sister helped choose what I might like when I was learning to read.
I thank you for not censoring me in regards to reading and basically letting me roam free in the public library to pick and choose as I please – to go on whatever reading adventure that caught my eye!
You achieved a few things that way. Your youngest child became:
- An ardent advocate of public libraries
- A (mostly) voracious reader
- Someone who despises censorship
I hope that's something to be proud of?
Expecting the Best
I don't doubt one bit you wanted me to do my best in everything, Dad; I just didn't appreciate the way you went about it very often!
Case in point: when taking a design course at Sacramento City College one summer, I didn't realize you were spying on me during one of my projects, standing behind me and literally breathing down my neck until you roared:
“Gooooddaaamn you! That looks like SHIT! You think anyone is going to hire you with THAT?!”
(Thanks for making me feel like a million bucks, Pop!)
Really, I had to admit when you exploded like that and I looked at my own work – I did do a rather sorry job of the assignment, which was to create a grocery store advertisement. My lame excuse was that grocery ads do look crowded anyway!
No one could accuse you of NOT getting to the point quickly when it came to expressing your opinions!
By the way, I ended up taking another design course (sans Dad breathing down my neck) while working at Santa Barbara City College. A kind of redemption from the average grade I got earlier and away from your fierce criticism.
I loved it!
When you edited your Sub-Vet newsletter, you often asked me to help edit your work. Then it was my turn to get irritated because your timing seemed to be forever off: oblivious to my homework obligations. You said I could do it whenever I had time...but I learned very quickly that you really meant NOW.
And then if I gave you a spelling correction or some other grammatical point, you'd always ask me, “How do you know?”
(That's what I was taught in school, that's what I know! If you didn't trust me, why'd you ask me in the first place, Pop?!)
I think perhaps your drive to make the best Sub-Vet newsletter in the state of California – if not the entire USA - must have seeped into me, because I've become quite the nitpicky managing editor – detecting grammatical and writing errors the way a shark smells blood! Expecting only the best.
From myself and others...with a healthy dose of compassion and empathy, I hope!
Thanks for that, too, Daddy, for leaving your editorial drive within me.
Sink or Swim
You always wanted the best for me (even if I didn't want it at the time) and was proud I was getting what you regarded as a world class education at Mills College.
Your fateful three words when you dropped me off didn't come back to haunt me until finals week, before graduation, when I began freaking out with my fellow senior classmates and wondered if I would actually graduate, under the weight of so many papers to write and also writing for the college weekly newspaper.
It wasn't “I love you”.
It was “Don't embarrass me.”
(Gee, thanks! What encouraging words!)
Packaged with a hard, steely cold look from you to boot – and abruptly leaving with Mom after that.
If that was your way of making me tough and resilient, it sure worked: I knew not a soul on that campus or the city. I felt utterly abandoned at that moment.
Well...sink or swim, eh?
I graduated, and many moons later, am now managing editor of an award-winning international advocacy organization and multicultural movement for social justice and equality. I was hoping you'd be proud of me when I sent you a couple of postcards from Europe where we won our awards, presented at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.
And I hope you aren't one bit embarrassed by me; you were often overbearingly image-conscious and worried about what other people would think about goodness knows what...
which is one reason I didn't share with you some of my activities: I didn't want to endure interrogations by you and feel under pressure by your who/what/where/how/why's.
Such as: not sharing with you you was that I was training to earn my black belt in taekwondo. Yeah! Me: your totally unathletic daughter!
I feared you would have relentlessly asked me when I achieved my next color belt – and if not, why?
(I was unfit and klutzy, that's why! And took longer than the average student to attain black belt status!)
Now you know your daughter has a black belt and can defend herself on the streets! I learned street self-defense techniques and I won two sparring trophies – my instructors didn't call me scrappy for nothing!
And you indirectly helped me, in a perverse sort of way: whenever you had chewed me out was when I used that years-long and current pent-up frustration to out-spar some scrappy teenage boy with whom I was paired up in class – and on the tournament floor, to best (larger) female competitors in my age range!
You Are Part of Me
Dear Dad: I considered you my primary source of stress until your last breath. That's the cold, hard reality.
I dreaded phone calls from you because I had no idea what you might be demanding of me...NOW. And felt more than a tinge of guilt because I didn't look forward to talking to you on the phone when I knew you were lonely. You told me you were lonely on more than a few occasions –you didn't have to tell me; I could tell by your voice.
But I just did not want to get yelled at, out of the blue, by you. Or have you jump down my throat with harsh words at any given moment. It was hurtful.
Now you're gone and I don't have you to use as an excuse for feeling stressed anymore! No more walking on eggshells around you.
I cannot deny you or hate you (only the things you did or said) because that would be denying and hating myself. I wrote hateful things about you in my teenage diary because I didn't know how else to express myself; your love came in the form of authoritarianism (dictatorship!), possessiveness, and watching me like a hawk (controlling!). I felt suffocated. Oppressed. Repressed. Suppressed.
Yet you are part of me, like it or not!
So, I hope that I have some of your best character traits and that I'll learn to effectively manage your worst points within me.
And hope you know that I at least tried to show my appreciation for things you did for me...if not when I was younger, then when I was older.
Thanks so much for all the adventurous memories, Daddy! I suspect I will miss you more than I admit publicly or to myself, privately.
I love you.