When my mother died last year, she left behind my 82-year-old father, whom, I have to say, I was extremely fond of but did not know very well. This situation had something to do with the typical American family structure of the baby boom years—Dad works, Mom stays home, kids vanish into TV land after six o’clock—and something to do with the peculiar structure of our own family, which I can best describe this way: A few years ago, I went to a lecture by a Jungian analyst, who urged us to map out our family as if it were a solar system. I drew an enormous sun with the rest of us orbiting around it, small planets at varying distances from my mother. Suffice it to say that since her death, the worlds have realigned.
If I didn’t suspect that this would happen, despite the warnings of mental health professionals (“Death changes the family dynamic”) and friends who gently advised that I read or reread Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (which actually has virtually nothing to say on this topic), I figured it out pretty fast. I was the one, after all, who had to call my younger brothers to tell them that our mother was in the hospital in San Antonio after an accident and it didn’t look good, and I was the one who sat with my son while a digital monitor ticked off the last seconds of her life. I was also the one who sat with my father in the funeral director’s office and composed a brief obituary on an enormous wall-mounted monitor, where every letter I typed lit up like an inappropriately cheery marquee (“W…e… w…i…l…l… m…i…s…s… y…o…u…, M…o…m”). In the process I became the family matriarch, a word I detested for a role I had never desired.
In those days—a blur even now—I spent more time alone with my father than I had in decades, planning the funeral, hanging out in the kitchen as people dropped in to offer condolences, and taking walks on those thick, late-summer evenings, as Dad escorted his arthritic corgi around the condominium grounds. There was a lot to talk about then, as there were a lot of immediate decisions to be made and a lot of advice to be deflected—“I have no intention of moving out of this building,” my father told me the night of Mom’s funeral, as if relocating to my home in Houston was immediately required—and at times I felt as if bits of my mother’s soul had entered my body, guiding me in the care and feeding of my dad. But something else struck me on those nights when we walked and talked under a navy-blue sky: Death brings gifts, I thought, and here was one.
Recent psychological research suggests that highly successful women had fathers who were very active in their lives, the kind who coached their soccer team or taught them how to negotiate babysitting salaries or looked forward to serial Indian Princess outings. But anyone who’s watched Mad Men knows that that kind of dad wasn’t around while I was growing up. My father was more comfortable with a book and a Scotch than with a crowd of PTA parents. When I was in third grade, he made me sign a contract that said I would never again require him to attend the Cambridge Elementary School Mexican Supper, and time hasn’t really mellowed him: When I was away a few years ago, my parents took my son to a Cub Scout function; my mother later confided that she worried Dad was going to stroke out during the (always) extended badge ceremony.
None of which meant he didn’t love his children or that we didn’t feel that love. When I was little, while the rest of the house was still sleeping, we spent early mornings reading the Sunday funnies, and each night, before I went to bed, he told me stories of Felix and Rasputin, a cat and a crow who shared daring adventures in Central Park. I have a memory of him swooping me up and dancing with me at a party when I was four or so and dressed in my very best—I don’t think I’ve ever felt more beautiful. On a Valentine’s Day some twenty or so years later, my father gave me a small heart made of twigs and painted scarlet. “You’re a daddy’s girl,” a friend who spied it said enviously. I looked up, surprised. The thought had never occurred to me.
Partly, this was an issue of definition. My idea of a daddy’s girl was all mixed up with my ambivalence about Texas; to be the apple of your father’s eye conjured in my mind a whiskey-voiced blonde who had her own monogrammed boots and shotguns and who even at twenty or so sat on the lap of her rich, red-nosed dad. My father was from Baltimore, worked in my maternal grandfather’s clothing store, and spent a lot of his free time volunteering in local politics, kibitzing with community leaders on the West Side. I was as proud of my dad as a daughter could be, but to behave like a Texan—hearty, expansive, sometimes boozily bathetic—would have required the breaking of my then Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not act like Jett Rink”) and the piercing of my dad’s well-mannered, WASP-like mein. And too there was my mother, who could be so sensitive to any real or imagined slight that, my brothers and I liked to joke, she even viewed my father’s dog as competition for his affection.
So our relationship became, over time, affectionate but distant. When I was in college, he took to calling me in the early mornings from his office, a time of day when I was only semiconscious and a time of life in which I was far too self-absorbed to see that this was his way of keeping in touch. I grew accustomed to his penchant for indirection: On the morning after my son