It may sound simple enough to go to your father’s house for Christmas dinner, but the fact is for me it wasn’t. I have tried over and over again to figure out what happens. I start out filled with the resolve to act natural— just be myself— talk to Father as though he were anyone else. But it’s always the same. As soon as I’m in his presence, I become so self-conscious that I can barely manage polite conversation. And I can’t look him in the eye.
I’ve been told I’m too analytical. Maybe I am, but I have to try to figure it out. It seems the more effort I make, the further apart I feel. How can you suddenly get close to a father you never saw while you were growing up? Maybe I’ve built a barrier of resentment that won’t come down. You see, when I was a child, my father was very real to me. I imagined him into the only person on earth who would truly understand me. Someday he would discover me— the daughter he could be proud of— the one who was just like him. I suppose that’s the problem right there. How could anybody compete with all that?
Anyway, I keep thinking that if I get to know him as an adult, my childhood fantasy will dissolve. Instead, I guess I always see him through the blur of disappointment. I can hardly even picture what he looks like. Except for one particular scene. I do have a life-size portrait of him that still shows up clearly.
I was eighteen. I had been invited for Christmas afternoon along with several other family members and friends. Dinner was over and we were gathered around to watch the opening of presents. My five-year-old half-brother had finished unwrapping all but one. The last package was the largest, and in his eyes I thought I could detect a glimmer of the stubborn hope that this time it would be something he wanted.
The present was a mechanical robot. Father intervened quickly before his son could open the box.
“Be careful! Don’t break it! I’ll put it together.”
The boy excused himself to watch TV, and Father was left to assemble the robot himself.
In defense of Father I must say that I doubt I could have figured it out at all. Of course, I wouldn’t have bought the thing in the first place. At any rate, he must have worked on it for close to an hour, while everyone else (there were five or six other people there including my stepmother) busied themselves with dessert and small talk.
The instructions were very complicated, and it was a long time before he managed to set it up. Finally, Father announced success. Before him stood a robot about two feet high, shining in its metal body. The arms and legs were jointed into two sections. Its trunk and head were square. Two red lights, representing eyes, glowed outward. Father held a small microphone which was attached to the back of the robot. All watched intently.
“Heel!” Father barked out the order.
There were buzzing sounds of wheels spinning. The robot’s head turned slowly from side to side. Its eyes flashed off and on. But it stayed put.
“Heel, I said!” Father’s voice was sharper, his German accent more pronounced.
The robot didn’t budge.
Father’s eyes blazed. He shook the robot.
The robot, buzzing and clanking, moved straight ahead.
For some time, Father continued issuing commands. I hadn’t ever seen him so angry. The robot was consistent. It never once did as it was told.
I had been trying hard to control the laughter rising in me. But the image of my father overcome with rage at the disobedient robot must have touched a chord so deep that the giggles sputtered forth against my will, releasing a chain of guffaws that left me panting, eyes filled with tears.
When I finally regained my composure, Father was looking at me strangely. Apparently no one else had thought it was particularly amusing.
I tried to explain. No use. What to me had been the hilarity of the scene escaped them completely.
As soon as I could, I excused myself and left.
I still don’t know why that struck me so funny. I suppose I shouldn’t get too analytical about it, though. Maybe I just have a weird sense of humor.