Nonfiction by | January 25, 2009

When I see myself in mirrors, I don’t notice my mother’s nose, my father’s eyes, or my aunt’s lips. I do see my reflection but I don’t recognize myself. What I see is my father, what I recognize is a molded reflection of my father’s.

My father may not always have been there for me, but I believe he made sure to be there at the exact moment I had a weak grasp of what was going around me—he made sure to be there to help strengthen my grasp of what was worth gripping, of what was worth holding on to. Here is how I knew.

Whenever I think of my father, the first thing I remember is his toothless grin, and his antique aluminum dentures that always gross me out whenever I see them near the sink in a clear glass. He routinely and meticulously cleans them with his toothbrush and leaves them there every night. He has refused to change them into the modern soft artificial gum-like ones because it continues to hold a sentimental value for him having been made by his dentist of a father. Sometimes he claims that they were his lucky charms, together with his worn-out, dog-eared wallet and his horn-rimmed bug-eyed glasses. (Fortunately, my mother had convinced him a few months ago to replace his eye glasses.) Every time he justified his antique dentures, I would tease him that maybe people would be less intimidated by him if he didn’t have uneven, yellowish pirate-like silver teeth. He would then just laugh at my banter and say it all over again, “They are my lucky charms.”

I don’t know why everyone says I look like my father. Honestly, I do not see the similarity! Mother is as white as snow—which doesn’t automatically mean that I look like my father just because I’m dark like him. When I was a kid I remember throwing a tantrum whenever someone would make that comment. Like every little girl I wanted to be called a pretty princess who looked like Aurora. So then it was just appalling for me to hear that I looked like my father. I took it literally.

But now, I held pride in those comments. I see myself now as a stronger person when compared to my father. I take pride in knowing that I have a character, which I have exercised to a certain extent, tough enough to match my father’s. I use this “character” of mine when no one else would stand up to my father, or even to my mother. Sometimes my father would admire my “spunk” or just chastise me for being rude and talking back. He always praises that I talk with sense and that I possess a solid will, which made him begin to think that I would be a good lawyer. He wants me to be in politics even, which I think is just absurd. Well he is like that, a great dreamer. He wants to give us everything he dreamed and wanted, forcing them on us since our toddler years, till they were etched deep into our brains. Now I am old enough to recognize it as brainwash. But the sad thing is, even now as I realize this, I have already lost myself somewhere in between what I want and what my father wants. I have lost my own dreams. I have lost myself. Always I have this deep nagging feeling, knowing that I’m forgetting something, and it keeps me awake as I try in vain to know or decipher what it is. I feel it eating me up inside, weakening my countenance every time, and I fear that one day I would be left an empty shell. A molded shell of my father’s, infinitely incognito and an automaton to his will. I know that this might be too maudlin and I know that someday I will come to understand my father—if not, maybe just learn to relent to his will. But till then I would like to think that he means well, and if he doesn’t, then at least he is helping me build my character.

Still, what holds my attention with every word my father says is his sense of confidence. I could never tell if he was lying or not for he always has this aura of superiority, which he must have acquired from his job, or which he may have been born with. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that he is a supercilious man, though he is somewhat quite proud (aren’t all men?). Rather, he just has this inborn swagger that naturally intimidates and demands respect. Some people would say that his swagger was like that of the late Fernando Poe Jr., which, in my opinion, is ridiculously quite true. My father is by no means a graceful man or a devastatingly charming handsome man, but for whatever he lacks he makes up for in style and intellect. He always had a canny way of turning the tables against his opponents (like what he did to me sometimes), which is something he might have learned from his equally headstrong and mischievous sisters.

As all stereotype fathers should be, mine is as overprotective and stern as our next-door neighbor. But unlike all fathers, mine is an understanding one. Unlike other adults, he remembers that he too was once a teenager, that he too was once a naive fool, and thus he has his own rules and meaning of discipline—that is, that discipline is learned from mistakes and from experience. So basically he let us run free; but not that far since, of course, my mother kept a tight hold on our leashes. Nevertheless, he would repeatedly say that “Experience is the best teacher.” He knew that scolding only earned him more migraines and pushed teens into rebellion. This motto, I believe, evolved from his younger years, when—as I learned from my dear old uncles and aggravated grandmothers and grandfathers—he was once a notorious and mischievous plotter with goons and minions. He must have had a lot of escapades and received a ton of rebukes for these, which was how he knew that punishments and such would just drive a hormonal and youthful teenager to strongly do the forbidden more. After all, isn’t the purpose of being young to explore every inch of every cavern in the hope of finding an epic adventure? Isn’t it only then that we understand the intricate morals we acquire at the end of the adventure and we call ourselves mature and aged? This kind of thinking is why my mother and father never always see eye to eye when it comes to us, their children. But being ever the gentleman that my father is, my mother of course almost always gets her way.

If there is a rule that my father obstinately enforces, it is that of trust, the one and only rule of my father’s. Defy this rule and he will take all the privileges he has given you. I vividly remember the night he enforced this rule on me. It was the summer before my freshman year in high school. I was getting ready for bed when I heard a knock on my door. I was startled to find behind it my serious father who hardly talked to me nor even visited me in my room. I had an odd vision of him tucking me in, and I inwardly laughed. He went about my room, awkwardly searching for a place to sit down. I waited for him to scold me for my clutter like my mother incessantly did but he didn’t. Finally, after a moment’s pause he settled himself at the foot of my bed and asked me to sit beside him. I could tell that he was about to convey something serious and for a minute I felt a distinct dread rapidly pumping into my heart. I asked, “What is it?” in a snooty voice. He ignored my tone and proceeded to tell me with a scrunched up forehead about how I was old enough to know what’s right from wrong. I tried to look interested and placid, but seeing him sitting at the foot of my bed against a background of girly stuffed green-and-yellow room was amusing, I tried my best not to smile nor snigger. Not noticing my amusement he awkwardly gave me a bit of lecture about puberty and how he knows about what I am going through. When this topic was getting out of hand and I hastily interrupted him and begged him to get to the point as I needed my beauty sleep and it was late as it was, his face broke into his toothless smile, relieved to have been prevented from talking more about the topic. Sometime later in a jumble of words and silly stories of memories, he did get to the point—the importance of trust.

He is, as always, quite logical and reasonable about it, in a way that he takes your word for everything. But once he finds out that you have lied, then oh boy, it gets scary. My father doesn’t get mad often, but when he does get mad it is with a vengeance. There is just no point in trying to escape his ire, for he will find you even if you hide. He has this malignant stare that just promises an upcoming doom. I wouldn’t go to vivid details, but having been raised in a severe Muslim community, my father can be quite cold and ruthless. I should know for I have been at the receiving end of his wrath many times. After all, what kind of a child would I be if I didn’t break the rules regularly?

My father isn’t what I’d call a perfect figure and he is by no means a saint. Like everyone else he has some quirks. Like every proud father, he is reluctant to admit his flaws and he always tries (sometimes in vain) to justify himself. He is not flawless, and he too is vulnerable to his rule, but that is what makes him so much a part of us—that he makes mistakes and we, his family, grow with him in strength and wisdom.

As a bystander, I might see him as indifferent, someone who wasn’t always there—at supper time, or when I fell and wept or broke the first vase; or during parent’s day or PTA meetings at school; or whenever I needed a comforting warm hug. My mother was always the one who was there for all these things. Sometimes I blame my father for the empty wanting that throbs in my heart. I realized recently that maybe it was his fault that I unconsciously searched for someone to share myself with—to understand my mind and my pent-up emotions. That a lack of father figure instinctively led me to search for a man in my life. Was it really his fault, did he deliberately refuse me the affection and attention I should have gotten as a child?

I would never know the answer to this question or to the other myriad of questions lingering in the lost parts of my mind. One thing for sure though is that I will thank my father when I bear my own children. For I will pass them his wisdom and overwhelm them with the heavy love I have kept buried meant for him. Till then, I will be his dutiful and cold daughter.

Until I find myself, so will he be my reflection.

Sarah Bagis studies writing at UPMin.

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