Growing-Up Dad: Learning To Let Go

by Moshe Dann (November 2012)

True, things seem to happen in Israel more quickly. Perhaps it's the proximity to constant terrorism and near universal military service. Or maybe it's just the increased heat from global warming. Or the hormones.      

   “I'm getting married, Dad!” my nearly 18-yr old daughter exclaimed breathlessly one evening when she returned from her high school (Ulpana).*

   “Great,” I responded, writing away on my computer, my mind somewhere else. I had heard such murmurings before. Big mistake.

   “No, really, Dad,” she insisted. “I've been going out with him. Five times. A whole month. We're so right for each other.” I thought it was a joke. It wasn't.

   “A whole month?” I wanted to be sure, my eyes now turned to her. “How old is he?”

   “Eighteen. He's perfect.” My heart suddenly sank as I realized she was serious.

And my adrenalin kicked in. Instinct. Protect and defend.

   “What does he do?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, as if it mattered at that age. What did I expect?

   “He lives on a hilltop.”** Her eyes were moist with dreams; mine were getting sharper with suspicions. “And he studies in a yeshiva.” ***

   Well, that's certainly a portent of greatness, I thought. I kept my lips closed tightly, clicked Save and turned towards her. She stood elegantly and full of pride in front of me, my daughter-about-to-become-wife-to-stranger/kid. My heart was now somewhere around my bowels. My stomach was in my throat. She was doing fine.

   “When do I meet him?” I inquired, feeling an impulse to strangle him on sight.

   “Today,” she smiled brightly. “He's on his way.” How could I resist her innocence and belief? What did I have to offer but rationality imbedded in concrete bunkers of fear? I was sinking fast.

   “Okay, fine…” I tried not to betray my surprise. As if I was cool. “I'd like to meet him.” Thoughts raced through my head: this kid was going to take my daughter! No way!

   “We've been talking about a date,” she continued, unaware that I was already on a slippery slope. “In a two months.” Her voice was sure. I wanted to scream.

   “Excuse me? What did you say?” I began, but then lost it. “Impossible. Out of the question.” Things were piling up fast and I was still trying to figure out where I was.

    “We'll have to talk about it.” I tried to sound calm. Her face dropped. I had disappointed her with my lack of enthusiasm. Inevitable betrayal. I wanted to escape.

   The doorbell rang. It's HIM, I thought. She rushed to open it. It was only the daughter of a neighbor wanting to know if she was going to school tomorrow. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he'd gotten lost. Maybe he would have an accident.

   “Let's eat,” I suggested, trying to change courses. I heated up some leftovers. “Tell me about it,” I tried to cover my trepidation with food. She ate with gusto. A healthy appetite. I watched her take a second helping of mashed potatoes. How could such a little girl eat so much? But she wasn't so little, and certainly not a girl anymore. She was capable, smart, and good looking. And a heart of gold. Who wouldn't want to marry her? But not now! Not him!

   As she talked about him, I thought about what I was like at that age: confused, shy, awkward and too serious. I didn't fit in. Marriage was what old people did. I had a world to explore. But this young woman knew what she wanted. She always did, in a way.

   She was only seven when my ex-wife and I got divorced. Everything seemed to cave in. She took care of her sister, a year and a half younger. Big sister was the rational one: Mom and Dad are divorced. That's it. Little sister refused to accept it. She fought and cried for what she could not repair. Time healed what she could not. Almost. There will always be a pain imbedded in memory, like a genetic code. Maybe the desire to get married as soon as possible was her way of saying 'I want a home of my own.' But there was so much that was left out. I was afraid, for her and for myself.

    She sat with knees crossed, her long skirt flowing around her. She wanted so much from me: Approval, Recognizing her independence. And her spirit. I held back, afraid to give her what she had already taken.

   Why should I be surprised? I raised my daughters to have a sense of themselves. They are religiously observant, and despite their womanly ability to flirt, would not allow physical contact. Good boundaries. Self-respect below the eye-liner and perfume. And a flair for life. A genuine enthrallment for the world. How is that possible with Palestinian homicide bombers blowing themselves up on crowded school buses and maniac killers hunting victims in their homes? How does one live with such atrocities?

Get married! Raise a family! Show the monsters that life is more powerful than death.

    When he finally arrived, he wasn't nearly as bad as I'd imagined. In fact, he was  cute and even a bit charming. But not for my daughter, I determined. Subtly he tried to win me over, as I tried to find some way to get them to change their minds. It was hopeless. I should have known from the beginning. And as time passed, there was less and less possibility that they would become less romantic and more practical. I asked all the wrong questions.

   “How will you support a family? What will you do?” His parents were eager for him to find someone with whom he could grow up. Not a bad idea from their point of view. Not mine. They weren't ready, I insisted. Good luck. I could as easily have tried to persuade them to convert. They were “in love,” dream-bound in their fantasies of each other, and full of hope. I envisioned endless blank checks. I dug in my heels. It did no good. I squirmed.

   For a while my ex went along with my attempts to reason and cajole them into reality. Her parents even approved of my efforts. I was thrilled and encouraged to resist. That lasted a week. They crashed and gave in. I was fighting a rapidly losing battle — alone.

   “Rabbi X gave us his blessing,” my daughter said with authority.  

   “What does he know about you?” I demanded. “I'm your father.” As if she didn't know which side to choose.

   This rabbi and that rebettzin. They all seemed to have divinely inspired powers; mine were earthly. Or maybe it was just their lack of understanding of adolescence. Excuses. Who knew better? How could they presume? How dare they decide! But they did. Show Time, but it wasn't my show.

   My daughter got approval from wherever she could find it. Hungry birds feed where they can. It's not my bandwagon and it will go on with or without me, trailing off into the horizon farther than I can see. They are the pioneers, not me. And just as they become parents I become a grandfather. The see-saw floats with their laughter as wild as small children. I see it so clearly. It was only a few years ago, and it seems gone so quickly that I hardly had time…and now they are all grown up and can't wait. How can I blame them? I would have been there myself if I'd had their courage.      

   Part of me just can't wait. And another wants to hold on.

   I raised her to believe in herself, to believe in love and follow her heart, to care passionately and to make these kinds of commitments. I may not be ready for her to leave, but she is.

    Pass the baton, stupid.

   And all the dreams I dreamed for you that are now your own


* Boarding High Schools for girls

** A relatively recent phenomenon in Israel in which young men and/or one or two families move on to barren hilltops adjacent to (but separate from) already existing Jewish communities (“settlements”) in Judea and Samaria. Although usually the land is officially part of the community, they do not have government approval, and is therefore considered “illegal” by those who oppose such moves. This is an on-going dispute within the Israeli government and it is opposed by the Palestinians and others.

***A religious school for men

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