by Mollie McNeil

Photo by Vera KratochvilMy mother died of cancer in 1973 when I was eleven years old, leaving five kids with a man who barely knew us. It’s not that our father didn’t love us. It was the tail end of the era of breadwinner and homemaker and knowing us well was simply not his job.

Befuddled by his new role as the central parent, he leaned on my grandmother for advice. My mother’s mother took me aside and told me it was my job to cheer my father up. It wasn’t strange for her to ask me to be an angel in the house, because she was born in 1897 and undoubtedly winged around her own home as a young woman.

I wasn’t sure I wanted this role as I liked to hang around with my older brothers; I was something of a tomboy, and I often found myself tongue-tied in front of my somber, sixty-year-old father. Eventually we found a quiet intimacy taking walks together on the Marina—he loved the boats and salt air—and sometimes he would recount a short story that he had just read. I liked these sunlit strolls, like a daytime bedtime story, which I was, of course, too old for but wanted anyway.

On weekend nights, while my brothers went out on dates, my father and I would watch television together. At school, I’d compare jokes from Flip (the Flip Wilson show), Laugh-In, or The Carol Burnett Show with my friends, concealing the fact that the one program I watched routinely was The Lawrence Welk Show. My father and I would load up our dinner plates and settle in for an evening of accordion players, barbershop quartets, beer barrel polkas and tap dance routines. Dad would hum along to “Strangers in the Night” and maybe burst forth with the lyrics to “Put Another Nickel In,” always piping the words out just after the singer had. This was annoying to me, but in my designated role of angel, I didn’t complain too much. If he was reliving his college glee club days, I was happy for him. The music was schmaltzy, but I secretly enjoyed watching those bosomy girls float across the stage in their pastel bridesmaid costumes, in their see-through floppy hats, miraculously never breaking their cherry candy smiles while they sang.

When I entered sixth grade, my grandmother signed me up for dancing school. I privately hoped this would help prepare me for a career as a Lawrence Welk girl, even as I sang “I Got You Babe” at school and claimed like the rest of my friends that I wanted to be more like Cher.

Everything about dancing school was awkward: being in a carpool where my mom was the only one who never drove; the boys lining up on one side of the room to evaluate the girls on the other; the boys racing across the dance floor to avoid getting stuck with “a dog”; the ridiculous idea of sixth graders trying to waltz; and the terrible soft rock music that everyone was too embarrassed to actually move to, only listing and shuffling side to side.

My father and grandmother were understandably confused about how to shop with me at this time. They were clueless about contemporary young teen fashion. My father bought me corduroy pants that made me look like a boy, and my grandmother presented me with ruffled party dresses that made me look like I was nine. I was grateful and excited when my sixteen-year-old cousin, Lucy, took me shopping. I picked out a clingy aqua-blue top—à la Cher—along with a matching aqua full skirt and low-heeled shoes—à la Lawrence Welk. To top off this retail extravaganza, Lucy knowingly stopped by the drug store and slid a giant white plastic egg into my shopping bag. My first pair of nylons, size: A, color: suntan.

Back home, I bolted up the stairs, closed my bedroom door, and pulled apart the plastic egg to marvel at the stretchy brown material. Careful not to rip them, I slowly rolled the panty hose over my toes, ankles and legs, amazed at the transformation. I no longer had chicken legs. They suddenly appeared svelte and shapely, a shimmery tan sensation. I could hardly believe they were mine. In seconds, I had morphed from a girl into a full-blown sex symbol.

I was Susan Dey swaying behind her Partridge Family microphone, innocent and yet desirable. I was That Girl dashing off in her skimpy minidress to her next date with Don. I was Mary Tyler Moore, goofy and adorable, always wearing her sexy suntan panty hose as she trotted around the office. I swished my new self over to my four-poster bed and hooked a leg around one of the thick, tall wooden bedposts. Pressing my flat chest against the bedpost, I rubbed up against it and made out with it. I tasted the dusty wood varnish on my mouth; it left a stickiness on my lips for hours afterward. In hindsight, I feel lucky that none of my brothers burst into my room at that point, much less my father.

My father was not home the next afternoon when Mrs. Volkmann came by with the dancing school carpool. The other girls in the car gave me the thumbs-up. Their mothers had bought them nude or suntan panty hose months earlier. I felt a bit racier at dancing school that afternoon, despite the required white gloves and lady-like behavior we were supposed to exhibit as we mastered the box step and the cha-cha.

I was thoroughly enjoying my womanly self until Mrs. Volkmann dropped me off at my house that evening. I saw that my father was already home. I could see him through the window, standing downstairs cooking dinner. I realized then that maybe I wasn’t ready to hang up my wings and declare my sexy new identity to him. Somehow I was sure he wasn’t ready either.

I crouched behind a bush in the front yard and carefully peeled off my nylons. I pushed them into my coat pocket and slid back into my shoes. Barelegged, I walked up the front steps and opened the door. I kissed my father on the cheek hello, relieved to be safe in his arms, anchored in my girlhood once again, but equally happy to know my new self was within easy reach, a soft lump in my coat pocket.

My own daughters would never be caught dead in panty hose or anything else from my seventies wardrobe. Like most young teens, they romp around in tight leggings and spaghetti-strap tops. If I tried to make comparisons between the Lawrence Welk girls and Taylor Swift, they would give me a sad, slightly disgusted look, shake their heads, and wonder once again if I was born just after the Ice Age or before it.

My girls lounge like noodles on the living room couch with their father, a leg tossed absent-mindedly over his, eagerly messaging their crushes through Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. They hoot and cackle unself-consciously during their digital flirtations, occasionally flashing Dad an updated picture of their current romantic interest.

They have felt secure in their father’s love from the moment he first clutched their swaddled bodies to his chest in the delivery room. They had him wrapped around their tiny, old-man fingers after his eyes first locked into their slate-gray ones, his hands cupping their perfect grapefruit heads.

He’s been an ambidextrous kind of dad this past decade and a half, one who can coach girls’ basketball and soccer with humor and also shop for vanilla-scented candles or glitter body gel. Their favorite father-daughter activities, however, are busting a sweat at the rock climbing gym or cracking balls over the tennis net.

It’s amazing to me that my daughters don’t think twice about filling the shower with their pink plastic razors or drying their leopard-print bras and lacy thongs in our communal bathroom.Their dance lessons are not antique ballroom moves, but raucous hip-hop and jazz routines, and they seem to be able to talk easily with their dad about the very subjects I wouldn’t have dared bring up with mine.

I do try to spare my husband from as many of my daughters’ trips to Victoria’s Secret, the pedicure chair or the hair salon as possible—but I’m sure, if pressed, he’d figure out a way to finesse these errands, too. I couldn’t say the same for my own father, folded behind his white handkerchiefs, short stories and show tunes, tipping his hat to ladies passing by at the Marina well into the 1980s.

I don’t regret this old-fashioned father who buffed his wingtips weekly and combed his hair through with Vitalis, who enjoyed holding a door, fox-trotting with me at weddings, and taking me to church, but revealed his most private self only in the Confessional. He left a lot unsaid, but I felt him stretching to understand me in his own formal way, felt him trying to know me as well as he could. He never lived to meet his granddaughters, but I’m sure he’d be smitten, caning eagerly after them, humming “Ain’t She Sweet” if he ever had the chance.


Category: Short Story