“It’s common for daughters to be sexually attracted to their fathers,” my father said at one of his breakfast table lectures.
I almost spit out my toast. “Ew! No! No it’s not!”
He smiled condescendingly. “It is, whether they admit it or not, it’s perfectly natural. The daughter has conflict with her mother because she’s jealous of their relationship….”
“No. No,” I tried to make him stop talking. It was how I most often felt with him. Like I was trapped and he wouldn’t shut up and no matter how much I argued with him, he made me feel like he was analyzing me under a microscope and coming up with conclusions that he believed but were absolutely false. He overwhelmed me from as far back as I can remember. He wasn’t taking off my clothes, he was taking off my skin.
He smiled again. Mom was in the kitchen, putting things away.
My father believed that feelings were signs of weakness and illness, and must be “fixed.” No, I never felt the least bit “attracted” to my father, quite the opposite. But he would never stop talking, analyzing, picking, peering. Most of the time I felt like a frog, splayed open and pinned to cardboard. But everyone said he was “brilliant.” My mother assured me regularly that “everyone” loved him, loved his sermons. He told me himself that he helped “so many people” in counseling and they were so grateful to him. And I had no self esteem. Perhaps he was right and I was just stupid. But I had no sexual or even positive feelings toward him. It didn’t matter, though, he believed what he wanted to believe.
And feelings were further signs of mine and my mother’s weakness. Around Rollo, feelings were bad. We never talked about Ruth again. She showed up one more time in school, but then she was gone. I never did find out what happened to her, I was just glad she was gone. Just like with everything else, we went on, pretended these things didn’t happen. Anything else was a strike against me.
My mother, however, did feel very deeply. When those feelings were pain, she just stored them away until she couldn’t hold them in any more. She rarely argued with my father when I was growing up, she assured me he was a great man. Every so often though, she couldn’t hold it in anymore, and she’d “lose it.” She’d yell at him, cry– which only made him judge her further– and finally lock herself in the bathroom. Years later I understood, but as a child I didn’t. When I was an adult, I realized that he got to be so overwhelming, so condescending, literally laughing at anyone who argued with him, that one just had to get away from him. As a child, she just scared me. I thought she was going crazy.
“Susan, go get your mother out of the bathroom, she’s upset,” he’d say to me. I would stand at the bathroom door, knocking, begging her to come out.
“It’s ok, Sue, I just need some time, I’ll be out later,” she’d whisper to me. It tore me apart every time. At other times, she’d be so exhausted, she would lie down on the couch for a couple of days and just sleep. It terrified me as a child.
Music was my comfort. I learned that from my brothers when they’d lived at home. David Cassidy, Mac Davis, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, the Captain and Tennille, and others. Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond stayed the course with me over the years, when I grew out of the others.
“I got an emptiness deep inside and I’ve tried but it won’t let me go…” “I am! I said… to no one there… And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” That song, and many others, described what I couldn’t describe myself. I felt invisible. I kept a diary since I was 10, but it was many years before I could even be honest about my feelings to my journal. How I didn’t like my father, I didn’t see what others saw. I sat in church while he preached things that went way over my head, and I thought he was a fraud. I knew what he was like at home. I knew how he treated his family. I couldn’t understand how a father could feel no emotion, could have no feelings of love toward his own children.
Yet even as a child and middle schooler, “I Believe in Music, I Believe in Love” took root as my basic theology. “Stop and Smell the Roses Along the Way.” It was simple, but it worked for me. Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash sang my angst, my loneliness. They put into words what I didn’t have the nerve to do. If I admitted how I felt, I was a bad daughter.
I was never bullied again, the way I was bullied by Ruth, but I still felt bullied quite a bit, even into adulthood. And I felt bullied by my father, though at the time, I wouldn’t have used the word. I was scared of him. He never touched me, but his words, his relentless analyses, his superior attitude and his condescending attitude made me feel small and weak.
When my mother got “hysterical,” as he called it– when she finally talked back to him and got angry– he’d leave the room. He would come back and put his hand on the back of her neck.
“Here, take this,” he’d say, shoving a little white pill through her lips. “It’ll make you feel better.” Sometimes she crumbled and swallowed it. Sometimes she spit it out, “I don’t want your stupid pill!” And she’d wrestle away from his grip and go into the bathroom. (It’s a good thing that we had three bathrooms in Red Bank)
When I was about 12, he pushed his little white pill on me. I was very nervous, shy, and anxious, and later that developed into depression. “Here,” Rollo would say, shoving the pill in my hand (I was grateful that he didn’t force it into my mouth). By 8th grade, I had my own supply of the pill, in a prescription bottle that had his name on it. It was Donnatol, a “mild tranquilizer”, my father said. It helped my nervous stomach calm down. It helped me sleep. I took it any time I had to face a nerve-wracking situation, which for me was pretty often. I carried my supply in my purse, along with a little sandwich bag of Maalox. By the 8th grade, I ate Maalox tablets like candy.
I took Donnatol pretty regularly, as supplied by my father, till I was 25. Looking it up later, I discovered that it was used for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. When comparing stories later in life, Don told me that any doctor in any town gave Rollo whatever he asked for.
Twila Paris had a song out in the 1990s called “Love’s Been Following You.” It’s true. The grace of growing up in a parsonage, is that there were people. There were always people. They didn’t know what went on in our house, and they liked my Mom and Dad, but some of them showed up and loved me too. There were people that came along, sometimes to stay for the rest of my life, but more often to be there when I needed them. They didn’t know the significance of their reaching out to me, but somehow, by the grace of God, they perceived I needed a friend.
In Red Bank, my father led a Sharing Group, made up of couples who had been to Marriage Encounter weekends, a weekend retreat meant to open up communication between couples. They met once a month in each other’s homes, had refreshments, and spent a couple of hours “sharing their feelings.” Every three months they met at our house, and I always looked forward to that, even though I was supposed to be upstairs. I sat on the stairs when they all came in the front door and watched them hug each other in greeting. There was a lot of hugging. Sometimes they’d wave at me and say hello. But one of those nights, things changed. There was a couple in the group named Chet and Sandie Allen. I knew them because their kids had stayed with us for a couple of weeks when they went on a trip. I liked them. They were fun and silly and hugged a lot. And Chet was really good-looking.
One evening, while everyone was hugging and kissing and greeting each other enthusiastically, Chet looked over at me sitting on the steps. He walked over, and I think my heart did a little flip. “Hey, Sue. You want a hug?” He smiled. I might have died right there.
“Sure,” I managed to squeak out. He reached down and engulfed me in a big bear hug, and tussled my hair. His wife Sandie broke away from the group.
“Sue always sits here and watches us exchanging hugs, I thought she might want a hug, too,” Chet told her. Sandie smiled. She was so beautiful, and her whole face smiled.
“Well, of course!” and she pulled me into a hug that lingered for a while. “In fact, when we have refreshments later, you should come down,” she added, tussling my hair. I fell in love with both of them that night.
It became a regular thing, then. I came down when I heard them break for refreshments, and I managed to be near Sandie and Chet in the kitchen. They asked me questions, kidded with me, paid attention to me. They were the first adults to see me. To see me as if I were a person in my own right. I didn’t even care if they talked to me, I was glad to be near them, to soak up their joy and love. My parents were different around them. My mother was lighter, sillier, and she was more herself especially around Sandie. Sometimes Sandie came over for coffee with my Mom.
They moved away when I was 11, to Connecticut and then to New York, near Hyde Park. About four hours away. But my parents and I went to visit them and they came to visit us, so I got to see them a few times a year. They had two children younger than me, Andrea and Chip. When we all got together, we played. My parents didn’t play, but they did with Sandie and Chet. And us kids were included, always. We laughed a lot with the Allens. There was a comfort, a freedom to just be myself that I didn’t experience often. My parents were different with them. They were more… human. Free.
Through the years I wrote Sandie long, long letters. When we visited, she and I often had our own time together, after everyone else went to bed. She and I would sit up when I was a teenager and drink herbal tea and just talk. During those three or four- day visits, I got hugged and touched a lot. There were hugs in the morning, spontaneously through the day, and always several hugs before bed. She played with my hair during games, rubbed my back. Before we parted for bed, she’d hug me a long time, then hold me away from her, hold my face in my hands and say, “you’re so special, Peggy Sue,” using the nickname she made up for me. She delighted in me. Not only did she see me, but she seemed to love what she saw.
“From where I stand, I’m able to see it, love’s been following you…all through the stormy night, didn’t you see the light…goodness and mercy right there behind you…”
Sandie was the source of some of my greatest joys growing up, but would eventually be the source of my most heartbreaking sorrow.