You’re growing your first child inside; it’s a girl, and your father is visiting for Thanksgiving. He wears a chocolate-brown ascot with a white shirt under a multicolored Pucci jacket. You wonder when he began wearing ascots, and you curse under your breath because you’ve already purchased his Christmas gifts, which include an insanely-expensive silk tie you took forty minutes to select on the first Saturday of November when, on rare occasion, you weren’t working. Why didn’t he tell you he’d switched to ascots?
He sits across from you and your handsome husband in downtown Boston, where you live, intentionally, away from the rest of your family. In your formal dining room, under the chandelier you designed and had custom-made, your father takes a matchbook from his breast pocket and reads from its inside flap the names Phillis, Phillipa, Philomene, and Philomena.
Your back teeth grind together, and you set down your fork. You’ve made lists of dozens of names, none of which begin with “Phil.” Something pulls tight in your chest. You feel your husband, seated to your right, smiling as he says nothing and sips his Beaujolais.
If your father is unnerved by your silence, he doesn’t show it. He restows his matchbook and resumes chewing and swallowing large bites of the roasted duck à l’orange that you prepared at his request even though you work upwards of seventy hours a week at a law firm. Planning this meal required precise scheduling of shopping, chopping, measuring, and mixing in advance.
He eyes you directly and, without a trace of irony, tells you he has no one to carry his name. No sons. He’s been “daughtered out,” he says, his voice tinged with complaint as if it’s your fault you were born female.
You feel like he’s thrown something hot in your face.
You’ve earned two summa cum laude Harvard degrees and financed significant portions of your undergraduate and law school tuition with scholarships and loans, while your father groused about the living expenses he paid, which afforded you a shared basement apartment infested with water bugs. You ate canned generic beans on a regular basis for seven years.
Your head stills as your eyes narrow to the thin edge of a knife. You contemplate the antediluvian phrase “daughtered out,” which at one time meant a father couldn’t pass on his surname or bequeath property to his female offspring.
Has this troglodyte with whom you share DNA not noticed that you’ve kept your last name? His last name? And that you’re a junior partner in a notable firm, you’re under thirty-five, and earn nearly what he does at fifty-five, and that you purchased the apartment he’s dining in before you married?
A knot tightens in the back of your neck as you’re reminded how you were left out, time after time, after he divorced your mother and remarried and had a new daughter who had the privilege of living with him in posh homes in white neighborhoods while you were left in the Bronx.
Your frills-free urban upbringing notwithstanding, you were the one accepted to top schools. You became a professional. You got married. Now you’re expecting, and the years are unfurling exactly as planned, meanwhile his other daughter blows through life aslant and fucks loser Lotharios who’ll never marry her. Maybe Maddie can be a single mother and have a boy and name it Philip-fucking-Arrington. Your father can give her the responsibility of saving him the fate of being daughtered out. He’s given her everything else.
You think all this, but you set your face into a pleasant-as-possible-mask, and you say through closed teeth, “Yes, I’ll consider those names. Absolutely, Daddy.”
And a little piece of you dies inside. It joins a cluster of buried pieces that accrete each time you meet his demands at your own expense.
Your head shakes. Or it doesn’t. You feel it does because it should. This baby will need all of your heart. She’ll need you to put her needs before yours for approval.
Your daughter should have a name you and her father choose, one that’s hers alone, not your father’s, because she doesn’t owe him.
Your mind leaps to the way he’ll feel slighted and how his displeasure will cause an unbearable ache in you. But bearing it will be your responsibility because you’ll be someone’s mother.
After not offering to help you and your husband clear the table, your father retires to your tidy guest room the way you used to withdraw to his. You were always the temporary presence in your father’s house. Never the forever girl.
Once the dishwasher is loaded, next on your agenda is time in the master bath, which you’ve commandeered for yourself, leaving your spouse the smaller guest bathroom because he can’t keep his things where they belong. You sit down to relax in your sunken tub, and as you soak, you remember how your father spoke often of being the odd one out when his father died.
He became the son who wasn’t loved.
Then he made your family. And you loved him best. He knew it and it didn’t matter.
You were seven and you were stunned the day he sat you in your grandmother’s kitchen, held your dirty little hand, and told you he was leaving.
Something popped inside you, a burst, like a big bang, and you felt shattered in a place you couldn’t reach, so you couldn’t fix it.
With the globe in your parents’ bedroom, your father had taught you about Pangaea—how the once-solid supercontinent split apart into smaller pieces. That was you that day, a piece broken off. An island. Stranded. Alone.
You sink into the fragrant bubbles and close your eyes and you’re sitting at Grandma Emily’s table, staring at the sugar cubes in their shallow dish set on the doily. A jagged hole from a missing screw on the chair leg tickles your big toe and lacy, white curtains behind you brush your back with the breeze. Your hands are filthy from drawing pictures out front on the sidewalk with chalk and dirt.
You wish you’d washed them before your father held one in his, and told you he wasn’t happy, he was moving out, he and your mother were getting divorced.
You couldn’t move after the awful crack inside your chest. The room dimmed and so did you, as clouds wiped the sun. You slumped forward in the chair, your eyes connected to his, hoping maybe it wasn’t really happening, but you could see your grandmother behind him, her tears shimmering at you from the doorway.
Was there something you could do? You asked. If you were better would that make him stay? He closed his eyes, and you wondered, What if you were cleaner, smarter, more obedient?
He squeezed your fingers. You were ashamed of the dirt caked under their nails. He said he loved you and that you’d still see each other. But, no, he couldn’t stay. He wouldn’t be there to read to you or kiss you goodnight or tell you to have a good day at school. You’d never do things as a family again.
Never. At seven, the word was hard to fathom, like death. There were things you were never supposed to do—talk back, play with matches, cross the street alone, bother your mother when she was busy. But you could do them. If you really wanted to.
Oh, how you wanted to keep your family together. You wanted and wished with all the force you had. When you figured out you couldn’t, no matter how much you longed and prayed, you understood that, like death, “never” meant gone, over, not coming back. Ever.
What did remain was the inexorable grief of that summer day. A constant companion, it lives in the space that cracked open inside you. Still.
In the days that followed, that turned to months and years and decades, the world went on, without your family. And you made your place in it mostly alone, learning that like a landmass broken from a continent, you could survive and even flourish.
You’re fine. And though you know it’s best to look forward, you’ve looked back, again and again, and wondered if your father hadn’t noticed how your mother didn’t want to do motherly things. Did he not see how she wouldn’t play with you or take you to the zoo, kiss you goodnight, or listen when you talked about your day at school? You thought he knew, that he saw, how your mother was not unlike the mother he said he had. You thought he knew that he made your family, because he was the one who wanted to spend time with you. He was the one who called you a branch to his tree.
Then why didn’t he take you?
It’s not how things were done back then, you know that. You also know your father didn’t follow social mores of any time. He did what he wanted. Always.
He didn’t take you because he didn’t want to. You’ve never said this out loud, but you think it, often.
You fell down the front stairs once after he left. You were carrying a sketch you’d drawn for your mother. You bumped your head and back, and you crumpled the drawing. For a long time you lay in pain, crying on the hardwood floor below the bottom step, which was right outside the room where she was. You knew your mother heard you. You wailed and she didn’t come. Finally, you picked yourself up, rubbed the bump on your head, walked into the parlor and found her working on her own drawing. You asked why she didn’t come to see if you were all right. She didn’t look at you when she said, “You were crying, so I knew you weren’t dead or unconscious.”
You had your grandmother, but only briefly because she was his mother and your mother wasn’t going to keep living with his mother without him. So you moved out, and another piece of you broke off.
You sit in the tub with that. A stab of pain is warm in your chest and you sense your strength pulsing all around the sore spot. That’s the thing: you didn’t choose to stay broken. You are, but you put yourself back together, imperfectly perhaps, and you sketched out and executed the creation of your life, carefully, purposefully, like an artist.
On the surface, you’re a kind of masterpiece.
That’s why your father flaunts you, when he can, to his colleagues like one of his accomplishments—his Ivy-league, high-powered, self-sufficient progeny.
Then why do you give him such power to leave you feeling the sting of imperfection? Of not being male? Not being enough?
You sense your baby inside imploring, Don’t carry your childhood into motherhood. She’ll need you to fight for her the way you couldn’t for yourself. The way your parents wouldn’t.
Unlike them, you walked down the aisle because you wanted to. They were kids. Nineteen when they married, with you already on the way.
Children should be prepared for. You plan everything in advance.
Your daughter will be hugged and kissed with every bump and hurt feeling. She’ll know she’s loved. Wanted. You’ll never leave her.
When you step out of the tub onto your marble floor you feel a twinge of uneasiness. You rub your rounding belly before slipping into your Turkish robe.
In the hallway, you stand outside the guest room and knock. From behind the door your father says he’s not dressed. You tell him you have something to say and you hear him grumble, his feet hitting the floor. He opens the door while tying his bathrobe. “What is it?” he asks, as if you’ve interrupted something important.
You stare down at his bare feet. Like yours, they’re large and the second toe is longer than the first. “I don’t want to name her any derivative of Philip,” you say. Then you lift your face level with his. “Her father and I have our own choices.”
His face wilts. Your words have drained a little life out of him. “Fine. They were only suggestions,” his says with a sliver of pain in his voice.
It pierces you like you knew it would. You stand straight and try not to let it show. “Thanks for understanding,” you say.
“Sure.” He leans in and kisses your cheek. “I’m glad you invited me. Y’know, parents do like to see their children once in a while.” His eyes smile. “Goodnight.” The door clicks closed.
What? Was that a dig? Oh, now he wants to see you? Now that you’re grown and busy and have a life of your own?
You stand in the hallway, eyes on his door, and then you feel a flutter in your belly, a tiny cartwheel, as if your baby is happy because you took a step. You put your own family first. And that’s your plan going forward, even if it makes your daddy unhappy. Even if he pulls away. A broken branch can still grow.
You hear a whisper in your mind: No. Wash your dirty hands. Seven-year-old you. She’s still there.
You walk down the hall toward your bedroom and toward your husband and you whisper back that you hear her. You tell her your hands are fine and the two of you are going to celebrate because joy is on its way. And if you’d never known sadness, you couldn’t appreciate the elation you feel looking forward to your new girl and how brightly she’ll shine.
Toni Ann Johnson’s essays and short fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Emerson Review, Hunger Mountain, Callaloo, and elsewhere. A novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel, was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work— Debut Author. Johnson’s novella, Homegoing, won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest and was released in May of 2021.