I grew up without much of a relationship with my father. I haven’t seen him since I was 12. A few days ago, my sister Arial called to tell me her husband had called her and said there was a letter from our father in the mail. As she drove home, we talked and then I stayed on the phone with her while she read me the letter. Considering we hadn’t heard from our father in over 30 years, the letter was short and anticlimactic. I wasn’t surprised, I expected that. But what I was a little surprised at, was how thinking about my father brought up old feelings. My sister and I talked about writing to him, but we both know that no matter what we say, he probably won’t understand or “get it”. So, I thought I’d write my letter here, where it might help me and maybe someone else.
To my father,
I think this letter has been sitting inside me for most of my life, since I was little. There are so many thoughts in my head and I’m not even sure how to write them so that you’ll understand and get what I’m saying. My earliest memories are of you pushing my mother into our refrigerator while she held my baby sister in her arms and watching them fall to the floor. My early childhood is filled with other hazy memories of hearing yelling and feeling utterly terrified.
My daughters, when hearing about your letter, wanted to know more about you. So, I told them about the first visit after the divorce, when you dragged Arial and I through the mall, because you were angry when I answered your question about who started fights between you and my mother. I didn’t know enough to lie, I was only 5.
For years I was so angry at you, I wanted to make you pay the child support we desperately needed and I was so mad that you made my mother have to do everything on her own. I used to wish that I had a loving, wonderful father who had died instead of you.
I’ve had such anxiety since I was a kid, and it all stems from my turbulent childhood. I was so scared of everything. It’s strange and frustrating how someone I barely knew and was barely part of my life had such an impact on me. That’s the thing about childhood, those early years form us. I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and I’m a lot better, but that stuff doesn’t just go away.
Both Arial and I have had such weird feelings about men because of you. A father should be there to protect his daughter, to nurture her and make her feel special. Instead, I learned that men were scary, creepy and they might hit you. That might be why I married a man who was quiet and calm, who I thought would be safe. That marriage didn’t last.
As I got older I learned to accept things and let go of the anger and you became a weird, vague memory. As I mentioned, I have children now, and it’s so bizarre to them that I have a father. I think it’s bizarre too, I can’t imagine what that would be like. I dreaded Father’s Day as a kid, it was just another reminder that I didn’t have one.
When I was 15 and I had worked all summer at my first real job, at the end of the summer I found your phone number and called to tell you that the money I had earned had to go toward paying for a new roof on our house. You didn’t say much and then sent me a five page photocopied letter. I didn’t even get the original. I don’t remember what was in that letter except that you talked about yourself, there was no “I’m sorry” or “Here’s some money to help”, or “What an amazing kid you are helping your mother”. So, I guess it’s no surprise that this recent letter also has no apology, no remorse. Again, you just talked about yourself and your failing health with a brief question asking if my sister and I are married or have children.
I think it was a shock to Arial, that you sent her the letter. Since she was younger, any letter you previously sent was addressed to me and she always felt invisible. She was too young to remember the actual abuse so her fear came from my reaction when we were supposed to visit you or you showed up. I should have been the brave big sister, but I was so terrified, so she decided she would be the protector. As I got older I continued to be anxious and she learned to put up walls.
Maybe we have things to thank you for. I never picked up a cigarette because of you, I can’t stand the smell of smoke. I learned at an early age that smoking was a disgusting habit. Arial and I did a walk in New York City to raise awareness of mental illnesses because of the effects they’ve had on our family. I sometimes wonder if you were able to get the right help years ago it things would have been different.
Maybe, somewhat due to you, I have been led down my path to help people with their weight and body image. When I last saw you, when I was 12, you showed up unannounced at our house on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which is funny because you didn’t ask for any forgiveness. It was another terrifying event in my childhood. I remember you awkwardly hugging me, wreaking of cigarette smoke and the only thing I remember you saying to me was, “Don’t get fat like your mother”. I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life, and I’m in pretty good shape now, but fat is not the worst thing I could be. There are so many worse things.
When I think of being like my mother, fat is not at all what I think of. Actually, my mother takes care of herself and her health; unlike you she never smoked, she walks around the lake with her friends, she swims, she bikes at the gym. My mother is an amazing woman. She has more energy than anyone I know. She had three jobs while we were growing up so she could take care of us. She made us feel secure and loved. She taught us to love the ocean, to swim, paid for gymnastics and dance lessons. She taught us to love Broadway shows and how to be there for each other. My daughters know that their grandmother will always be there for them. While your absence has caused us to push ourselves, it’s really our mother who taught us to survive and thrive. You should really thank her.
Because of you, we’ve had to be stronger. Arial is intelligent and independent. She earned her MBA, has a successful career, got married a few years ago and is an awesome step-mom. I continue to struggle with anxiety and depression but through it all I’ve managed to raise two amazing daughters, got my degree and started my own business. Both of my girls started college this week. I am a warm, nurturing, loving mother. We are a family of independent, strong, compassionate, and giving women.
We are all happy with our lives and it has nothing to do with you, you don’t know us.
I wonder if you’ve gotten any help for your mental health. When I was in the depths of my depression, I wondered if you finally got an official diagnosis. There’s definitely a history in this family. But you didn’t say anything in your letter, so I’m guessing you haven’t, which is a shame. Maybe if you went for help you would have some awareness. Maybe you could have made an effort to ask for forgiveness.
How sad for you that you missed out on being part of our lives. You could have had two daughters and grandchildren. I’m sure you won’t really understand all of this. I’ve come to believe that the people who should apologize never do, they lack the awareness and understanding otherwise they would have already.
Many of us who don’t feel good about ourselves and our bodies have something in our past that caused us significant pain. Even though I knew my father abused my mother, I don’t think I really realized that I was also a victim of abuse and that it was a contributing factor in how I’ve felt about myself.
The things in our childhood mold us and form who we are. I find it frustrating sometimes, that as much as I’ve grown and tried to accept things, those early experiences are still part of me. When I acknowledge and honor the little girl who grew up terrified of everything, it allows me have a little more patience and understanding with myself. While we accept and understand why we have our challenges, we also get to decide how we use the things that hurt us to become better people.