Celeste M. Walker
My Father, Myself
I’ve written two plays, both were autobiographical. The theme of my first play centered around the relationship with my father. The theme of the second play centered on how the relationship with my father influenced my other intimate relationships with men.
I never intended to focus on these themes. That’s just what came out when I started writing. It surprised me. I spent my adolescence and young adult life trying to distance myself from him. I thought I was alone in this desire, but lately, in conversation with my two older sisters, it was revealed that getting out of the house and out of town as soon as possible, was a shared objective.
My dad grew up in the city. His parents immigrated from Northern Italy and settled in Baltimore. Grandpa’s sister married Grandma’s brother. The couples crossed the Atlantic together, settled in a duplex on Montpelier Street and helped raise each other’s family. I suppose my father wanted to get away from the city and his crowded living environment. He married my mother in 1947 and in 1954, two years after I was born, moved the family from Baltimore to the Poconos.
Dad was a devout Catholic and a faithful servant to his religion. He was strict, righteous, and demanding. As I grew older, I began to question him, I resisted his absolute, narrow point of view. If I expressed an idea or shared something I learned in school, he would doubt me. He wanted proof, in black and white. If I questioned his ideas or motives, he chided me as a child with no rights to an opinion. To be excused from a chore or unnecessary task was out of the question. I think of my adolescent years as endless weekends spent under his punishment—“you’re grounded.” My crimes? Not raking the lawn, arguing with my mother, not cleaning the bathroom well enough (he would inspect it) and once, after following me to our local drug store where I hid from him in a phone booth (not a great place to hide), I was grounded for wearing makeup. He seemed to enjoy his role as patriarch over a family of women. Everyone in the family was a victim of his dominance, but I believed I was his favorite one.
As much as I feared my dad, I still wanted to please him. He was handsome, strong, athletic, larger than life (in my eyes), and he could build or fix anything. I once wrote a short story for a class assignment about my father’s garden. Like his father, he was a gardener. His skills were the envy of the neighborhood. The vegetable garden in our backyard was his pride and joy. He fenced it in to keep out the deer. Inside, there were tall tomato plants, staked with strips of torn white bedsheets, green beans, peas (that rarely made it in the house since we all loved eating them out of the pods), squash, and lettuce. His other pride and joy was what we called the island, a patch of property separating the half-circle driveway from the road. It was filled with a colorful, magnificently-trimmed variety of flowers, bushes, and trees. In the evenings or on weekends, dad spent hours busy maintaining his garden.
My grandfather, Pietro’s, garden was different. Like his home in Piacenza, it was a little wild, more meandering, less meticulously kept. I remember seeing him there, tending to his plants in faded green baggy pants, suspenders and a soft flannel shirt worn year-round. Pietro grew grapes for his homemade wine. As soon as you opened the door to the basement, you could smell wine. He kept a jug on the floor next to his seat at the head of the dining room table and everyone at the table had a glass of wine with their big family meals, even the children. I have fond memories of grandpa. He smelled of wine and always wore scratchy, scruffy beard. He was the opposite of my father.
As a toddler, my father pampered me, he played with me and carried me around on his shoulders calling me the “little one.” I remember our nightly ritual included the naming the dozen or so porcelain dolls that hung on the walls of my tiny room, followed by the reading of one of my favorite stories from the Blue Book of “Through the Gate, The Bookhouse for Children.”
Once I approached adolescence, the fights and the punishments began. I suppose being strict was his way of teaching me something, or maybe protecting me from something. It didn’t feel that way at all; it felt as though nothing I did could please him, that everything I did was bad or wrong.
For my 11th birthday, all I wanted was to be taken to dinner by my dad. A dinner date, just dad and me. He took me to a pizza parlor. I wanted something more, but that was all I deserved.
When I was a child, he was a hero. When I was a teen, a strict disciplinarian. Now, I see a man who never really realized his own dreams. He once told me his real desire was to be a botanist. Instead he worked for the government as an electrical engineer. I often wondered if he blamed us, my sisters and me. He wanted sons.
He is old, about to enter his 92nd year on earth. He is not happy, he is anxious, aggravated, depressed, and he cries for my mother every day. His once athletic body has let him down and is deteriorating.
These days I accept his flaws, his idiosyncrasies, his stubborn habits. I no longer fear him. I know that he loves me and I love him, thought something keeps me distant.
I carry with me, some of his traits, though I hate to admit it. For instance, I, too, am stubborn. I force myself to keep an open mind, to see other’s points of view and I often find myself demanding proof. Like my father, I cannot tolerate liars. When my sisters point out these similarities, I cringe, but I know it’s true.
I am, after all, my father’s daughter.
Celeste M. Walker is an actor, director, and educator, with a BFA from Kutztown University and MFA in Acting from The Actor’s Studio Drama School at the New School University in New York. She is a lifetime member of The Actors Studio and a member of Actors’ Equity. Walker is an adjunct professor at Montgomery County Community College and at Arcadia University, where she has developed and teaches an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum, including: Inside-Out: Acting Behind the Walls, Laughing Matters, Shakespeare on Stage with Seniors, Radical Arts: The Study and Practice of the Arts for Social Change, Italy on Film (Honors travel course to Rome), and Italiano Americano: Philly Style.