My birthday recently passed and I knew it would not be a good one so, I kind of chose to spend it alone as much as possible. My oldest daughter took me out for lunch, the boys had a soccer game that my husband had to take them to and my youngest was visiting her sick grandmother. It was perfectly low key. But the tone had already been set by my mother’s card which arrived the day before and was signed “All my Love, Mom.” The absence of my father’s name was jarring. For 46 years his name was on my card. “Mom & Dad” were one word. You didn’t separate them. It was inconceivable to me that one day I’d see just half of that one name. But this year I did. And it stung and I cried. It was concrete proof that my father was gone, as if I needed any more evidence.
It was my first birthday without my dad singing happy birthday to me. As he became sicker and Parkinson’s stole his voice, his booming baritone became smaller on the other side of the phone or in person when he serenaded me each year. As far as birthdays go, I’m not into the pomp and circumstance all that much but I realized this year that I really loved hearing him sing to me.
This birthday with my father made me reflect on my birthdays in general, and specifically, the day I was born. Gussie had high hopes for me from that day forward. On the door of my bedroom he put a sign that said “Miss America, 1988” and left it there for some time. It was a gutsy move considering I was a scrawny 5+ pounds with a shock of black mohawk sticking straight up and what they all referred to as “chicken legs.” He saw beauty and potential in me even then, and through my childhood when I never saw it myself. I never took the story of that sign seriously because it always seemed like a joke, but looking back, in 1968 that was a pretty lofty title for a girl to have and my dad, believing me to be the most beautiful baby in the world because he created me, must have just assumed I was worthy of it.
As I evolved into an anti-Miss America contender and I clearly wasn’t going to be pageant material, his dreams for me changed. Studying art in college in order to be a commercial artist, I had his support as I created my portfolio. While changing my major to Spanish did not fit into his idea of using my talents to the best of my abilities, he soon found I had another ability–languages– and he gave me his support to be a teacher, which took me a few years to decide to do. He encouraged me, slowly, cheered me on, until finally I returned to school to get my teaching certificate. That made him prouder than a Miss America title or a job as a translator, my original intention. He had always wanted to go to West Chester University to become a teacher but with no money, guidance, or cheerleaders and nobody able to pay his way, he joined the army. I went to West Chester’s rival to become a teacher, but the outcome was the same.
While I’d like to think that a Miss America title (never before given to a chubby girl with a big perm and no talent) COULD have been mine and would have made my father deliriously happy, I think he was prouder that it was my brains that got me to where I am today. It was the place he had wanted to be and I carried that out for him.
So, I never got a crown but I did get chalk, a pointer, and some 3,000 kids over my 24-year career–some of whom were just incredible human beings and reinforced why I do what I do. I love my career and I think that even though I don’t have the tiara, my father is still beaming with pride.