My Father's Daughter (Part 1/2)
By Violet S
My father taught me everything I know. Well, maybe not everything. He wasn’t the parent who taught me how to write my name in cursive, or the 8th grade math teacher who made me realize that I was actually good at algebra. He wasn’t the older boy on the playground who taught me my first curse word, and he wasn’t Mrs. Jenkins from next door who told me that lotus flowers grow in mud. My father didn’t teach me everything I know, but he did teach me the most important things I know. He and I always shared the type of bond that seemed too good to be true; the type that doesn’t outlive the childish naivete of thinking your dad is a superhero only to crack at the break of adolescence. That never happened. Truthfully, I think my mom had been hoping that once I reached my early teen years I would start to gravitate to her more and we would have some Gilmore Girls relationship. That also never happened.
My parents were always incompatible. I don’t know what made their relationship work. Some people say opposites attract, but they weren’t opposites; they were just different. My dad was a chemist or a chemical engineer (the terms all meant the same thing to me) and made a lot of money. Enough that my mom didn’t have to work anymore, so she quit her job as a realtor and became a stay-at-home parent when I was born. I didn’t consciously choose to spend more time with my dad as a child, and I always loved my mom, but when I was old enough to start forming my own personality and interests it was clear that I was going to be spending more time with my dad. Because of the nature of his job, I got to do all kinds of fun (and potentially dangerous) science experiments with him in the kitchen. I loved learning about chemical reactions and making predictions. Part of me even liked it when my hypotheses were wrong because it meant I got to redo the experiments until I truly understood why things happened the way they did. My dad was also the handyman of the house and I shadowed him in that respect too, learning how to change a light bulb or a flat tire, and eventually graduating to power tools and helping him remodel part of the house when I was in high school.
My mother never really enjoyed those same hobbies. She was just as passionate as my father was, but where his passion took the form of silently studying books for hours or patiently carving out every detail of a camping trip, her passion took the form of abandoned mommy blogs and dried out watercolour sets shoved in the closet with an old yoga mat. She found sparks of joy in almost everything, but nothing seemed to be able to last beyond a flicker before burning out. Trying to keep up with her hobbies was exhausting and I admit that once I got a bit older, I stopped trying as hard. I still liked spending time with her and wanted to see her happy, so I would sit up with her and eat ice cream while we watched some reality show about rich housewives, and I let her teach me how to plant tomatoes one year after she grew envious of Mrs. Jenkins’ garden. Like I said, I always loved her. We just didn’t really connect. I know she felt like something was missing and I think that’s part of the reason she tried to spoil me so much. Thankfully I don’t think I ever hit brat status but a good portion of my young life was spent watching my parents fight a war over me. Their weapons weren’t arguments or insults; they were gifts.
I guess the war was officially started by my father, but it didn’t seem to be his intention. I received my first expensive gift from him when I was 6 years old. He came home one night and right before bed he told me had a present related to our experiments. We had been going through the periodic table that week and we had been talking a lot about carbon. He handed me a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. My ears had only been pierced for a couple of months at that point and in hindsight I understand why my mom felt like it was an inappropriate gift for a child, but she let me keep them nonetheless. In my defence, I never once lost or damaged them. After seeing how responsible I was, the jewellery started coming in more frequently. This went on for a couple of years, and though I sensed that my mother felt some pangs of uncertainty, I never heard her protest. Usually my dad would bring home earrings and we would discuss the metals or gemstones within them, but occasionally I would get a necklace. I kept everything in pristine condition until I got the ruby ring.
I had just turned 8 and had a spotless track record with the expensive gifts, so my father took a chance one day and brought me home a gorgeous ruby ring. It was gold and the band looked almost like it had been braided. I loved it, but it was too big for me. I remember vividly the night that it went down the drain. I was in my favourite pink and purple polka dot pyjamas singing into my hairbrush and giving our bathroom mirror the concert of a lifetime. At some point during my performance the ring slipped off my tiny finger and the sound of it hitting the porcelain made me freeze in place. It felt like it took forever for it to clatter around before disappearing down the drain. The only thing I had ever watched go into that black hole was water and a stray toothpaste cap the year before. I started crying, and it wasn’t until I was explaining the situation to my parents that I realized I was crying out of anger. I was mad at myself for not being more careful. I was mad at my dad for getting me a ring that was way too big. I was mad at Britney Spears for making songs that got stuck in my head and sounded good when I sang them into my brush. My father didn’t get mad at all though. He just found a way to fish it out of the pipe while my mother hugged me. When it emerged from the drain covered in hair and toothpaste and everything else that sits in a pipe, it was decided that they would hold on to it for safe keeping until I grew into it.
After the ring incident my father continued to give me jewellery, but in a much more age-appropriate way. I got charm bracelets that tinkled gently when I ran up the stairs and fake pearl earrings that made me feel an adult without actually giving me the burden of caring for something expensive. The jewellery started to lose its appeal and my mother saw an opening. She began to buy me dolls and nail polish and other things that the girls in my class liked. The dolls were pretty, but boring. The nail polish chipped when I wanted to do experiments. She started upping the ante a little. I received antique porcelain dolls that seemed like they would break if I looked at them too hard. She would take me out for lunch and then we’d go on shopping trips where she would purposely buy me the most expensive clothes with logos plastered on them so everyone would know I was “cool” and had money. I liked spending the time with my mom and it was nice to see her smile, but it all felt a little hollow.
I was in my sophomore year of high school when the trouble really started. By that point, my mom had realized that we were fundamentally differently people, and while she never stopped trying to spend time with me, she seemed to have resigned herself to the fact that I just got along better with my dad. He and I would spend hours after work and school doing experiments, or even simple things like just talking while we made dinner. My mom would observe sometimes and try to contribute, but science was never really her thing. She bounced around a few hobbies and started drinking more wine than a woman her size could reasonably handle. She was bored, drunk, and watching DIY craft videos all the time. Then she was bored, drunk, and learning how to garden again. Then she was bored, drunk, and passing out on the couch before dinnertime. Then she was just drunk. Luckily we convinced her to start going to some AA meetings and her drinking improved tremendously. Something still seemed off though, and I gently encouraged her to go to therapy. She was thriving in AA but there was still a light missing in her eyes and I wanted her to get help. I wanted her to figure out why nothing could ever satisfy her and maybe then she would have truly felt happy. She always refused therapy, but she stayed in her AA meetings. She stayed sober. I was genuinely proud of her. Somehow AA ended up being the one thing she stuck with and didn’t seem to lose her passion for.
By the time I was starting my senior year, things had improved a lot. My mom was still sober, but she grew increasingly more absent. I knew she had made friends with a lady from her AA group and they would go to movies or bookstores or coffee shops, so I just accepted that maybe she needed this time with a friend. My dad helped me with my college applications and even though I knew my mom was proud of me, she didn’t go on any tours or proofread any entrance essays. I was applying for biochemistry, anatomy, and neuroscience programs across the state. Initially this excited my mom because she thought I might become a doctor, but when the reality of cadaver labs and dissections hit her, she stopped asking so many questions. She still told every neighbour that I was graduating and going to get my pick of any college I wanted. She was excited, but understandably turned off by the subject matter.
I think my college applications are probably the reason I didn’t notice my mother’s odd behaviour sooner. Like I said, she was absent a lot more than usual, but I also locked myself in my room frequently to do research and practice entrance interview questions. My dad had asked me casually one night if I’d noticed anything different in my mom and truthfully I hadn’t. Not until Christmas at least.