Clea Simon | Fatherless Women

Fatherless Women
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Also available as a Diesel eBook.


Henry Santoro of WFNX-FM interviewed me and recorded a reading.

To hear me reading from Fatherless Women:

To hear Henry's interview with me: mp3/

What they're saying about Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads

"With elegant prose and the authority that comes with thorough reporting, Fatherless Women sheds new light on the father-daughter dynamic." - Welling Savo, Boston magazine

"If it can be said about a book on loss, Fatherless Women is a pleasure to read. Clea Simon is a warm, honest, intelligent, and trustworthy guide, not only for grieving women but for the men who support them. Simon's insights about father-daughter relationships are profound." - Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss

"Clea Simon deepens our understanding of the complicated emotions daughters feel about fathers, both during life and especially after death. This book will help heal rifts and set these stuck energies free." - Beth Witrogen McLeod, author of Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

"Unusually candid and often provocative ...Simon's book is immensely thought-provoking about a topic that all of us will face." - Pauline Boss, Ph.D., author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief

"A book filled with compelling stories of not only mourning, heartbreak, and struggle, but also gratitude, liberation, and joy. Grief, Clea Simon reminds us, is as complex as the love that gave rise to it, and a father's legacy unfolds, changes, and deepens over time." - Richard Hoffman, author of Half the House: A Memoir

"This book is an important addition to the literature about the highly charged relationship of daughters and fathers that offers insight, hope, and compassion." - Patricia Reis, author of Daughters of Saturn: From Father's Daughter to Creative Woman

From Fatherless Women:

My mother was an artist, but my father had a job. My mother spent her days creating images out of nothing, out of oil and air and the foulsmelling chemicals that bit into the metal etching plates. She painted and made collages, ripping rice paper and daubing it with the thick paints that, globular and gelid, seemed too dense, too substantive to be paint as I knew paint through my brightly hued tempera jars and watercolor sets. And maybe it was just my later, revisionist memory that thinks of her most often at the etching press, when in truth she spent as many long hours addressing that towering easel, but when I think of the work my mother did, I imagine her at the press. Smell her, as much as see her; the oniony smell of sweat a recognizable undertone in the acrid fug of stinging acids and oily bases, of the thick, dark inks that covered the plates, and the strange solvents that cleaned them afterward. When I remember my mother's labor, the work she put herself to after she bore me, I see her turning the big handle that pulled the plates along the track, their spongy layers of paper squeezing down into the grooves and surfaces and slowly rising, just a bit, as they emerged, transformed, at the other end.

My mother was an artist, and her paintings and etchings hang on my walls now. She was good, no Sunday dabbler whose inexperience shows in the occasional flaw of color or awkward line. She was both talented and practiced enough so that her vision shone through, her hands served as the tools of her will and her mind. A serious artist - which to me still means unsentimental, if not unsexed - with the eye and the talent to transcend the labor of a basement studio. Her works tended toward the grim: geometrical studies of a turkey vertebrae. A portrait of her older daughter, my ill sister, as cool and posed as if of an eighteenthcentury duchess. A dream image of flight, half bird and half woman and a weathervane pointing a clean, straight path over the curves of a body at rest. Feminine preoccupations, perhaps, certainly the tools to hand were the ones of the kitchen and the nursery, unless you take exception to the darker poetry, the Dante and the Eliot, that also sparked her visual mind. But with nothing of softness. In her art, my mother may have admitted to despair, but not weakness, and what she did, she did with style. She was too good to be known, primarily, as a doctor's wife.

But if she was the one with the talent, he was the one with the job. No, a profession. A calling. For he loved the office and the hospital rounds, the chats with patients and the routine that got him up early six days a week and kept him late on Thursday evenings. As the only son of immigrant Jewish parents, he was set on a road toward academic, and then professional success early on. Not for nothing did his grandparents bring his parents over; not for nothing did his father work in dry goods to send his two children to college. Because of his family's expectations, nothing less than a profession would do, and while one of his younger uncles had become a lawyer, my father's early bent toward science set him on the more esteemed path toward medicine. It would matter later to me, as it would for many of us, that his family and sense of responsibility had nearly nullified any consciousness of free choice he might have had, but in his case, the familial predetermination worked well. My father liked being his own boss, and he got pleasure from the slippery science that called as much on his instincts and powers of observation as on the chemistry and theory memorized at school. Plus, no matter how he denied it, he loved the role it gave him in the community, largely I suspect because he so much enjoyed spending time with people, hearing about their lives.

Not that his practice kept him from us: He made time for the family; he always came home for dinner, an almost formal affair where friends were made welcome (with notice) but never a television or a book. Even if he had to retire to his study afterward to burrow into paperwork, or to return calls postponed throughout the day, he would be in our house by six, seated at the head of the big rosewood table, but we knew that this was a choice, a sacrifice even, that illustrated the gravity of his position. For being a doctor also meant being respected. Later in life, he would dismiss the automatic status accorded his profession and speak disparagingly of colleagues who played god - and of the patients, particularly the older Jews and Italians who formed the bedrock of our suburb, who held their doctors in an exalted state second only to their priest or rabbi. But the stature fit his self image. And if he occasionally wanted to shed it, to sit and chat with the couple from Lucca, where they made the good olive oil, or old Mrs. Butowski, the tough matriarch who still presided over three generations of hardy blonde children, he could do so. Noblesse oblige. For these same motivations would have stayed him on his professional course even if he hadn't gotten a deep personal satisfaction from his work. As a family man, a good daddy in an era when traditional gender roles reigned, he believed in his responsibility to hold a steady job. Being the wage earner was part of what made him the daddy, what gave him the authority in our family home. As a result, he regarded work that provided a secure income as a necessity.

I benefited from this; all of us in the family did. As research compiled by such groups as the National Fatherhood Initiative and Dads and Daughters makes clear, an employed, respected father figure almost always results in healthier, better educated kids. And my family certainly could have served as the perfect example: We were a solid unit, my family, at least in those early days before illness claimed my brother's life and my sister's peace of mind. My father's practice paid for horseback riding lessons for my sister, and later, the best doctors and hospitals, much as it did summer camp for me. It banished any concern I may have had about college: If I got in, which of course I would, my parents would be able to send me. In our family, higher education was expected, as much a necessity as milk in the refrigerator to us, and we came to expect it as we did the utterly unnecessary pleasantries we enjoyed, from toys to pets.

By the time I reached my twenties, I had also learned the lessons set into this lifestyle. Hard work and responsibility pays off in security, studying and diligence will be rewarded in the kind of freedom that money can buy: freedom from want, freedom from fear. That was the first lesson, the overt one, and ingrained in me at an early age it served to keep me afloat when some of my more bohemian friends floundered in debt or faced eviction. It also gave me a sense of satisfaction that more than compensated, at first, for the succession of dull secretarial jobs that I found after college. The pleasure of paying one's own way, after all, is a liberty purchased with sweat equity. It's a liberty that gender issues have made more sweet: Money of one's own is the next step up from a room of one's own, and independence is a grand, muscular joy to indulge in, akin to the pleasant hum that suffuses your body after a run.

That joy did not come undiluted, however, for the messages that were packaged underneath this clean and open moral were less welcome. For in my family, I also saw quite clearly that some people's heaviest labors were worth less than others, that the skills that I would now call qualitative, intuitive, or even feminine were less to be valued than those that could be laid out on the table, measured and counted. The message was mixed, muddied up by other theorems about responsibilities and family positions, of gender and the meaning of security, but the implication, if not the text, was clear. What my father did was more important than what my mother did. What brought in the money, brought in the respect, and because of their relative portions, my father was the ultimate authority in our house, about the outside world, about everything.

This was the other moral slipped in with the joy of honest work, in my father's attitude to my mother's less profitable labors, as she left her studio to shop and cook and carpool. And this got all muddled up in his protective attitude toward me, his little girl, the one he wanted to be able to make her way in what was then, perhaps still is, a man's world. Because of this secondary set of messages I, like so many women I talk to now, inherited a mixed bag of attitudes about work and gender roles, about our freedoms to choose, and our ability as well as our responsibility for making a living on our own. Only now, eight years after his death, am I beginning to sort out what, to put it simply, works for me. ...

© Clea Simon