Confessions of a Disappointing Daughter

The holiday season always makes me think of my immediate family, which is no more. We were a close family, my father, my mother and my sister Nancy and me. My parents were very affectionate. I was particularly close to my father. Our special connection began early. I was not yet disappointing. I was a perfect baby who already adored her father.

Dad and I continued to be close but both my parents were openly disappointed that:

  • I never got married.
  • I never had children.
  • I never had the kind of career that they considered a success.
  • And just to put a cherry on top of their disappointment, I was a very out lesbian.

In other words, although they loved me, they had really expected someone else. I never gave them “naches.” Naches is a Yiddish word that means “the pride or joy that a child brings a parent.” But naches is not just a feeling. It’s all about having things to brag about to other parents. As my mother once said to me , without irony, “Other people live for their parents’ approval. Why not you?”

In fact, you could say I gave them anti-naches because, in the days when it was shameful to have a gay child, they were appropriately ashamed of me. They told me so. Thank goodness society changed, and they changed along with it. So their shame diminished, but their disappointment remained.

They never threatened to disown me. That was simply not in the cards. But put-downs and even insults were in the cards. On Thanksgiving 1989, on the drive home from the airport after picking me up, I proudly told my parents I had not one but two plays in the very first anthology of plays by lesbians. My mother replied in a mocking tone, “Oh, wonderful! Just what I want for my coffee table.” And then, I arrived back at my childhood home only to discover they had thrown out the bed in the guest room where I slept and replaced it with a crib for Rose, their new grandchild. So I had to sleep on the couch. A new grandchild — naches supreme! I’d been replaced by a baby who’d never written anything.

I want to make clear that Nancy, my naches-and-grandchild-producing sister, always totally supported me and how I lived my life.

When I got back home to San Francisco, I called my parents up and told them I was disowning them for six months.

Then really did treat me better after experiencing being disowned. They understood that my actual physical presence in their lives was optional. And they did like having their disappointing daughter around.

So we all went along in our loving and disappointed way. Then we hit our first big family crisis. In 1999, At the age of 83, my father had a stroke, went into a coma for three weeks, and ended up in the hospital in Los Angeles for four months. My mother was capable of sitting in the hospital room for hours on end but she was emotionally totally overwhelmed. She was not prepared to deal with doctors and nurses. For a while, Nancy and I tossed the ball of responsibility back and forth in a beautiful way. We were a tem. But Nancy had a family to take care of far away. So the long-term project of Dad’s healing fell to me. After all, I was the single daughter.

Thus began twelve years — 1999 to 2011 — devoted to my family. It is one of the great blessings of my life that I was able to be deeply involved as first my father, then my sister, and then my mother became seriously ill and finally died.

Fortunately, the stroke only affected my father physically. Eventually, his mental capacities returned, and, it was time for him to start rehabilitation of his body. Dad had always been the Golden Boy who does everything right and sails through life. The whole family suspected that he wouldn’t want to do rehab. And the whole family was right. Dad preferred to die instead. He explained that he had worked very hard his whole life — six days a week until he retired at 78. BUT he had never had to overcome any big obstacles. He just didn’t feel like overcoming a big obstacle for the first time, after 83 years of an extremely pleasant life. It was obvious to him that it was time to go. I thought, “He’s dying and that’s alright with him.”

The hospital chaplain, a rabbi, came in to talk to Dad. I waited outside the room to hear the results of the conversation. The rabbi came out into the hall and told me, “I don’t see a dying man. I see an unhappy man.”

Now, if anyone knows what dying looks like, it’s a hospital chaplain. So at that moment, I realized, “Okay, my father ISN’T dying. I have to convince him to live.”

My father refused to do any rehab or eat anything, presumably planning to starve himself to death. I wracked my brains trying to figure out how I could change his mind. Finally, I came up with a strategy.

I said, “Dad, you know that parents teach their children by example much more powerfully than they teach them any other way. Right?” He said, “Yes, of course.” Then I said, “By not eating, you are choosing to commit suicide. Do you agree?” He paused a few moments and then said “Yes.” That was the first time either of us had used the S-word. I went on, “Well, then you are teaching Nancy and me in the most powerful way possible that, if we’re facing a huge obstacle, killing ourselves is a reasonable choice.”

Dad was silent. Family was everything to him. He looked at me. He seemed shocked that I had trapped him. Then he looked away for a long time. He turned back to me, a sheepish smile on his face, and said, “What’s for lunch?”

Dad lived for six years after he got out of the hospital. But his full energy never returned. My mother had to deal with any house problems that arose. My father was grateful. He seemed to fall in love with Mom again. Sometimes she’d be bustling around the kitchen and, as she passed him, he would grab her hand and kiss it. I’d never seen him do anything like that.

Before Dad’s stroke, I had taped interviews with both my parents about their lives. A lot of what they told me was very interesting, but they both wanted it recorded by posterity that they were disappointed in me.

I did another interview with Dad because I was certain that the ordeal of hospitalization and rehab and a radical transformation of his life must have transformed him. And certainly, it must have transformed his opinion of me, since I had shouldered so much responsibility, including convincing him to live.

But no. He still wanted to record for posterity his disappointment with me.

Oh well.

A little while after that, Dad, Mom, and I were sitting in the den chatting — — I can’t remember the subject. Again my father felt compelled to tell me what a disappointment I was.

Sometimes, I feel a rush of energy up the back of my neck. This energy is righteous outrage. It happens rarely but I always trust it and I always let fly and I have never regretted it.

I blew up.

I started yelling at my father, “How dare you not be proud of me? I am an incredible person and a great daughter. You are so lucky to have me for a daughter! How dare you?”

My father stared at me, speechless. My mother pretended that nothing special was going on. I charged out of the house and went for a long walk to calm down. When I returned, no one mentioned what had passed.

The following Thanksgiving I was back in L.A. again. It was a tradition to gather available family members on my birthday, November 27, in a small private room at Factor’s Deli to eat lox and onion omelets. No particular fuss was ever made over me, which was fine. It was just an excuse for the family to get together again on the Thanksgiving holiday.

But this year, my father stood up and said, “I want to make a toast to Terry!”

What? Toasts were reserved for weddings, anniversaries, and bar mitzvahs!

My father went on, “I am so proud of her! Look at what she’s done! She writes plays and travels all over the world performing them! She gives to the whole world through her art! And I don’t know what Sue and I would have done without her, after my stroke. And ever since then, Terry has always schlepped down here to help us and just be with us. We are so lucky that she’s our daughter.”

Dad lifted his coffee cup high in the air, and said, “To Terry!” The assembled relatives lifted their coffee cups and shouted “To Terry!” in unison.

This is a photo of the three of us after that blissful toast.

Mom, Terry, and Dad

I love this photo. We’re all so happy. Truly, I was filled with shining joy. It was still hard for me to believe that my father was actually proud of me. But I knew he loved me and, out of love, he was saying what he knew I wanted to hear, in front of the assembled family in the small private room at Factor’s Deli.

That had to be enough. And it was.

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Terry Baum is an actress, director, teacher, filmmaker, political activist, and award-winning lesbian playwright. Her blog BAUMBLOG is a “Top 100 LGBTQ Blog.”