My Bridge to Build
by Donna J. Dotson
My dad was a man of many talents. He could grow his own food, cook it and preserve it for winter. He could fix anything with a motor and he could quote scripture appropriate to any and every situation. My father was a carpenter by trade, but he did not build bridges. He could build beautiful houses and magical creations out of the simplest piece of oak or maple or pine, but he had no special talent for connecting with a daughter he dreamed would be a son. He built cabinets with doors to store the blueprints of his legacy, instead of sharing his love for creating things. He built trinket boxes to house locks of hair and discarded wedding bands, but he never understood the power of his rejection when he said the words, “You can’t stay with me. A girl belongs with her mother.” Or did he?
The emotional impact of that moment grew along with me over the years. As I matured from a 7 year old little girl into a grown woman with a child of her own, my feelings morphed from disappointment into anger, hurt and frustration. I was unable to hear my mother’s reassurances that my dad loved me, but that he just didn’t know how to show it. I refused to see reason. I was unwilling to accept his offerings of fatherly love because they did not match the images in my mind. I was oblivious to the fact that I was hurting him all the while. Worst of all, had I known, I probably would have continued on my path, because it felt like vengeance. In my mind, my father had rejected me, therefore I must not be good enough. The tainted air of that suspended moment in time became the hook upon which I hung the blame for so many things that were wrong in my life. My relationships with others suffered because I believed that if I was not worthy of unconditional love from my father, why would anyone else accept me. Fear built walls to keep everyone at a distance.
There were several pivotal moments over the course of my life and relationship with my dad – turning away, then back and away again. Freshman year of college, he drove his 1959 Chevrolet Apache to pack my things and take me home for the summer. I lingered at a distance with my friends and their parents while he waited patiently by the curb in the boiling sun. The Christmas just after college, I had a total meltdown because I believed that my Christmas card was written by his wife. I called and flung hateful words at him as he silently, graciously let me get my anger out. In retrospect, the two sets of signatures are indistinguishable. In all likelihood, he did sign the “I love you! Daddy.” On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle on his arm, but allowed no father-daughter moment wherein he gave the bride away. He simply placed my hand in my groom’s and retreated to his third row seat behind my mother and grandfather.
From the misguided perspective of youth, I believed that I was controlling the direction of this flawed relationship with my dad. In my heart I knew I was lying even to myself. The façade was tentative and transparent. I desperately wanted him to stand up to one of my obstacles and stake his claim as my father. His right for respect. His right to love me.
And then something happened that changed my perspective altogether.
The first house my dad ever built was vacant and overgrown in a state of total disrepair. Demolition material – but I set my sights on renovating it. I wanted to fix it with my own two hands the way he built it some 50 years before. He agreed and set a date to meet me there with a set of keys so I could go inside. I dreaded the awkwardness of seeing him, believing that he had no faith in my ability or stamina to see the project through – after all, I was a girl. A friend brought his bush hog to clear the yard that day. When my dad arrived with the key, I made the introductions. He shook my friend’s hand – as men do. Then, he shook my hand too. I felt like a total stranger to this man I had spent my entire life fighting for and against. In that moment of clasped hands, my heart broke, but it also kick-started the healing process. I could see that there was a clear path back to my place as my father’s daughter, but there was a huge, gaping void between us. I could not cross without a bridge.
I worked tirelessly every weekend for three solid years. There was no electricity or water. Summers were blazing hot and winters were freezing, but I would not be deterred. Countless paintbrushes, yards of sandpaper, mowers, ladders, hammers and crowbars; every step presented a challenge, but each success made me proud. I pushed myself every hour of daylight. My dad began dropping by during the week to check my progress. Soon, he began leaving notes of approval and encouragement on the backside of pieces of sandpaper or old envelopes from his truck. Occasionally he would leave a tool or a tape measure on the bar for me to use in my work. I placed a notebook there where I left notes back to him, thanking him and asking advice. The notebook became a journal of progress on the house and hope for our tattered bond. We began talking on the phone regularly – getting to know one another again. He began visiting the house on the weekends and, for the first time in my life, I felt his pride in me.
That little house was one of the things my dad had loved creating. He shared it with me. It became its own trinket box of treasured memories and long-overdue conversations. That house he had built with his own two hands when he was just a young man was intended to be the home for his future family – it was his legacy. The house became our bridge. I vowed to cook Thanksgiving dinner for him there as soon as I could save money for the electrical and plumbing work that I was not able to do myself. Sadly, he passed away four months before that could be a reality. Memories have a way of being mysteriously altered when viewed from the rearview mirror. I know now that what I heard as rejection when I was 7 years old was really my dad’s ultimate act of love. He did not love me less because I was not his son, but he did love me differently. He sacrificed a great deal so that I had the best chance to grow into the kind of woman my mother is – independent, nurturing, strong, kind and loving. Each attribute is a section of the bridge. I released the fractured ideas of a child and grew into a woman who is proud to say he was my father. It was my bridge to build all along. He had given me the tools, and the freedom to follow my own path. Whether he knew it would lead me full circle or not, it was a risk he was willing to take because he believed in me.