This piece is crossposted with permission from Role/Reboot.
My dad grew up a poor boy from a small fishing village, just minutes away from the site of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He spent his childhood playing along the walls of the great Venetian fortress. His village dates back to antiquity, his childhood colonialism, and his youth decolonization. He fled his country to get educated and build a better life in New York City. And he did. With graduate degrees from an elite institution under his belt, he rose up the corporate ladder and married two times to American women. Despite all his economic progress, he held fast to tradition.
I grew up a middle class girl in a suburban town just minutes away from New York City. I spent my childhood playing soccer and hanging out at the mall. My town dates back to the postwar era, my childhood consumerism, and my youth social justice. I fled my country to get a more affordable education and build a global dream of equity in Montreal. And I did. With graduate degrees from elite institutions under my belt, I moved through the social justice industry living and working in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific. Despite all my cultural development, I fought to change my father.
My father’s constructs of gender are steeped in antiquity while mine are anchored in postmodern feminism.
As kids, when we went to the roller rink, he gave my brother $5 and me $3. When I asked, “Why the difference?” He replied, “He’s a boy.”
At age 15, I fell in love with a boy who drove the water ski boats where we vacationed. My dad caught us holding hands, had my cousins follow me, and threatened to fly me back to the United States if he caught me near the boy again. That same summer, my brother found himself a French Lebanese woman many years his senior. My dad woke me up one morning to my brother’s empty bed and laughed with pride, “Should we get your brother tested for STDs?
When I got my first summer job as waitress, my dad’s feedback, “All waitresses smoke pot.” My brother had been waiting tables for three years.
In my late teens, I got tired of hiding my sexuality and my heart. I let it leak that I had a boyfriend. Subsequently, I left my father’s home and set off on my own.
The next time we spoke I was in my early 20s. I asked him, “Why the double standard?” He replied, “No matter what, you are my 12-year-old girl wearing muddy soccer cleats. Someday you will have children and run your own household. I will still only see the girl in cleats.”
After five years of silence between us in my early 30s, he picked me up, took me back to his house, and made me lunch. We never muttered a word about the fight that caused us to stop talking nor all that happened in the half-decade apart. We shared a meal. As we ate, we forgave everything. I quietly remarked, “It would have been nice to have you at my wedding,” at which he responded, “Let’s not get personal.”
When I first told my father that I had accepted a job in television, his response, “Television is full of sleaze. You are making a mistake.”
Last year, I took my kids back to New York to spend time with my father and family while I commuted into the city to work. The first night, I arrived home at 8:30pm after meeting my mentor for drinks. He asked, “Why so late?” The second night I had a dinner meeting. I arrived home at 10:30pm. He shouted, “What are you doing out so late? You are a single mother. You don’t have dinner meetings. You don’t know what you are doing.”
I gave into my first instinct and yelled back. That’s what my father and I do. We rage at each other. We throw words like daggers. Then, we brew coffee, sit down, and seethe. Seething turns to shame, then sadness and then, unspoken forgiveness. We eat some watermelon and all is right again.
As we drank our coffee that night, I tried to see my life and career through his eyes. I realized that when he worked in the city, women weren’t at dinner meetings. And women who were, well, that was not the scenario into which he wanted to insert his daughter. He struggled enough to make sense of my life as a single mother, a sole parent living far from her family.
Despite the independent, self-sufficient, self-made woman I am, my old school pop struggles to connect the new world with the old world he still calls home. His relationship to me is his way of holding onto a culture and tradition he cherishes — his roots. It’s his immigrant paradox. I’ve spent much of my life battling it and battling him to free myself from his gender perception.
For so many years I harbored resentment over those petty memories of the roller rink, the summer romance, and most recently, the career in television. Those moments were simply knee-jerk cultural reactions to gender roles he did not want to accept beyond his own traditional construct.
The next morning I woke up and sat down with my dad, “I respect your culture. I promise I’ll only have two dinner meetings per week.” He responded, “I trust you. I know you understand your industry and are good at what you do.”
Breaking bread is always how we have healed the cultural divide in which our morals and ways of seeing the world clash. We take that time to be still and let the anger and frustration wash over and out of the way. I take that time to remember that my dad, despite his traditional beliefs, taught me to be a feminist: independent, self-sufficient, and gutsy enough to start again each time life serves up a shit storm. I use that moment to acknowledge the wonderful dad he is. He taught me how to be an immigrant in my own life, sacrifice everything to chart a new and better life for my children and me.
I’m certain my dad uses that same time to see my strength, honor the woman, mother, and executive he raised and realize the girl with cleats is still his daughter. And, I know, my lovely dad with his grumpy exterior sits over that coffee and wonders how he can better support my lifestyle so I can be happy and live my life well. For that very reason, he will always be my superhero.
During his last visit, he was gracious enough to watch the kids so I could go out and have some fun unencumbered by the burden of babysitting costs. I always returned home before midnight just as I did in high school. At the end of his trip, he said, “Wow, you went out a lot. You must have spent a fortune.” I looked at him, smiled, slightly amused and dared to reveal my sexuality, “I didn’t spend a dime. I was dating.” He paused, “Oh.”
This time we didn’t need to brew the coffee. We sat on the couch together, talked about my children, my career in television, and my future. As we said goodnight, he said to me, “You are a wonderful parent, better than most married couples. My mother would have been proud.”
Katerina Zacharia is a media executive, teacher, and sole parent raising two children on her own. She is passionate about her work in media, diversity, and education, her children, her friendships and family, and keeping her sanity. She has no nanny.
[Photo of elderly man and young woman via Shutterstock]