As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m the friend who runs around talking up my other friends when they’re not around. And if you get a drink or two into me, I might even set you up with one of them, if I think you’d hit it off.
This sounds like a really good quality — in theory. But it’s not.
I talk constantly about people behind their backs. Nice things… mostly (I’m only human). But I never feel like I do quite as good a job of talking them up in front of them. Where they can hear it.
Dad Has Never Told Me He’s Proud of Me to My Face
When I was growing up, apparently my dad had a little shrine in his office. A corner where he hung up essays I’d written, newspaper clippings of stories about awards I’d won (for writing, music, or debate). And he’d talk to his coworkers about me all the time. About how proud of me he was. And what a cool kid.
But Dad and I almost never spoke in person. And the conversations we did have were weird and stressful, like the time he tried to help me with my math homework:
I’d always been an A student when it came to math. After all, I was on the math team. I had awards to demonstrate that I kind of knew what I was doing. But on my first geometry exam? I got a C.
My father sat down with me after a 12-hour shift with a 90-minute drive each way, still smelling of the chemicals they use to make paper, prepared to set me straight.
And who better to teach me?
My father lost his GI Bill the first semester of college because of his flat feet but took a job as a laborer. Sweat hard. Studied harder. He learned every technical aspect of what he was doing. Practically turned his supervisors upside down to shake knowledge from them like spare change. And over two decades of toil and study, he had become a self-made engineer. The head mechanical superintendent for a large construction firm.
And now he worked in heat and steam and decay not because he had to but because he loved it. He loved machines and what made them work. Loved fixing them when they didn’t. And designing better ones that would fare a little better.
I’ve never known anybody with a better sense of spatial awareness. Dad was famous among his colleagues for being able to draw freehand the layouts of buildings he hadn’t stepped in for years with incredible accuracy.
He would be the perfect geometry tutor.
And yet, we lasted a whole 10 minutes.
“You’re not even trying!” he said, when I wasn’t grasping what he was telling me.
My eyes filled with tears. “I am,” I protested. Didn’t he know? I wanted more than anything to impress him. There was just something I was missing, and I didn’t have the first clue what. I felt my epiglottis swell. I choked on it. Words wouldn’t come out.
“No, you’re not. You’re smarter than this,” he said. He got up from the dinner table and walked over to his recliner.
He never offered to help me with schoolwork again.
Dad worked long hours. Maintained insane commutes. He would sometimes be gone for months at a time, once for a project in Finland (Mom told me that Dad loved the food there, and the people, too — they were so friendly). Another time he was in Disney World working on a ride, since it was enough labor that it was more cost effective to ship in a whole construction team from Maine than to get local help.
Dad had a mind for complex systems. He saw what other people didn’t. But he was both terrible with words and bound by that code that a lot of old school men’s men are. The school of thought that says you never show emotion, even positive emotion. That it’s a sign of weakness.
And here I was basically a little ball of emotion, pinging from extreme to extreme.
At the time, I’d get frustrated with him. His silence came off as superiority and judgement. In hindsight, I’m sure it was just as frustrating for him. That he had this wonderfully complex and beautiful mind but no way to really communicate what he was thinking to me, or anyone else.
So he went away and built things.
One of those things he built was a little shrine in his office. A shrine he never told me about.
Outed By His Coworkers
It wasn’t until Dad was sick with cancer for the first time that I knew of the shrine’s existence. He’d gone under for the procedure, and my nuclear family was there in the waiting room together: Mom, my sisters Alice and May, my brother David, along with a smattering of aunts and uncles, the extended biological family. It was a long surgery. After a few hours, people from Dad’s chosen family began to show up. You know, his coworkers (because let’s be real, work was always Dad’s second home).
“You must be Page,” one of them said.
I nodded, taken aback that this stranger knew my name.
“Your father talks about you all the time,” she said. And she proceeded to tell me about the shrine in Dad’s office. How proud of me he was.
To her, it was so obvious that I was an intelligent, accomplished person. Since Dad thought so, too, and he can be a hard person to please.
People Are Constantly Talking Behind Your Back — But Sometimes That’s a Good Thing
I talk behind other people’s backs, too. More often than I’d like to admit. Giving compliments when my friends can’t hear them. And yes, like anyone else, I vent to or process with trusted confidants. People who serve as play pens for my brain weasels to run around in circles, chasing their tails until they tire out. Or if I’m feeling really petty, I’ll write about it in my private journals.
But more often than not, I’m guilty of what I consider to be the greater sin: Not telling people how much I appreciate them to their faces. I’m my father’s daughter, whether I like it or not.
So sometimes when I’m feeling like I’m in the way or I can’t do anything right, I try to remember that. To remember my father’s shrine and my own shortcomings. And I remind myself that people often forget to tell us these things to our faces. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel that way.
Books by Page Turner: