Travel and Healing Gold Winner: French Dolls

by Catherine Watson

To the end of his days, my father insisted that my travels were nothing more than “escapism.” Whenever I said I was going somewhere alone, he accused me of running away, of being “avoidant.” It didn’t matter whether it was Europe or the movies.

“What is wrong with you?” he once snarled at me on the eve of a trip. It must have been the long one to South America, when I expected to be gone a year. A year without income! He was appalled. “What makes you want to do this?”

The answer was so obvious, I almost laughed. My longing for the world began before his rages did, when things were good between us, when I first knew him. He was the person who gave me the wanderlust he claimed to despise.

I’d been born while he was away in the war — stationed in England before the invasion of Europe and in France afterward, where he lived with other medical officers in a chateau near Paris, playing gin rummy between shifts and keeping track of the score on the elegant, abandoned walls.

I knew about France before I knew about him, because the person that everyone else called “Daddy” had sent me a present from there: three French dolls that came in the mail. They were, I know now, what Frenchmen called Apache dancers or, more likely, Parisian whores — strange gifts for a child, but he was new to fatherhood.

I don’t remember playing with them, but I remember how they looked in their red, white and blue clothes – striped t-shirts, side-slit skirts, little neckerchiefs and berets. They had flouncy hair and long eyelashes, curvy lips and dangling cigarettes; the tallest had a little black spot painted on her cheek.

The last time I saw them, they were wrapped in tissue in a drawer in my grandmother’s guest room, the same special drawer where she kept something else I coveted — the white lace fan she had carried when she married my grandfather, the fan I pretended I’d carry at my own wedding someday.

I was nearly three by the time my father followed the French dolls home. He spent the next year getting acquainted with his little girl and, whether he meant to or not, acquainting me with the world.

That year, the year before my brother was born, we had a daily ritual — what he called a “tete-a-tete,” my first French words. We would sit at my red play table in the basement and divide a single, green-glass bottle of Coca-Cola into tiny mugs the size of shot glasses. He poured, we clinked mugs, we drank. And he told me war stories.

During one tete-a-tete, my mother and grandmother were upstairs baking sugar cookies — the big, plump, chewy kind my father had longed for during the war. My grandmother cut them out the way she cut baking-powder biscuits, with a drinking glass whose edge she dipped in flour; the results were always round.

My father told me to stay put and disappeared upstairs. He came back a long time later, bringing still-warm sugar cookies he had cut out himself. They weren’t round. If I could guess what the shapes were, he promised, I could eat them.

The first was easy: a butterfly. The next was harder, but I knew that one too: the Foshay Tower, the first skyscraper in Minneapolis; my grandfather had taken me to see it. The last cookie was another tower, the curvy one that Life magazine showed nearly every week, the one where Daddy was.

“Paris,” I said. “Eiffel Tower!” I remember feeling proud because I knew it and because he was pleased.

That is how it should have gone on — a daughter growing up happy, the pride and joy of her wise, funny, interesting, doting father. But that is not what happened. Our family illness is depression, and it began to claim him while I was still in childhood. There were no good drugs then, and he wouldn’t have admitted that he needed them, even if there had been.

Instead, he medicated himself the old-fashioned way, with three six-packs of beer a night, while he sat at the kitchen table and worked on his stamp collection. “You can’t be an alcoholic,” he told us often, “if all you drink is beer.”

My younger siblings learned quickly not to walk through the kitchen after supper. I never caught on. Most nights, I’d drop by, hoping to talk. And most nights, from the time I was 12 or 13 until I moved away, we fought. Or rather he fought, and I stood, backed up against the refrigerator, and took it. He used words exquisitely, and late at night, when he turned them on me, he used them like switchblades. I have thought often that if I had to choose a form of victimization, I would have preferred to be beaten with sticks.

These are a few of knives my father threw at me. “You’re a fake. Someday they’ll all find out you’re a fake.” “You’re mentally lazy.”  “Neurotic.”  “Freak.”  “I don’t care if I sacrifice my entire relationship with you, as long as it makes you a better person.”

And finally this one, “You are unloving, unlovely and unloved.” He said that one night when I was in high school. Ah, how the man could carve a phrase. That line alone would have earned my father an A in my rhetoric class. Shakespeare couldn’t have said it better.

What appalls me now is not what my father said, or the fact that he said such things over and over and over, night after night after night. What appalls me is that I believed him. He had always been my hero –  the man I thought knew everything, so I believed that he knew the truth about me.

Why did I keep trying? Why did I keep going to him, keep asking for his help with algebra, with German, with English themes? Denial is too easy an answer. It felt more like hope — that maybe the next time it would be different.

Once, years after I’d left home, I was crossing a plaza in a Mexican town when I saw a man punch his dog so hard in the ribs that I thought its chest would cave in. I expected the dog to collapse in pain, to die or at least run. But instead it crept closer to him, cringing, wagging its tail, trying to lick his hand, apologizing, seeking comfort from the very man that hurt it — as if it had deserved the blow. I understood that dog.

Four decades after our last tete-a-tete, I sat by my father’s hospital bed, knowing he was never going to leave it, and struggled to find something safe to talk about. By then, I was a professional traveler who had been all over the world — and in Paris so often that I no longer kept count.  Writing about trips was how I earned my living, and I’d heard from others that my father was proud of my work. But that still didn’t mean trips were safe topics.

What I wanted to talk about was even less safe. I wanted to ask him why I had made him so angry, so often, for so long. Why he had criticized everything I did, everything I said or wrote, how I walked, even how I breathed. It was too late, of course. Even if he had known the answers, he couldn’t have given them now. He lay inert, his eyes shut. I didn’t know whether he would even hear me.

I reached farther back and hit an old, sweet memory. “Do you remember the French dolls?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

My father startled me. “Yes,” he murmured, his voice coarse and distant, as if he hadn’t intended to use it again. “Do you still have them?”

“No,” I said, amazed that he thought I might. “I think they got played with” — the family euphemism for what happened when younger kids got hold of older kids’ things.

But what had become of them didn’t matter. Merely mentioning the dolls had conjured them up. They reappeared like sparkling ghosts in that sterile gray room — fresh as perfume, brand-new and brightly painted.

I knew my father was seeing them again too, as clearly as he had when he wrapped them in brown paper and addressed the package to the daughter he had never met. That was back when his own war was over, and before our war began.


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