The day I stopped trying to make my father happy


By Elizabeth Margaret Newdom

“I am worried about this marriage.”

The words came tumbling out of Dad’s mouth as we waited in the wings of Primrose Cottage, a historic old house in Roswell, Georgia, home to the oldest oak tree in the state. It was the night of my wedding rehearsal, and I couldn’t believe the timing—or the irony.

There I was, about to marry Eric, a man whose love had allowed me to leap tall buildings in a single bound, being warned by my dad, the man who had never read me a bedtime story or learned my favorite color, that he couldn’t offer his blessing.

Dad never had to say he disapproved. I’d been a witness to the rolling eyes after Eric’s jokes, the feigned interest in his massage career, the stiff surgeon handshake when meeting his Jewish father and lesbian mother.

In truth, I hadn’t planned on asking Dad to walk me down the aisle, to enter the sacred space where I would exchange honest vows with the man I loved. But my mom and brother had pleaded in encouraging tones, saying how happy it would make him. And so, I asked him.

How happy it would make him. That phrase had been woven into the very fibers of my being since I was small. I was stitched together with the threads of how happy I’d make him, or should make him, or wasn’t making him. The eggshells from those words had been cracked and scattered across every room I’d ever entered, were at the forefront of every thought. My dad was the appraiser of my worthiness, the one to proclaim when my posture was straight enough, my ideas smart enough, my books thick enough. As I grew, tall arches formed in my feet from reaching higher and higher in the fruitless effort to please him.

And thus how happy it would make him became the mantra of my formative years, shaping my early dating experiences into a predictable mold. During my first school dance, boys whose first names I didn’t know lined up to take a turn, and I obliged. When they pulled my hips toward theirs during “Purple Rain,” I let them. Then I waited until the strobe lights had faded and the folding chairs were placed in stacks against the walls to finally rub my feet.

By the time I reached college, I had developed a type—the boys who told me what I wanted, when, and where. The ones who didn’t ask me questions but were taken by how much I nodded in agreement as they described their latest break-up with the girl I could never be. The confident one with a nose ring, taking an art class so she could smudge the charcoal drawing of her boyfriend’s goatee with the tip of her index finger.

This pattern remained the same throughout much of my early adulthood years—how happy it would make him playing on an endless loop as the soundtrack in my mind. In the workplace, I’d amend my ideas to whatever would win the boss’ favor. Or I’d cover for the boy who shared the same job title, because doing so would lead to an all-affirming pat on the head and to keep the good girl status I’d worked so hard to achieve.

And then one hot July day in my thirtieth year, a genie in the bottle appeared in the form of a chance internet date. It was the day my husband to be called to ask me for “ice cream or coffee.” As the sun shone brightly overhead in the Atlanta sky, he asked me my favorite color. On our second date, we walked down the sidewalks of historic neighborhoods, commenting on the shades of the blue and yellow houses, wondering what their porch furniture said about them and whether an American flag signaled friend or foe.

We walked until streetlights dimmed and restaurant signs flipped to closed. He listened to me like a musician does to a great concerto, like a gardener eager for the rain. And on our fourth date, he read me a bedtime story before tucking the covers in under my chin.

On the eve of my wedding, as my father and I waited for our cue to go down the aisle arm and arm, his imposing stature loomed, his look of disapproval hung like a frame around me. I stood opposite him in my brand-new silk dress and toeless three-inch heels, as how happy it would make him finally began to unravel. As the twisted knot those words had formed finally came loose.

The seams of my very being began to tear. This man who’d never wiped a tear from my cheeks or spent an afternoon at the park with me had lost his grip. And how happy that made me was born.

That day, I decided to walk down the aisle without my father—toward a life that didn’t need approval.

Elizabeth Margaret Newdom teaches writing and literature courses in Frederick, MD. She often writes about life as an “astronaut,” rocketing away from a debilitating past. You can follow her journey on The Astronaut Wife.

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