A couple of summers ago, I went to my parents' home on Hilton Head for a week after being spontaneously suspended from my bar job. I was having a completely unexpected post-grad identity crisis, and I needed to run away. I booked a flight on a Sunday that flew out 12 hours later.
In the mania of packing for my escape, I remembered to grab one piece of literature to accompany the coming afternoons on the porch overlooking the marsh. I had already begun Tim Tebow's second book, titled Shaken, over the previous winter, and thought this to be a fine opportunity to revisit the text, as it is subtitled “Discovering your true identity in the midst of life’s storms.” Talk about soul-searching.
Hours later, a glass of wine sat on the side table next to me, Shaken sat in my lap, and the family dog snoozed at my feet. My dad approached the porch and commented on my book selection, secretly knowledgeable of the fact that I am certainly not one who might gain tremendous value from Tebow's preaching. I replied that I had purchased the book hoping to gain insight into the Heisman winner's choice to transition to baseball, as that event seemed to align linearly with the book's release. I attempted to conceal my internal catastrophe. It seemed to have worked, and a thoughtful conversation followed about my earliest sports allegiances.
In Burlington, Connecticut, 1997, an infant in a bouncing chair giggled as her mother viciously coached young football players through our television set. Mom’s Wolverines had been intercepted. She glared in horror at her firstborn: a Cleveland-born toddler standing on her daddy’s belly doing the “Buckeye Dance" to the Ohio State fight song. Palms wrapped around his index and middle fingers, my feet moved very little; toes clutching the soft t-shirt beneath as my chubby knees hinged methodically while I attempted balance and stability, holding onto my father as tight as my rubbery phalanges could manage. There were several common games we played at this age--Airplane, and of course Tickle Monster. But my favorite game was the Buckeye Dance; it was a dance of - and for - the best.
While Dad was hosting SportsCenter programs on ESPN, my sister and I were singing and dancing in the living room. We were all about the show business. On “Bring-Your-Daughter-to-Work Day,” he would take us to the studios to see how the shows were made--always a special treat. One year, around the time of the X-games, he brought us into the studio and presented each of us our own signed copy of Tina Basich’s memoir, Pretty Good for a Girl. I was eight years old, and I was hooked. I read and reread the book. I had zero athletic aspiration but was obsessed with Basich’s total bad-assery. I wanted to be just like her in my own “field.”
My father, at the surface, is a very simple man. He aligns with many traditional “dad” stereotypes. He wears pleated khakis that usually don’t fit him right. He needs new sneakers and an understanding that t-shirts should not be tucked into sweatpants. On Christmas Eve, he sports the same highlighter pink button down that I’m pretty sure was a gift from my very fashionable aunt, and is absolutely not his “style.” He is his happiest when he’s napping in front of the Golf Channel with the golden retriever at his feet. I never know what to get him on any of the calendar holidays or for his birthday, but he seems to be content with the usual book or puzzle from Barnes & Noble. I definitely think these are pretty consistent qualities amongst middle-class white “dads.” That said, I didn’t really know what else there was, for a very long time.
The truth is, I missed out on many opportunities to learn my father beyond just a simple scratch of that very basic surface. I was primarily raised by my mother and pitches that bounced through satellite and into the car radio, “broadcasting live from ‘X’ center in ‘X’ city.” His voice and personality is well known and admired amongst those in sports broadcasting and golf fans everywhere, but somewhere in my teenage resentment of his travel schedule, I lost my Buckeye Dance partner. The fault was on both ends, but for a while, I was sure our relationship was irreconcilable. I would certainly never, ever be “Daddy’s Girl.”
His absence made me a cruel daughter. For most of my formative years, we seldom spoke, let alone led on any physical affection. Instances that were “quality time” for many parents and children often seemed like a punishment for both of us. I wanted nothing to do with his career. He, however, remained highly invested in mine.
In spring 2011, Dad was in freelance season, and spent most afternoons driving me two towns over, to Beaufort, for a dream role in a play. The rides were mostly silent; the only sounds emitted from the engine, and the bass of Green Day radiating through my earbuds, audibly clear even yards away. I would touch up my black sharpie-painted fingernails in his passenger seat, paying no attention to him as he chauffeured me to my rehearsals. Some days, we would stop Firehouse Subs to get cherry limeades. They were the one thing it seemed we could both enjoy about the ride; the singular commonality between father and daughter at that difficult point in our relationship.
“I don’t really like cherries. I guess it’s weird how obsessed I am with these.”
“You like the sour cover-up.”
“You think so?” I popped the lid off my styrofoam cup and pulled out a lime, sucking the remaining juice from its pulpy vesicles. He chuckled at the act.
“Probably why I’m so sour,” I joked.
“You’re not sour. You’re just stubborn. You got that from me.”
And… the headphones went back in. Sure, there were genetic commonalities: the big forehead and long limbs. Of course, I got those, instead of his strikingly beautiful hazel eyes. Tough break. I had not yet seen the character similarities. And of course, any interests beyond Firehouse Subs’ cherry limeades were even further off.
Tim Tebow was somewhat of an icon in my high school years. Fresh off his Heisman, the jocks at the public high school I attended for my first two years watched his career forming as they made their own decisions about whether or not to pursue their athletics in college. I was friends with the swimmers. I crushed on the quarterback. I knew what a Heisman was. My interest was nonexistent. My “sport” was storytelling. The closest I got to enjoying a football game was drinking stolen beer from my boyfriend’s parents’ fridge under the bleachers. I never gave my father's affinity for a ballgame my time of day. I’m sure he would have liked for me to take an interest in sports, but he never said anything.
Boarding school removed me even further, and it wasn’t until I came home for spring break my senior year that I realized my detachment. En route to a friend’s swim meet, I discovered that he was moonlighting as a radio DJ part-time by coming across “Sweet Caroline” on a local radio station--a song he was spinning for my little sister. I began to cry.
I went back to school that spring and secretly stalked everything he’d ever written that was published on the internet. I revisited my copy of Pretty Good for a Girl, which had followed me to my dorm room shelf. At the time, I didn’t quite understand my obsession with learning him. The binge was meant to make up for the years of purge, and while it’s been a slow manifestation, I began to realize that he’s been inside me from the start. I may not have known him, but he knew me all along.
He watched me singing show tunes in princess dresses in our Connecticut living room, and gave me Tina Basich as a model to run fast towards my dreams. He picked me up after my nearly fatal midnight car wreck on I-278, and did not scold or punish me, but comforted me because he knew it was an anxiety-driven mistake. He stood with me that one rainy day in the quad at the University of Hartford, and offered to drive me back home by way of New York City, because he knew I needed more than a small town collegiate experience. He saw me on the porch that summer struggling to find life inspiration in Tim Tebow’s book, and took the job into his own hands, ultimately encouraging me to use my words.
I had grappled long and hard with what to do with my theatre training. The passion remained storytelling, but the idea of standing in line with a picture of myself for the next 20 years, feigning happiness, haunted me. It was when I went home for that week and watched my father joyously waking up at 5 a.m. for his job writing and reading the news on the radio, that I realized maybe we weren’t all that different. I finally saw the character similarities--conviction, ambition, hot temper, love for storytelling--and my craving for Firehouse Subs’ cherry limeades returned. Through all of his own transitions and passions, he’d supported me through mine.
It’s been seven years since that initial boarding school awakening. Seven years of self-discovery and education and bartending. Seven years of writing this very piece, much of which I admittedly used in my grad school admissions essays. Seven years of becoming friends with my dad. And in these seven years, I’ve changed careers, fallen in love, moved across town, rediscovered education, pushed myself forward, fallen back down, read numerous sports biographies a lot more useful than Tim Tebow’s, and written countless works inspired and counseled by my father.
It’s been twenty years since the Buckeye Dance came to a cease, but now I am clutching at your middle and index fingers as I attempt balance and stability, more than ever before. Twenty years of exploring and learning and running away and running back. Twenty years of finding who I am and making peace with it--enough peace to finally admit with pride what I think I always knew: I may not be “Daddy’s Girl,” but I am my father’s daughter.