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What the Father-Daughter Dance Is For

I won't be given away, but I am grateful

I come from a family of notorious criers. We’ll cry about almost anything and as a response to almost any emotion. So I’m surprised at how calm I’ve been about our upcoming wedding. I’ve cried once or twice imagining our vows, but for the most part I’ve been levelheaded and reasonable and generally just thrilled.

Except when I think about the dance with my dad. Then I’ve cried, without fail. Several evenings now, I’ve perused YouTube and left tears in my wake. Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” (cried). Loudon Wainwright’s “Daughter” (cried). Kenny Chesney’s “There Goes My Life” (a deluge). And I haven’t been able to choose a song, because the whole process has been so fraught (and weepy), and the song needs to be perfect. Nothing seems right.

We Can’t Keep Up

Here’s a fact you should know about my father: He was named best dancer of the 1981 Madison High School graduating class. By the time his senior yearbook was published, he and my mother were head-over-heels high school sweethearts.

At my parents’ cousins’ weddings (’80s brides in big hair, taffeta dresses, all that eyeshadow, and two bowls of punch, one with liquor and one without), my dad would dance with me and my sisters. He double-timed irreverently, and we’d fly by the other pairs, circling the dance floor, finishing with twirls under his arm that made us dizzy. “I can’t dance with him,” my mother says. “He goes too fast.”

So I need to find a song that’s just the right Dad-dance speed. Not too slow, and not too fast. My dad refuses to practice dancing or help pick a song. He shrugs and says he doesn’t care. For many years, I thought I might choose Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous” because the lyrics are just so so perfect, but when I practiced with Dan, I realized my dad and I might end up a whirling dervish in the chorus of lalala-lalalalas.

Guarding My Heart With A Silent Stare

Here’s another thing to know about my father: He was really hard on my boyfriends. When my skinny, gentle-hearted high school sweetheart used to come to our house, my father would open only the wooden door, stare silently at him through the screen door, and then walk back into the living room without announcement. My boyfriend would linger around on our front steps waiting for a friendlier soul to pass by and notice him.

It wasn’t much better with any of the other guys I brought home to meet my family. My dad was good at the unpredictable trio of 1) the silent stare-down, 2) the uninterested brush-off, and 3) the hard questions. It could be a dating liability, if a guy couldn’t understand why, even after a year or two, my dad didn’t look happy to see him. It’s just his way, I said. I understood my father’s reticence as an expression of love, in the same way that if we mentioned offhandedly to Dad something we liked or needed, it might appear around our house in a kind of magic. I knew Dan and I would get engaged when I saw my dad hug him hello.

Not Given Away, but grateful

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my marriage will change my relationship with my parents, especially with my dad. Getting married does feel like a significant rupture, and even a loss, although it’s hard to articulate why. Our wedding ceremony won’t transfer me from one man to the next. I am keeping my name, which is my father’s last name. And soon I will have lived longer away from my parents’ home than I did in it. When my mother was married, she moved out of her father’s house and in with my father, but I’ve been gone now long enough to have a history of lonely studio apartments in university towns. My dad and mom will walk me down the aisle, but I am not anyone’s to give away.

My dad might feel differently, and so might the guys on the other side of the screen door. In all those years of staring, my dad tried, in his way, to protect me from the other men who loved me. And when I dated whomever I wanted and my heart got broken (a lot), my dad was there while I wept (and wept). My marriage means my dad won’t have to do that anymore; his role as the silent guardian of my heart—old-fashioned or not, symbolic or not—is done.

Regardless of how traditional our relationship is, I don’t want to choose a song that declares I’m daddy’s little girl. I can’t deal with “Butterfly Kisses.” Because here’s one other thing about my dad: He grew up quickly, no thanks to the happy accident of my birth. My parents married young. They worked and took classes, and after his graduation from college, my dad’s first job was managing a Kmart. We were poor, but I didn’t know that. My parents spent their twenties having children, which made our house loud and a little out of control, but I didn’t really know that either. (I only knew how to double-buckle and how to help with the baby and how to nap even in the middle of chaos.) The older I get the more I realize how hard it must have been for both of my parents. If I were my father, I would now have a thirteen-year-old daughter and four smaller kids. In just three years, a gawky adolescent boy would be knocking at my front door. (Instead, I currently overwater a cactus.) Songs like “Butterfly Kisses” don’t say thank you.

There aren’t many times in our adult lives when we get to honor our parents publicly. We want to take advantage of our wedding to do that for all our parents. Just after Dan and I have begun a new family, this dance with my father seems a small way to say thank you to the man who, along with my mother, showed me how to sustain a family. So I suspect we’ll end up a whirling dervish, while Ms. Merchant croons her lalala-lalalalas and I cry.

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