Father Knows Best
Every April, I expect to receive a beautifully wrapped box from Von Maur, the mid-west department store where they hand gift-wrap and mail every package free. I look forward to propping the dress box on my chaise lounge weeks before my actual birthday in early May. The wrapping is bright and colorful, just like the contents inside. A thick, colored ribbon runs lengthwise around the box and a gold seal sticker holds it all in place. I have learned over the years that I won’t be disappointed. Every single dress my dad sends is in the exact same size, the same size I wore in high school, the same size dress my dad found when I was a junior going to prom. And each year, the dress fits perfectly.
These dresses are all love letters from my dad, the one who personally selects them and has confidence in each wild pattern, each garish color, and each crazy style.
Last year’s birthday dress came with a fascinator, a fashionable headpiece that hoity toity British women wear with both formal and everyday dresses. Atop the headpiece rests some giant bow, spray, object or knotted fabric. If a woman wears it properly, as my instruction sheet from Pippa & Pearl accompanying my delivery explains, she angles the design on the right side of her head. Fascinators can be of any color or shape, which explain why my dad is obsessed with them. Their job is to accent your face and hair, and, of course, be a gorgeous accompaniment to a stunning dress. The fascinator that my dad sent me is a blue job with two feather flowers exiting a netted cornucopia on the front that somehow wraps itself around to the side of the headband in a flourish. It is about one foot wide and half a foot tall. It’s a showstopper, but I’ve never worn it. Idaho—where I live—is not fascinator country. So I display it on my Clavinova, another gift from my parents that lost its appeal after I stopped taking piano lessons in high school.
When my parents visited last summer, my dad found the fascinator they had sent me for my birthday and he waltzed out of the spare bedroom wearing it. He posed in the hallway as if it was a fashion runway. Then he placed his fingertips flat on his cheeks with a “who, me?” look. He tiptoed around the living room in his sock feet, glancing at me and then at Mom and then at my husband. Lovely! I said. Charming! My husband said. Dazzling, Brent, said my mom. I think you’re giving me a run for my money. He seemed pleased and trotted back, returning the fascinator to its rightful place.
Dress Brand/Designer: Zinc
Dress Description: Adjustable Tied Halter, V Bust Cut, Knee-length, Asymmetrical Hem; dark navy blue with stenciled, light-blue flowers and pink roses; a dress that presents well at riverfront pubs and strolls under the setting, summer sun
Year Received: 2007, the year after I moved in with my graduate college boyfriend. My father couldn’t address the elephant in the room—they hadn’t raised me to live with a man before marriage—so he fumed in the truck while my mother choked through tears that she and my father were disappointed in my choice to live in sin.
My dad is six feet tall with straw colored hair. It’s straight like mine, and he gets it trimmed regularly to keep it from going past his ears and down too far on his forehead. I’ve never seen a picture or remember him with any other haircut. His frame is athletic without being muscular. He’s the perfect weight for his height, never gained an ounce of fat his whole life. He has a vice grip and strong fingernails, which he prunes regularly. His skin has deep ruddy undertones despite being fair. When he was young, he was stranded on a river sandbar all day. He burned so badly that now he lathers on the SPF anytime he leaves the house. When he appears in pictures, the flash draws out his flush skin, and he looks as though he just finished running a mile. It’s hard not to look at his gentle eyes and partial smile, the natural laugh lines and crow’s feet that crease from his slight squint. He’s always worn glasses, never contact lenses like my mom, and they are thin wire frames. Basic, simple. He never wears fancy clothes, just a polo and casual dress pants is what I’m used to seeing him wear, unless he’s working in the garden. Then he’ll wear an old Razorbacks t-shirt and some paint-splattered Nike shorts with his holey socks and decades-old tennis shoes.
My dad was raised with very little, which explains why his work clothes looked so worked in. He was born in a small town in northeast Arkansas along with three brothers. His parents, having persevered WWII, led their family with faith and community, two things my dad still takes pride in. When I became a Christian, our pastor had asked if I wanted my father, a church deacon, to baptize me. I didn’t even hesitate. No, I told Pastor. I want it to be real. Seeing my dad’s lifelong devotion to the church and his ministry, I’d attest that his faith and love for God is very real. But as an eight-year-old, I found it nearly impossible to reconcile the two halves of my father: the military-trained professional with the god-fearing, Old Testament-respecting man. It felt like the role Dad was third on his list. He’d met my mother at a Southern Baptist college, served for twenty years in the Air Force, and then dedicated his mental health career to counseling those in his community. He wastes nothing: clothes, food, time, and money. My dad rarely buys new clothes for himself. He clears his plate, eating every morsel he estimated he would. My dad uses his time economically and his favorite Bible lesson is the parable of the prodigal son. Ultimately, my dad is frugal. He once stood in the aisle of the Commissary with my mother bickering over the sugary cereal she bought for us girls. I don’t want children’s cereal, he huffed at her. After minutes of whining, my mother asked him what kind of cereal would make him happy. He mumbled, Frosted Flakes. Most of the time, my dad is reasonable, but when he’s not, he remains unapologetic.
I look, walk, and act just like my dad. Growing up, my nickname was Brentina because I resembled him and just about every other male on my dad’s side. I have his hands. I have his fingernails. I even have his signature. Just the other day, my husband caught me behaving like my father. My husband stood up and shivered, grabbing his bare arms. It’s cold, he said, and walked towards the thermostat. Before he could adjust the temperature, I blurted, Put on a jacket. He stopped cold in his tracks, turned back to me, and smiled. Sure thing, Brent, he said as he left the room for a warmer climate.
Always the stoic, unreachable goliath, my dad has grown emotional. For the past nine years, we’ve lived thousands of miles and many states apart from one another, seeing each other once, maybe twice a year. Each year that has passed, I’ve seen cracks in his foundation as he has realized that he doesn’t need to be a big, strong man. He can be a man and dress his daughter. He can be a man and design a wreath. He can be a man and cry. There isn’t one farewell we share now that doesn’t include my dad’s tears. His weepiness surprises me, but I know it shouldn’t. He’s always been that man, hiding behind his façade.
Dress Brand/Designer: Michael Kors
Dress Description: Collared, Rolled-Sleeved, Four-Pocketed, Belt, Knee-Length; casual, black dress with a silver zipper down the front; cute, business attire, a dress I’ve worn a lot due to its versatility
Year Received: 2010, the year I researched and purchased my first car by myself. I didn’t even want my husband to help. I had the dealership agent running between me and the owner as I negotiated the price. My dead grandmother’s 2004 Buick Century, gifted by my parents, chipped away the steep price of a new car, but I stumbled over my words when I told my father weeks later. I knew he’d have wanted to show me his Consumer’s Report and to test drive for me, but I accepted the hurt I caused him by signing on the dotted line before telling him I was even looking to replace the Buick. And when I told him, he simply said Well.
It started when I was in college. My parents sent me one nice dress for my birthday. And another dress for my next birthday, and again the one after that. I don’t know what instigated it, but I imagine the first time it was like this: my dad enters Von Maur in Wichita, Kansas, hands in his pockets, wandering the aisles in the women’s department, something he’s done since the day he married my mother. Early in their marriage, he encouraged her to buy a personalized color wheel to match her skin and hair type, which she religiously carries in her purse to this day. So my dad’s in Von Maur, probably looking for clothes for my mother. Then he sees something he has to buy specifically for me. And it just so happens to be my birthday in a couple weeks. He looks to my mother, ready to provide an excuse to do what he always has done for me—dress me up. Why don’t we get Kimberly a dress this year? he asks, not needing an answer. He buys the dress for me and is pleased with himself when I like it, too. Then, the following year, he remembers how fun it was to shop for a dress for his daughter and receive praise that he does it again. He’s the kind of person who believes If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
A natural “yes-man,” my mom has spent her life supporting my dad’s choices, no matter what she actually feels. She knows the validity of her argument has little bearing; he will only think what he wants to think. Usually, he doesn’t have to work too hard to convince her of his birthday dress selection for me, but I know that some years even his creative choices are so wild that he prepares for my mom to rescind her automatic approval. I can hear it in her voice over the phone: What do you think? Pregnant pause. He couldn’t see anything but that dress. My mom’s skepticism lets me know that I should expect to see a dress that defies all logic. Your father saw the dress on the mannequin the second he walked in. That is her way of saying that she didn’t fully agree, but you know your father. Then I try on the dress and tell them it fits and spin in a circle as though they can see me over the phone. Then I’ll send them a picture of me in the dress. I rarely have to reassure my dad that I love it, because I really do, but more importantly, because I never want it to stop. The dresses are always perfect.
After a couple of years success with birthday dresses, my parents continued the Von Maur tradition. They found other, unique dresses that their youngest daughter would not only appreciate, but wear. I wore these dresses to auditions, formal events, dates, first days of teaching, and public readings. My older sister, one who was more comfortable wearing jeans and a pullover or a tasteful, Sunday dress, would not find the time, nor the place, to wear dresses like these. They had tried with her, but upon visiting, Dad would sneak into my sister’s closet and find all the fancy clothes and extravagant dresses they sent her with their tags still attached, never worn. After that, my parents reserved the birthday dress tradition to me. On the phone, my mother admits that they would buy fancier dresses for my sister, but they know she just wouldn’t wear them. I know once a gift is given, we have no control over whether it’s worn, but your father puts so much into picking them out, my mother tells me. She sighs. I try to comfort her because I’d wear the clothes that they send her.
My dad’s taste in women’s fashion can be seen in the 17 birthday dresses I’ve received in the past 17 years, an evolving flash of genius. They take up an entire section in my closet because they don’t belong with the other dresses. One year they didn’t send me a birthday dress. I mentioned how surprised I was over the phone to them. But by then I’d already gone to Von Maur’s website and bought my own birthday dress. It arrived in the mail within the week. I put it on and hated it immediately. It was traditionally pretty: royal blue with white flowers, sleeveless, with an asymmetrical front ruffle. I failed to see my dad’s flair, the unknown factor that made my birthday dresses so special. The next day I received a belated birthday dress sent direct from Von Maur, handpicked by my repentant father. I banished the fake birthday dress to the other side of the closet where it belonged. The next year, we all got back on track.
Dress Brand/Designer: Anne Klein
Dress Description: High-Neck, Sleeveless, Pleated Skirt, Calf-Length; a practical teal-colored dress made of fabric mostly reserved for upholstery with two-inch sleeveless straps and a thin, tan belt that cuts through my natural waistline
Year Received: 2012, the year I taught 4 semesters and 11 quarters of college classes. Over the phone, my dad encouraged me in the only way he knew how. He put on his psychologist’s voice with me. Keep your head down, get the job done, he told me. Be a good soldier.
“I’m gonna make him learn,” he declares like a drill sergeant, “one way or another.” He’s talking about his new Airedale puppy and he’s told me in no uncertain terms what else he’s going to do to that dog. I hang up and pray that my dad doesn’t mean what he says. I never know with him.
He teaches anyone within earshot about anything. He isn’t always right, but he acts like it. His favorite lesson includes naming all the fields on the way from the airport in Spokane to our valley two hours south: That’s soybean for sure. He points, his finger pressed to the backseat window glass the way he used to yell at me for doing as a child. Oh, and those are chickpea. You’ve got a lot of those up here. He’ll be quiet for ten minutes until we reach the wheat fields and we’ll hear his commentary miles past it on how to tend to wheat, what kind of weather works best for it, and when it’s harvested.
A baby boomer, my dad comes from the generation who say what they mean, and they can say some mean stuff. He routinely takes his rifle out back and shoots squirrels that run across his roof, which happens every day. One time he made my mom text me a photograph of him and my sister’s six-year-old son each holding a dead squirrel by the tail. Their grins were out of this world. He knows I find murdered animals disturbing, but he doesn’t care. He knows there are other people who appreciate him in that way.
My dad collects the dead squirrels he shoots and gives them to an elderly lady in their church. She’s older than my dad and not afraid to cook up and eat some city squirrels. I imagine him walking up to her house, ringing her doorbell, and handing over the bodies in a plastic sack. He’ll say something like, They’re fresh. Shot ‘em today. I’ll see you for service this weekend. Better wear your best hat this Sunday. Hear it’s gonna get hot. The church lady probably blushes at my dad’s sincere compliments and makes sure to find the one hat she thinks he’s talking about, laying out a matching dress across her spare bed that night lest she forget.
Dress Brand/Designer: JS Collections
Dress Description: Spaghetti Straps, Satin and Netting, Calf-Length, Matching Shawl; uber fancy cocktail dress made of heavy satin and netting; bodice cut across my collarbones and expands from the waist with flair; alternating vertical strips of material in increments the size of shredded paper; pink and peach and green flowers pop against the black satin; I’m on the cover of Vanity Fair in this dress
Year Received: 2006, my second year as a teaching assistant in graduate school. Before applying to grad school, I had called my dad on the steps of the testing center and told him my GRE results. He had congratulated me on my excellent score for my written essay. I was getting Bs in all my graduate classes, however, and my professor’s comments in my official graduate file said things like, “Isn’t ready for graduate school”; “Won’t be successful in this environment”; “Doubt she belongs here.” I never told my dad. I knew he’d certainly never heard comments about his doctoral studies like the ones I was reading. I knew he’d tell me I was good enough, that he was proud of me, but I’d never know what he actually thought. We don’t talk about things like that with each other.
For my junior prom dress, my parents drove me 45 miles north to the specialty dress shop PARROT-fa-NALIA in Wichita. This cramped, multi-roomed, low-ceilinged residence boasted Kansas’ largest homecoming, prom, and wedding dresses. This store was wall-to-wall racks of dresses and elbow-to-elbow moms and teenaged daughters running around in a tandem act: the mom would shout a color or style to the daughter and then the daughter would shout yes or no and then the mom would throw the dress either back on the rack or over her arm and quickly move on. Upon entering, my mom and I joined the circus, racing around looking for any dress in my size without anything particular in mind. I didn’t even check to see if my dad had made it into the store. In my mind, his role was to drive us to the store and buy the dress. Inside the store, I caught a glimpse of his golden crown above the other heads as he casually strolled the aisles, unperturbed by the maniacal women scouting up and down the narrow aisles.
The place was loud and disorganized, and I could hardly hear my mom when she was standing right behind me. The line for the two dressing stalls was a dozen girls deep and I wanted to have at least five choices before I stopped looking so the wait in line was worthwhile. That was when my dad walked up with the dress: It was a deep turquoise, sleeveless, lacy collarbone design, floor-length gown covered in hand-stitched beads and sequins. There was a knee-length slit up the back. It was in my size.
“This is the one, Kimberly. Get in line for the dressing room.” I tried to argue with him, but he shooed me behind the last girl in line and put the dress in my arms. He stood with the sea of women, all eyes on the dressing stalls, waiting for validation.
The appeal of PARROT-fa-NALIA for prom hunting was that each purchase from their shop went in a master record identifying the attendee’s high school. Girls going to prom from up to 100 miles away were logged according to dress designer, type, and color. Their store guaranteed that no two girls would wear the same exact dress to prom. It was company policy. I realized later that this was why my dad wanted to shop at PARROT-fa-NALIA: he wanted to make sure that I looked unique, that I stood out.
When I walked out of the dressing stall in the prom dress my dad had handed me, I saw his reaction first. He looked satisfied, like he was proven right. His acknowledgement consisted of tight smile and a curt nod of his head. He knew he’d picked out the perfect dress and confirmation that his selection was the superior choice was all he needed. Everyone else knew it was the dress, too. Dozens of moms and daughters in the dressing stall line and around nearby dress racks oohed and ahhed at me. The lacy neckline along with the form-fitting hug of the bodice stunned all of them into silence for a full five seconds. The fluorescent lights glinted off the dress in all directions, sequins and beads whorling around the turquoise fabric with ease. My dad’s voice cut through all the women’s voices.
“Perfect. I knew it.”
My dad picked out my sister’s wedding dress. He had driven all of us to David’s Bridal for the fitting. My sister didn’t find the dress she ended up getting because it was an exclusive. Apparently, exclusives started at one thousand dollars. Dad, who was going to pay for everything, had told her how much he was going to spend on her wedding, and she knew the limits. Growing up with one working parent for the first half our lives meant that we had a full-time caretaker with my mom, but it also meant that we didn’t get a lot of things we wanted. We always had the necessities, but extras weren’t usually an option. So my sister and I had gotten good at not looking at those candy racks at the checkout stand. My dad became restless after the first several wedding dresses my sister wore lacked inspiration. He walked around the store, gently turning dresses along the racks, and that’s when he found it. He didn’t even look at the price because he’d made up his mind. He didn’t hesitate to tell her that they were done looking and that it was not too much money even though they both knew he was lying.
Dress Brand/Designer: Karen Kane
Dress Description: Long-Sleeved, Form-Fitting, Straight Skirt, Knee-Length; a long-sleeved, stretchy dress, hugs from a high neckline to wrists and knees; a wild fern and tree pattern splayed with greens and teals on a white background; I look like Tarzan’s bride
Year Received: 2016, the year I danced in a burlesque show. I didn’t tell my dad and couldn’t even imagine him condoning it despite my lifelong love of acting in local theatre. I sang “I’m So Tired” from Blazing Saddles, lip synced to Avenue Q’s “The Internet Is for Porn,” and stripteased to Norah Jones’ “Turn Me On.” If he had known, my Christian dad probably couldn’t have handled seeing me dance on a chair in a bustier. Or maybe I couldn’t handle dancing on a chair in a bustier knowing my dad was seated in the front row.
My dad love dresses. And he loves meats. He makes all the meats. He grills, sears, roasts, smokes, chars, bakes, broils, and rotisseries anything he can pick, poke, and slap. My dad started on the modest charcoal grill, a burnt orange ceramic one that lasted him 20 years. When he had first met his in-laws, my grandpa grilled the hamburgers so hard and black that my dad wouldn’t let my mom live it down, as though it was her fault. They were hockey pucks, he still hoots. Only in the last ten years has he grown to use an electric grill and other, fancier appliances. Recently, he started selling his smoked meats to people in town who heard that he knew how to treat a slab of pork butt. He cooks for church banquets, hosts regular parties at the house for their closest friends, and is the sole cook for his office holiday parties.
For his birthday three years ago, I bought him two cookbooks: Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book: Recipes and Secrets from a Legendary Barbeque Joint and Franklin Barbeque: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. The more manly the author name, the more manly the cooking. I am a vegan, so I had to buy the books that had the prettiest pictures and most meat references with names and words that sounded like things he says to me on the phone. He calls me up and describes his juicy, tender, succulent food. He tells me that the steaks he grills are all protein and contain no meat whatsoever. You can eat it, he assures me, there’s no gristle or fat.
He tries with every breath to convince me to eat meat again, sure that his persuasive descriptions will prove successful. At times, I think he believes I will revert back, be the girl who ate chicken strips at Country Kitchen on our “good grades” dinner at the end of each school year. And I wish I could give him that hope, but it’s just not going to happen. It’s as if when I refuse his meats, the food he so generously provides for my nourishment, I am refusing him. He sees me as his child again, taking care of me the only way he knows how. And when I clench my lips together and won’t validate his hard work, he feels like he’s failing as a father.
Last summer, my dad and I sat side by side in a doctor’s office loudly discussing the methane gas pollution that cows emit through their burps. I tried to explain how we are running out of land to hold all the cows and chickens and pigs for our meats. How they require more natural resources than they offer. Eating meat is just not sustainable, I told him. Our voices reverberated in this waiting room, quickly surpassing the murmur of the television pundits high in the opposite corner. We have a responsibility to the environment, I’d plead. He’d counter: What’s climate change? A dozen patients and family members minded their own business all the while, including my mother, who anxiously awaited her outpatient surgery appointment. I quickly returned to the fight my father and I were deep in, determined to make him understand. I’m never eating meat again, Dad. I waited. Maybe you shouldn’t either. He laughed and asked my mother, Can you get a load of this? I looked at her. She was pale, embarrassed at the two of us. I’d flown back to Kansas from Idaho to hold my mother’s hand and comfort her before her cataract surgery. At least I knew that my mother was not thinking about her cataracts when they called her name, thanks to dad and me frothing at the mouth as she disappeared behind the curtain.
Years ago, when my dad removed all the ivy in my backyard, we discovered a built-in 12’ by 12’ garden plot behind the garage. My dad hand tilled the nutrient-rich soil with only a shovel. Turning it over, giving it air to breathe, he told me. Dad took us to the home garden center in town and found a bunch of starters: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, and eggplant. He showed me how to organize my garden, stake the tomatoes with wire cages, and flank the fence with a flat trellis for the cucumbers to climb. You gotta dig down enough to cover the plant roots and then give them a drink, he said. His favorite thing to do when visiting is to work outside with me. He talks to me while I stand and hand him tools.
Each year my parents visit for two weeks and my dad spends fourteen of those days tending the garden, pulling weeds, cutting off the ivy yet again, trimming the bushes, planting new flowers, cutting off branches leaning too much on our roof, pruning the roses, and sweeping the porches. When he gets too tired, he rests on the metal swing bench near the back door and stares at nothing. He drinks a cold Pepsi in silence.
He rarely comes inside and when he does, it’s either to take a shower or a nap. Later in the evening, he’ll chill a bottle of red wine for half an hour and pour a glass for himself, Mom, and me. We’ll watch Netflix and sip the merlot until he gets too tired because he woke up at five thirty in the morning to start in on the yard work and intends to repeat it tomorrow. He’ll look at me before he finishes his last sip. Your bins are full again, he tells me as though I can do something about that before Friday trash pick-up.
And he’ll head off to bed.
Dress Brand/Designer: Donna Morgan
Dress Description: Spaghetti Straps, Sweetheart Cut, Flared Skirt, Calf-Length; a jungle dress with giant green leaf patterns like the ones people fan at the wealthy in humid climates; I could blend in at the zoo
Year Received: 2009, the year I performed in The Vagina Monologues. I told my mother, not my father, on opening night to prevent the inevitable awkward conversation. Even though the words and stories were those of other women, speaking about female sexual empowerment unearthed an irreconcilable feature with my relationship with my father.
I figured out around age 8 that I was the son my dad never had. He dressed me in boy’s clothes from the Base, played softball with me, and bought me an air rifle for my twelfth birthday. My older sister, while not particularly girly, never really synced with my dad and his boy-themed gifts. I suppose it fell to me by default as the youngest child, but I always found joy in receiving his bags of ribbed socks (for boys) and white-collared shirts with colored panels (for boys) and sporty mesh shorts (for boys). I never cared much for my appearance as most of my favorite activities were running, climbing, and shooting. I found the clothes he bought me to be practical and comfortable. Also, my dad wore the biggest smile when he saw me wear what he had bought me, his surrogate son.
In high school, I interviewed my dad for a life skills class and found out that he had wanted a third child, perhaps because he wanted a fuller house like the one he grew up in with three built-in friends and playmates. Maybe it was because he’d not had his son yet. After having two girls, however, he got a vasectomy. He told me that they stopped having children at a reasonable family size, one he could provide for. I wonder if he knew then that his sperm determined the gender of a baby and if he felt responsible for having two daughters. I imagine if I told him the facts, he’d harrumph and say, Yeah, right. Science.
His boy clothes influenced me through middle school, but once I entered high school and maturity, my dad shifted gears. He saw the writing on the wall, and it was colored with dresses and high heels, not sweatpants and athletic socks. I remember pleading with him to buy me a pair of low-heeled strappy sandals at the BX one Saturday afternoon thinking he’d never agree. He looked at the shoes and at his gangly teenaged daughter and said, Sure. To this day, they sit on my closet shoe shelf.
Dress Brand/Designer: Chetta B.
Dress Description: Sleeveless, High-Neckline, Knee-Length, Form-Fitting; all the iconic London landmarks are sketched in shades of red and blue with beautiful grey skies: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Palace of Westminster, red telephone box, and Tower Bridge; I’m a starving artist’s sketchbook
Year Received: 2018, the year I didn’t initially earn tenure, but instead was given probationary faculty status. My father had warned me at the start of tenure track to play the game, Get in their good graces, he instructed me. And when I didn’t brown nose and massage enough egos, my dad acted like failing to earn tenure—even though he knew I’d met all the academic qualifications—was my fault. He tsked me, You can’t forget the social game.
The last time I visited my parents in Kansas, they shared their favorite cancelled television show with me, running in perpetuity on cable. My dad switched channels to TLC when the guide stated Say Yes to the Dress was on. He excitedly explained the premise to me by walking over to their 55” television, pointing to the people whose names he didn’t know. It went something like this: That guy has the final say. The guy he was pointing to was Randy Fenoli, the host and fashion lover, and I quickly assessed that Randy rivaled Andy Cohen’s exuberance as a gay television host. These people are looking for a wedding dress. He then pointed to some strangers, a young woman and usually two female family members. The bride-to-be tried on the dress she liked the best, the one she’d been dreaming of for her whole life, and then my dad would see her in it and say, No, not that one. No way! He’d walk away to the kitchen for a cookie, whistling like you do when someone names a price too high. A minute later, my dad returned with a handful of Nacho Doritos. What’d they think?
He’s never been able to watch anything in one sitting. He drifts in and out of the living room, tending to various tasks: eating food left on the kitchen counter, checking the backyard lawn, opening the car doors and examining all the interior lights, checking the clock on the wall and then telling us the time even though we didn’t ask. Did she pick the A-line, lace-backed one? We told him she selected the dress the family chose, and he smiled. Nice pick. That’s flattering on her. He always agreed with the family choice. His choice was always right even when the bride-to-be didn’t listen to his armchair advice. She never had good taste. According to my dad, a woman needs guidance and feedback when it comes to making big decisions and when she refuses to listen to reason, it is her fault she looks bad.
After watching several reruns in a row, I began to notice when my dad would drift in and out of Say Yes to the Dress. Any time Randy was on screen, he made himself scarce. But when it came to look at the short list of wedding dresses and the bride-to-be trying them on, he was right there, ready to offer his advice. I thought of my parents’ neighbors who share the bounty of their pecan tree with my parents. The women who live next door, who bring in their mail when my parents are gone on vacation, and who let my parents borrow their truck when they have some branches and leaves to drive to the dump, are lesbians. If you asked my parents, they might say that Karen and Laura are just long-time friends. They’ve lived together for over 25 years in that house and raised three girls together. But my parents refuse to acknowledge that Karen is a lesbian and that she has a female life partner. And that there are other gay people in the world, like Randy Fenoli, host of their favorite show Say Yes to the Dress. When gay people show up in my dad’s life, he turns the other cheek. I don’t even know if he knows he’s doing it. If you asked him, he’d say something like It’s not right. And then leave to do something else like study his Sunday School lesson even though it’s only Tuesday.
Dress Brand/Designer: Nic + Zoe
Dress Description: Sleeveless, Wrap V Front, Asymmetrical Vertical Ruffle down Skirt; A silk/satin blend depicts chaotic newspaper print, hues of beige, tan and peach fabric drape down into streaks of large, black swabs; I don’t have to be a real writer in this dress
Year Received: 2017, the year I became a vegan, which followed seven years of being a vegetarian. My dad chooses to think I am in “a phase” that will end any minute. And when it does, he’ll show up with medium-rare filet mignon and kind crab legs in a celebratory feast.
Last summer, my parents fought as they replaced their suburban battery on the street in front of my house. My dad was determined to fix it himself. That same morning, I’d rolled out of Glacier National Park, but my dad wasn’t in my rearview mirror where he was supposed to be. So I returned to the lodge and found him with his head under the hood. My mom, hiding out inside the truck where she knew she was safe, rolled her eyes at me as I walked up to my dad. No way the battery is dead, he muttered under his breath. After cycling through all the potential malfunctions, my dad finally concluded the battery must be dead. He thumped the hood when he remembered that he’d removed his jumper cables before driving out to Glacier to meet me and my husband. Fortunately, I was prepared. Instead of being a proud dad who raised the kind of daughter who packs jumper cables, snow chains, backup fluids, bungee cords, and a tire gauge, my dad resented that I was helping him in a way he couldn’t help himself. I told him I could jump his truck. He refused. No way your car has the juice. After ten minutes of denying my help, I finally talked him into hooking up the cables and jumping his suburban with my compact car, which he continued to verbally doubt would work. His suburban turned over immediately.
They pulled up to our house after the six-hour journey from Glacier and went to work on fixing his unadmitted mistake: he had left a door ajar all night after packing early. He located a place in town that sold him the right battery, but he quickly discovered that this newer Suburban model buried the battery beneath a lot of other hardware. He’d already made his mind up that he didn’t need anyone else’s help, especially some greasy mechanic telling him how to make his big machine work. He told my mother to look up a YouTube video on her smartphone and walk him through how to repair his machine. She repeated what the video said, and my dad dismantled half of what was under the hood just to replace the dead battery. He cursed Chevy for making it so hard to do something he was perfectly capable of doing in the previous model. That isn’t right, he argued with the YouTube video instructions. I’m doing it right. You’re wrong.
The next day, we picked up the first load of fencing from the home improvement shop up the hill. I helped my dad pick out the best planks, the ones not warped or waterlogged. He slapped them with his bare hand while banging the ends on the concrete to knock off the sawdust. Then we stacked them in the suburban in nice, countable rows. We loaded enough wood to complete the middle section of our backyard fence. He’s pretty much an expert at fence building. Having put in the first, longest section the previous summer, we were ready to install the second section of fence along the alley that summer. For good measure, he even built our fence with three crossbeams, something my mother begged him to do with their fence, but he refused. Only the best for others, his policy.
Dress Brand/Designer: Taylor
Dress Description: Sleeveless, shallow v-neck, pleated skirt, knee-length skirt; red orange with a circular waffle print, soft and blanket-like; like wrapping up in a hot robe straight from the dryer
Year Received: 2014, the year I got my hysterectomy. While I’d kept my father’s surname after marriage, this surgery guaranteed that I would not pass on the family genes. No Tolson Traits, the characteristics my family has lovingly named the difficult aspects of my father that I have taken on.
I’m reminded of an old recording that captures my family when my sister and I were kids: she was 7 and I was 4. We played on a jungle gym in Crete, one of the many places my father was stationed in the Air Force. My mother aimed the Beta camera at my sister and me. We hung on the monkey bars, dangling within reach of our father who stood nearby. At one point, he reached up to tickle one of us and we both screamed and ran away before he could even touch us. We squealed at the top of our lungs, terrified of what would happen when he got a hold of us. We acted as though we were horrified of our own dad though he never laid a hand on us.
My dad has three brothers. They all are within six years of each other and my dad knew nothing but roughhousing as a boy. The boys would put their brother Barry, the third son, in the center of the yard and light the ground on fire, surrounding him in flames. My dad played a hero, the one on the outside of the fire shooting arrows at his defenseless brother. They called it Cowboys and Indians. They threw mud pies at their white paneled house and left the mess. They chased each other around the kitchen with knives. Eventually, their father would come home from work and the boys would grimace through their inevitable beatings.
My parents married young, 20 and 21, and my mother told me that in their first year of marriage, she had to tell him to stop it. He would horseplay with her the way he did with his brothers, coarse and unforgiving. She got tired of the waist grabs, butt squeezes, arm holds, and thigh pinches. I’m not one of your brothers, Brent. She told me that after she had laid some ground rules, he was somewhat kinder, softer. But those tendencies rose to the surface when we would visit my dad’s side of the family. He’d see his brothers and they’d start poking and slapping and hooting at each other. They were like a bunch of wild animals. I would press myself into the paisley wallpaper and pray that Uncle Phil didn’t get a hold of my back-thigh skin. His pinches were the worst, and he would squeal with delight every time one of us kids would run away yelling for Grandpa. Uncle Phil’s signature move was to jab his forefinger into my side, right under my rib cage. The deeper the poke, the louder I’d yell.
A couple years before his death, my dad’s dad adopted a shelter dog. It was a small terrier, a lap dog. And it was a surprise to everyone in the family. Real men got big dogs. Everyone knew that. My dad was confused as to why his father had taken in this rat of an animal. The dog had a new name already: he renamed it Bill. Bill just so happened to my grandpa’s name, too. So, everyone referred to the dog as Little Bill to differentiate Grandpa Bill from his own dog.
Grandpa Bill spoiled Little Bill. That dog sat on his lap during meals, eating bites from Grandpa Bill’s plate in an alternating fashion. One bite for Little Bill. One bite for Grandpa Bill. One more bite for Little Bill. Little Bill also slept on Grandpa Bill’s bed and had all the walks he wanted. Grandpa Bill loved Little Bill more than a son.
However, my dad talked of Little Bill with disgust. More particularly, he couldn’t believe that his own father was showing that much affection to a dog. I wanted to say to him, You know that’s the way I treat my dogs, right? My youngest dog is adept at eating from a fork and both my dogs get a bite from my meal and my husband’s meal nearly every time we eat. There are two sets of stairs leading up to our king-sized bed, one with shallow steps for our smaller dog and an ottoman for the bigger dog. You know I treat my dogs like they are human, I say to my dad. It rubs him the wrong way, but all he’ll do is walk away, shaking his head, and then come back after he’s remembered the Genesis creation story. He tiredly explains how God created animals for human sovereignty. He commands us to take dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cows on the land, he recites with reverence. Genesis is my dad’s excuse to eat animals, too. I provoke him, Dad, I don’t think God intended dominion to mean kill and eat the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cows on the land.
Dogs are dogs, my dad told me years ago. When my family had lived in Crete, we had a “go bag,” a suitcase by the door that we would grab in case of emergency evacuation of the island. It was the mid-eighties, an unsafe time to be living in that region. My dad joked that some active duty officers complained that there was no evacuation plan for their pets. Pets weren’t allowed on the evacuation planes, he told me. Priority was given to family members only, as it should be. They’re animals, my dad said. His implication was that pets are not family rubbed me the wrong way. But I kept my mouth shut.
They’d be fine, he guaranteed me. They’d be free. He patted my hand and smiled at me the way he must with his patients. With over forty years of counseling experience, my dad knew exactly how to calm, placate, and dismiss one’s irrational fears of the future.
Dress Brand/Designer: Donna Ricco
Dress Description: High-Necked Closure, Sleeveless, A-Lined, Knee-Length; a red dress with a giant ring of red fabric roses around the high-necked collar; I have become one of my father’s wreaths
Year Received: 2013, the year I married my husband at city hall on a Friday morning during winter break. We brought no witnesses. We shared no special vows. We did not exchange rings. I didn’t ask my dad to walk me down the aisle. I can’t explain to him how gross the patriarchal act of “giving one’s daughter away” is to me. It’s easier my way. My dad still doesn’t know I am married. If he found out, he would probably be inconsolable, far more hurt than I could handle.
My dad bought and arranged all the flowers for my sister’s wedding. He ordered the yellow roses and calla lilies from a local shop and spent the days and nights approaching the ceremony at his church creating vibrant sprays and centerpieces for the sanctuary and the outdoor reception. On the day of the wedding, he could barely keep his eyes open. In her wedding photos, his face is sunburnt from setting up the giant tent in the front of the church lawn. In June. In Kansas. Also, my dad hung all of the outdoor greenery himself, beautiful pops of green showering over each guest table. Photographs don’t do him justice. They don’t show how much ingenuity and creativity he’d put into the whole affair, having willingly taken on the entire decorations for her wedding all by himself.
I know he’d do the same for me, but I never had a wedding ceremony. It wasn’t personal. Really it was out of laziness and a slow shift away from the traditional customs my parents instilled in me. I lived with my husband for eight years before we got married and by then, my parents had silently accepted our domestic union. Six years into my partnership with my husband, my mother pulled me aside at a Starbucks breakfast. She grabbed my hand across the metal tabletop as we waited for our food. Through cautious coffee sips, she admitted to me that she respected my choice (not to get married) and loved my husband as a son (despite not being related). She couldn’t speak for my father and promised that she’d advocate for me with my father when we came to visit. She guaranteed me that we could sleep in the same bedroom together, something they’d never permitted. The first Christmas my husband shared with my family, he slept in my twin bed and I got the air mattress in the living room. My mom was willing to break her religious rules for me. For my choice. Yet when it came time to announce my official marriage status, I just didn’t. It wasn’t a big deal to me, and I didn’t care that it could be meaningful for anyone else. So I continued not telling anyone. Now that so much time has passed, six years, I can’t imagine that my dad will understand. What kind of plans did he have for my wedding? Floral arrangements? My dress? He would know exactly which cut and fabric would compliment my body without hesitation.
My dad worked in a florist’s shop in the early 70s. It was a temporary job, but he loved it. The position began as a deliverer and he quickly showed the owner that he had more in him than just carrying stuff. He moved on to floral arrangements with no training and proved that he had an eye for crafting beautiful bouquets, knowing exactly what to put where and how to create depth and contrast. When he would pick up my mom for a date, my dad would bring her a single flower, the freshest, most beautiful flower in the shop. Since then, my parent’s house has been overrun with crafts from his endless trips to Michael’s and Hobby Lobby. If he’s in a pinch, he’ll shop at Wal-Mart, but that’s only when he’s desperate. My dad plans trips to local craft stores as part of his vacation itinerary now, making sure to collect his colorful woven netting and twist ties, plastic and cloth flowers, and wreaths to create his masterpieces. He sells his creations to local businesses and fans of his work. In the meantime, though, his craft shop is my parent’s living room floor. He leaves his ribbons, ties, netting, and ivy strewn across half the floor, yelling at my mom if she dares move it to clean up. Part of his process is seeing all his supplies at once and being inspired in the moment. He can whip together a stunning piece in no time, excusing away the compliments as though they mean nothing to him. He’ll also tell you exactly where in your house you should hang it.
My dad’s centerpieces are all color and flair. For instance, he’s made several pieces for my house and many more for my sister’s. For my kitchen, whose walls are a bright yellow, he netted a yellow and spring green tulle ribbon runner to line the top of my built-in curio cabinet. Fist-sized calla lilies dot the interwoven ribbons in increments. For the spare bedroom, he made a snake-like wall crawl out of sawed-in-half wreaths, weaving burgundy roses throughout with a hint of ivy on the ends. He crafted a giant wreath for my door whose sole job was to torture me. Each time, the dead grapevine-coiled booby trap scratched my cheeks; as a result, I cursed as I walked into my house. The wreath was as beautiful and ostentatious as my father, and my husband lasted a week before personally walking it downstairs. He would have preferred the garbage bin, but I couldn’t bring myself to do let him do that. Just this past spring-cleaning, we were forced to trash my dad’s stored wreaths. His creations, which had served as a temporary home for the mice that ransacked our house the previous winter, were speckled with mouse poops. My sister tells me that she puts things our dad has made for her into her garage storage bins only to find that they reappear when my parents visit. She’ll wake up one morning and Dad will have rehung three wreaths on empty walls around her house. These look great here, Jennifer, he’ll say, smiling at his handiwork. She’s less than impressed but smiles anyway. Her husband uncomfortably moves around these obstacles in the same deferential attitude of my husband. I suppose when Dad goes hunting for the wreaths he made me, he’ll just find his skis and poles, golf clubs, farmer’s hat, and old work shoes.
Dress Brand/Designer: ECI
Dress Description: Sleeveless, Scoop Neck, Asymmetrical Ankle-Length; an elegant dark turquoise dress is the epitome of feminine: delicate lace, satin slip, light beading, the odd sequin here or there; the prettiest dress I own, this is too distracting to wear to church (not that I’d go)
Year Received: 2003, the year I stopped believing in God. I also stopped attending church, but I didn’t tell anyone. It was the first time in my life I’d been away from the church and I felt unmoored. I was one week old when my dad dedicated me at Sunday service, and I knew no other life than they one he’d paved for me. He still reads his weekly Sunday school lesson and prays before meals, even at my house. We never talk about how I fell away.
One night I got a text message from my mom. I opened the attached picture to see my dad, who was 60 years old at the time. He was wearing one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen.
And he was in full drag.
My mother sent me the picture because she wanted to live chat with me, the thespian in the family. She begged me to answer her Facebook video call so that I could watch his big performance. Dad was going to compete against other men dressed as women to earn the most donations for a local charity fundraiser. This all in a small Kansas town of 12,000 people. And it’s my dad. The same one who walked away from an episode of Say Yes to the Dress when the son of the bride-to-be wore lip-gloss and light blush. My dad squinted at the television to make sure he was seeing things right. What’s that boy doing wearing makeup? he asked me. Then, without waiting for an answer, he drifted out of the living room, away from the strange things his television was showing him. He didn’t really want to hear why because he knew it was wrong.
In this picture, my dad was all woman. He wore one of my mom’s fascinators, a large magenta piece with several flowers resting comfortably on the left side of his head. Cascading out from under the fascinator was a golden blonde wig with curls that reached past his collarbone. A blue dress with a scoop neck hung off his broad shoulders and ended right above his knees. He wore a white shrug that accented the impressionistic floral pattern on the dress. A thin, white strap crossed his chest to his hip where he clutched a small purse. He wore a pearl bracelet and a gem-studded necklace. His makeup, tasteful makeup, he explained to me later, consisted of blush, dusty rose lipstick, and light blue and silver eyeshadow. He wouldn’t let my mom apply mascara or eyeliner, but he insisted on wearing high heels. My dad demanded to go shoe shopping to find the right size for his feet, as nothing my mom had would fit him. The ones he picked were size 12 Mary Janes with a 2-inch heel. They have nice arch support, he told me.
Around the same time as my father’s fundraiser stint, I was a dancer in a production of Young Frankenstein and had to dress up as a man for a scene. I felt so dapper, so handsome. I wore a grey suit with a turquoise pleated button-down shirt and a stiff, paisley bow tie around my neck. My wig was short and dishwater blonde, the exact length and style as my father’s. And I wore a matching mustache. I looked just like my dad in photographs from his college years. I understood exactly how he felt that night he donned his woman’s wig. He probably just wanted the crowd to appreciate his efforts and his transformative qualities. When I looked at my dad dressed in drag, I couldn’t have been prouder. He was gorgeous.
On the live stream from my mom’s phone, my female dad waved and blew kisses to the crowd filled with fellow churchgoers and community members. He paraded across the makeshift stage at the local college’s stadium football field with grace and ease. The audience cheered and cooed at him. He looked nervous but not nervous to be seen as a woman. He seemed to be concerned with performing well, being the best and most loved woman. I could tell he’d picked up on some of my early pageant years’ tricks to thank the crowd: wrist, wrist, elbow, elbow, repeat. He rotated his wrists and elbow alternatingly as one entire unit, a deft and sincere gesture. He wanted to win the crossdressing competition, but really, he just wanted to be the best woman there. His smile was genuine. The crowd clapped a deafening clap. And he ate it up.
Dress Brand/Designer: Nine West
Dress Description: Scoop Neck, 1½ inch straps, Sleeveless, Knee-Length, Flair Skirt; white, purple, teal, dark green, light green and brown brush strokes; six paneled, practical, and pocketed, I wear this dress I so I don’t have to carry a purse: the dress that has it all
Year Received: 2011, the year I moved 1,631 miles away from my parents. Although I’d promised my dad that I would move as far away from him when I graduated from high school, I’d ended up attending a college just 90 miles south of the small-town politics from which I had fled. I lived ten years within driving distance of my dad, his grocery gifts, and his influence. Finally, in 2011 I fulfilled my long-overdue promise. We never told each other how much we would miss the other, so when he visits, he fixes as much as he can around the house and yard to make it more to his standards. And I let him.
My mom sent me a picture yesterday: Dad sprawls lengthwise on the love seat opposite my mom. His head rests on the couch arm and he peers past his propped feet at the television, probably watching reruns of Say Yes to the Dress. Beneath him, on the carpet, Auggie splays out on the floor parallel to my dad. They look relaxed, their heads facing the same direction. Auggie’s furry coat and my father’s blonde hair glow in the firelight. Peacefully, the men of the house rest their weary limbs, each in their respective places.
About the Author
Kimberly teaches college English at the convergence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers where she also resides with her two dogs and partner. Her essays appear in Sonora Review, 100 Word Story, Crosscurrents, and Talking River.