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June 16, 1974; same expression

My father had a challenging childhood, the youngest of eight children. His mother was bipolar, long before there was effective treatment. She had her last two children to “cure” her because she seemed better when pregnant (something about the hormones that was not understood). She was in and out of mental institutions by the time he was eight years old and permanently incarcerated when he was twelve. I suspect he was too young to understand why his mother was missing from his life (he never spoke of this with me, nor did the sister who raised him, when I thought to ask her after he died). He sought answers to some of life’s questions for his entire life. He was always a good listener, a kind, gentle, simple man.

He was proud that I did well in high school and went off to Brandeis. He wanted me to find my own path, but wrote me a few notes during my early days at school. One, I turned into a little sign which I hung above my desk. The other, I still have in his original writing.

Fear results from loneliness.
Boredom and fatigue follow.
Let your smile open the door to friendship.
Learn to listen – listen to learn.

Excel in something – so that you have something to give.
Give generously and receive graciously.
To be happy – have a friend – be a friend;
Friendship is Man’s greatest treasure.

-Sept, 13 1971

 

(The following is the note still in my father’s handwriting)

“Long ago, Man and Woman were one Creature. Somehow, they became separated.
All our lives we seek for that other half – that will reunite us and make us that whole person.”

My dad was a romantic; he wanted to be whole again after the trauma of his youth. My own mother did not provide that for him.

But the greatest advice came when I returned home after my first year at Brandeis. I was very upset. My first-ever Pap smear had come back Class III (pre-cancerous), and I was very late for my period, though I had always used birth control. My father noticed my sour mood, closed the door to my room late one night and asked what was wrong. This was May, 1971, before Roe v. Wade. Abortion was not legal in Michigan. I came home, aged 18, thinking that I was either going to have a baby RIGHT NOW, or have ovarian cancer, need a hysterectomy, so NEVER have a baby. I was a mess.

“I think I’m pregnant and I’m going to kill myself”, I informed my father. His eyes widened. “Don’t do anything until I get home form work tomorrow. We’ll take a walk and talk about this.” So I waited for him to come him. There was no subject that was off-limits with my father.

We took my dog out for a walk (this was always a way to escape from my mother’s watchful eye and ears; she did not understand anything), and had a long talk. I poured my heart out. I was five weeks late, didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, couldn’t face my judgmental mother and her sisters. Death was the only way out for this 18 year old. He took it all in, calmly. He reassured me. He told me to find an excuse to borrow my mother’s car (claim that I was visiting my old high school), but instead, go see his golf partner, Manny Jacobs, OB-GYN and get tested. He was sure I wasn’t pregnant (I had a history of irregular periods), but Manny would know for sure.

Dad went on to tell me not to worry about Mother and her sisters. He would speak with them, if that was needed. And if I WAS pregnant, he would try and get me a therapeutic abortion in Michigan (those were possible in that era), or if not, he would take me to New York, where abortions were legal. Now THAT is a supportive father!

I saw Manny later that week. After the exam, he also didn’t think I was pregnant (the test would confirm that suspicion), gave me a shot of progesterone, which would bring on my period, but was concerned about that Pap smear. He didn’t believe it (I’d had it done twice by the OB-GYN in MA), yet he wanted to be sure also. This one also came back Class III. He scheduled me for a chryocauterization later in the summer; that is, the lining of the uterus is frozen, the bad cells are sloughed off. I have been Class II ever since.

My period came on a few days later, late at night. My father was already asleep. He snored terribly, so he now slept in my brother’s room. I wrote a cutesy little note and left it on his nightstand, hailing the important arrival.

When my father died, almost 20 years later, my brother and I went through his papers. I found that note in its own folder, saved all those years, as a hallmark of the closeness between father and daughter, and how much I meant to him. He never failed me.

my meaningful note

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    You have written before about what a wonderful, supportive person your father was, so I was expecting a story like this this week. But this is truly heartwarming in so many ways.

    It takes a truly special father to write the sort of thoughtful notes that your father wrote to you. I am so glad you kept them. And how incredibly — indeed, totally — supportive he was of you during your pregnancy scare. Plus, as you note, this was at a time when pre-marital sex was still frowned upon by our parents’ generation, and especially the protective fathers of their darling daughters. And yet, there he was, supportive not only in words, but in deeds. As you comment, “He never failed me.”

    The perfect ending to this story is the fact that you wrote a note back to your note-writing father. It is so wonderful that you saved it after all these years.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My father was forward-thinking in many ways, John. He already knew that I was “sexually liberated”, in keeping with that era. As I think about the Supreme Court about to overturn Roe v. Wade, how many young women will again face the dilemma that I faced back in 1971, but not have the love and support of a family member? And so many states have criminalized the procedure in ways that were not the case more than 50 years ago.

      Since this was before the era of email or texts, I have other, later letters from my father as well, but not necessarily offering advice. He did tell me his shoulders were broad enough for both of us. I always took comfort from that notion.

  2. Wow Betsy, having read about your emotionally unstable mother, it’s wonderful to learn how supportive your father was, during a pregnancy scare no less.

    And learning he was motherless himself makes his kindness to you that much sweeter.

    And how in hell will women manage if Roe is reversed? In our day we may have had emotional decisions to make about unwanted pregnancies but no cloak and dagger stuff to worry about.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My father was my rock, Dana, so it was very difficult to lose him when I was just 37 years old with babies of my own. I was very sad that they never knew him.

      I thought this particular episode was telling in so many ways, as we consider life, once again, without our ability to manage our own bodies. It is infuriating! Yes, decisions were difficult, but the culture war has made them so much more challenging.

  3. Marian says:

    What incredible support you got from your father, Betsy. While his actions seem pretty rare for fathers, they shouldn’t be. I am so glad for you that he could be your rock and sorry that you lost him so soon. These days women will have to be brave and creative, and unfortunately help today’s young women who have taken their freedoms for granted.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Mare. As I said, he was always there for me. It was a pleasure to write about him for once. Unfortunately, I think you are correct. We are going to have to be there for the younger generation, who don’t know what it was like before Roe v. Wade. I fear it will take a long time and a lot of fighting (again) for them to regain control of their bodies.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    What a wonderful father, your rock indeed, and so humane. I loved his advice about giving of yourself and having relationships—the essence of life. He suffered but drew the important lessons, and I’m sure he got much satisfaction being able to give to and support you. Gone too soon, but the writing and memories persist.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Khati. Yes, he’s been gone a long time and I still miss him very much, but his lessons stay with me. He gave good advice and I’ve tried to live as he taught me and in ways that would have made him proud.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    How blessed you were to have such a loving, empathic father. His advice was beautiful and I’m sure your relationship with him went a long way to healing some of the wounds of his childhood and marriage to your mother.

  6. Suzy says:

    I love that you still have all those notes. I treasure notes in my father’s handwriting too, but they are usually on things he mailed to me after I left home and say “here’s the latest Schwab statement” or words to that effect. 🙂

  7. I’m so glad you had the relationship with your dad that you did, Betsy, and you encapsulate it well. And preserving the notes! Thank God for that.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    Your photo shows you favor your dad, Betsy, and the resemblance surely went more than skin deep. Nevertheless, I look at his face and feel his love for you. Thank you for sharing this moving story.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    If I had ever had a problem so personal and of such magnitude, my parents would have been the LAST people I’d have told. I love that your Dad was so understanding and supportive.

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