Think Happy Thoughts

When I was small, and had nightmares, I’d call out for my father. Only for my father.

I loved my mother, as all children do, but she wasn’t always the one to rely upon during a four year-old crisis. Especially after nightfall. She was usually so frazzled by my tiresome antics throughout the day that there wasn’t much compassion left for me in her perpetually mothering body. At four, I felt rejected. At forty-three, and as a mother of two myself, I now understand.

When a nightmare tore holes in my sense of certainty, I’d awake in the darkness, curled and tight, and pull the covers over my head, cloaking myself. Like most children, I naively imagined that if I was unseen, I’d somehow be safe.

The memory of whatever had frightened me, however, still loomed. Scary witches. Howling ghosts. Masked robbers hiding in my small closet. I imagined the door bursting open and revealing dozens of black-hatted crooks, tumbling out into my bedroom like the passengers of some sort of criminal clown car.

My vulnerability, and my awareness, almost always overtook me.  I’d vacillate between confronting the fear alone, or calling out for comfort, and arousing interest from the furry, fanged monster surely hiding beneath my bed. I’d hear my own voice before I realized I was yelling. “DADDY!”

My mother had no patience for my imagination at that hour. She was raw. Go back to sleep. No, I’m not leaving the hall light on. That’s enough now. Enough!

My father, by contrast, was calm and lulling in those moments. He wasn’t saccharine, or overly demonstrative to me when I was a kid. But on those nights, when his comforting form appeared at my bedroom door, I relaxed. It was like some kind of magical hour, when I think of it now. A quiet peace, and a place of innocence. I think it healed both of us.

One those nights when I was so afraid, he’d sit by my bed and smooth my hair from my face. We’d never discuss the details of the dream. To do so would give them credence. Instead, he’d tell me simply to “think happy thoughts,” and that “only happy thoughts were allowed in this house.” And he’d stay there for a few minutes longer, and continue to run his calming hand across my indignant widow’s peak, until my eyelids fluttered and consciousness released me.

My father was not as subdued in my waking hours. He was a wild-tempered Irishman from Brooklyn who fought bitterly with my wild-tempered Irish mother from Queens. Even worse — he fought bitterly with himself. He was quick to anger, and even quicker to react. Not so much to me, but to life itself.

He’d curse — freely and creatively — around me, but God help the teenager who did so in his young daughter’s presence. He leapt across three rows of movie seats in 1975 to grab some poor kid by the baseball ringer concert tee and tell this snot-nosed “Chief” — as he called every male transgressor — that there was a little girl — his little girl — within earshot.

One summer, when I was nine or ten, some drunk teenagers set off M-80s under my bedroom window in Queens. The force of the blasting gunpowder rocked the brick exterior wall of our house, and I awoke, startled and screaming, as our dog howled at the window. I heard my father’s footsteps from upstairs, an angry clattering of leg bones and bare feet, racing from his bedroom to the front door. He was wielding a clawhammer, and I heard him scream after their scattering figures — “You little fucking shits! I’ll kill ya! My daughter sleeps there!” Protection. Defense. His primary instincts. This was his love, in its fullest expression.

He’d never told me the story himself, but my grandmother once shared her account of accompanying my father as a young boy to Mary Martin’s performance as “Peter Pan,” at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. “Tinkuh-bell was dying, and the ac-tuhs told the audience to clap for Tinkuh-bell and yell out that we believed in fairies! All those little voices yelling, ‘I BELIEVE!’ Your father just sat there in his little suit and said nothing. He told us it was all fake, and he could see Peter Pan and Tinkuh-bell’s wires. I’ll never fuh-get it. Your grandfather said, ‘He’s not a child, Rose. He’s a fawty year-old midget.’”

My father despises Disney, flowery sentiment — any mawkish or fabricated emotion, really. Yet Tinkerbell’s message — “Think happy thoughts!” — was chanted to me quietly throughout my childhood nights, until I fell into the safety of dreamless sleep. He had been a child once, too. He understood the real fears of his little girl. He acknowledged them, and assuaged them. Perhaps, I think, because he shared them. Because the phrase reminded him of an afternoon spent with his father, something he no longer could do. And because when I felt most vulnerable, so did he.

A few weeks after I graduated from college, we traveled together on a Metro-North train into Manhattan during the morning rush hour. He was headed to a job that he hated; and me, a floundering graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature, to an interview for an entry-level job at a large publishing house. As I exited the train with him, he stopped to hand me his business card, upon which he’d scribbled a note. “Good luck — only happy thoughts. Dad.”

He knew I’d be leaving him soon, and that I was still so afraid, even though I desperately pretended not to be. He knew how deeply we both felt about things — much more earnestly than any Disney-fied confection of emotion.

A few weeks later, I left home — for risks and new experiences, for a small room in a Manhattan apartment, and for the unskilled ascent towards the rocky summit of my own young life. I’m still climbing. And still afraid, even now, while seemingly safely entrenched in my forties.  My father confesses the same to me on rare occasions, from the viewpoint of his mid-sixties.

I’ve kept that tattered business card in my wallet for twenty-two years. The words are not what center me — so much as his fierce, unwavering love.

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Comments

  1. Kathleen – maybe the best thing I’ve read in a long time…I love this! I love your dad. I love your “na yawk” memories and I how you make them so tangible… “consciousness released me” — so great & “40 year-old midget” – hilarious!

    Thank you!

    Michael Tucker loves your blog and now I know why.

    Interesting that you were at WWF and you can write like a novelist too…my writing is so sciency, but yours is addictive.

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