Terrible Beauty

My phone rang. “Hey, boy,” was my greeting to the person on the other end. My friend (we’ll call her Mariketa) stared at me. When I was finished with the conversation she, in her very direct way, said, “Wow, man! Isn’t that a really derogatory thing to say to someone?” (Yep. That’s what she said.)

“Yeah, but there is a back story in this case,” I answered. It is the story of how one word can change a person for the rest of their life.

As Mariketa and I were walking down the street one day (probably the same day) she was telling me about how her father used to come home in the afternoons and hang out with her when she was young. They would play games, watch TV together or take a nap. I told her, quite simply, my father never did that. But that wasn’t the whole truth. The fact is my real father was pretty much completely indifferent to me. Work was most important to him, other people were more important to him, when he was home he never wanted to do anything with me and anything I wanted to do was certainly of no interest to him. He often forgot about promises to me and sometimes he even forgot me.

What Mariketa’s dad, with his simple actions, told his daughter was that she was important. She learned it well. She learned it inherently, without needing self-aggrandizement or narcissism. What my father’s actions told me was that I was unimportant. I might have learned that lesson well except that when I was 9 I got another dad. This new dad didn’t take time off of work for me, but when I was old enough he took me to work with him. He was often harsh, but never cruel. Even when I cried, he made me go on. He made me work hard and my little 115 pound body struggled to help him with a man’s job. But when I was old enough he looked at the men he was working with and said, “Get out of the way. Boy!,” he called to me, “get over here and show them how this is done.” Sometimes we would talk in the mornings over coffee and he listened to my advise on how to design a form or how we should set something up. Sometimes, while we were waiting around for the concrete to cure or the truck to show up we would lie in the grass and talk about life and I would listen to his advise. What my new father taught me was that I was valuable, that I was strong. What I learned was that even when I cried and felt like a child, I was capable. With this one little word, he was telling me that I was relevant and important to him and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. “Boy” was not a way to degrade my femininity, but a way to announce my equality in a world that mostly looked down on women.

About the age of 7 or 8 we begin this journey as human beings where our-self perception in relationship to others is concretized and our parents are the most important creators of and models for our social selves. What happens to those of us who’s parents ignored us or sent us away is that we have to struggle to learn these lessons alone. If we are lucky we might find someone who can help us along the way. But often in place of this natural development of humble self-confidence that comes from attentive parents is instead an egotistical aloofness. A castle wall. There are still days when down deep in the center of my tootsie-pop self there is that soft little girl who’s first father found her irrelevant. I feel for the people that I know who never had a second chance; for those who’s parents sent them away when they were young; or for those who’s opinions were  always dismissed as childish. I wonder, what would I be without being a ‘boy’?

Did new dad reach me in time? I like to think so. Will the damage that old dad did ever go away? Probably not entirely. There is one thing of value that my old dad gave me – perspective.


“To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.” ― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person: He believed in me.” – Jim Valvano

“Paternity is a legal fiction.”- James Joyce

Potato Leek Soup (something a father would like)

  • 1 large or 2 small leeks, about 1 pound
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 20 black peppercorns
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 strips bacon, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 1 to 1 1/4 pounds russet potatoes, diced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons snipped chives


Trim the green portions of the leek and, using 2 of the largest and longest leaves, make a bouquet garni by folding the 2 leaves around the bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme. Tie into a package-shaped bundle with kitchen twine and set aside. (Alternately, tie 2 leek leaves, bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme together in a piece of cheesecloth.)

Using a sharp knife, halve the white part of the leek lengthwise and rinse well under cold running water to rid the leek of any sand. Slice thinly crosswise and set aside.

In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt the butter and add the bacon. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is very soft and has rendered most of its fat. Add the chopped leeks and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Add the reserved bouquet garni,chicken stock, potatoes, salt and white pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are falling apart and the soup is very flavorful.

Remove the bouquet garni and, working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor or blender. (Alternately, if you own an immersion blender, puree the soup directly in the pot.) Stir in the creme fraiche and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Serve immediately, with some of the snipped chivessprinkled over the top of each bowl of soup.


2 thoughts on “Terrible Beauty

  1. A note from a reader: Always timely, you are, as my own father is battling Alzheimer’s, and I struggle with parenthood and hoping that I am a decent mommy more often than not, fearfully and wonderfully shaping these little beings. Hugs to you.

    • A,

      I’m sorry to hear about your dad. That is a difficult condition. I think the good news is that if parenthood is a struggle for you, you are probably doing it right. I’ve never heard anyone say it’s easy. I have no doubts about you anyway. 🙂

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