A single dad spills his secrets

As my daughter turns 10, I wonder how to help her grow up -- and shield her from my racy memoir

Topics: Father's Day, Fatherhood, Memoirs,

A single dad spills his secrets

Of course all dads love their daughters, but a single dad’s bond is more complicated than that. Ever since my wife moved out seven years ago, leaving me to raise a 3½-year-old daughter and her 6-month-old brother Chet, I’ve been Ava’s daddy and in some sense her mommy too. I reveled in the challenge of single parenting, smug in my holy martyrdom. I guess it runs in the family. My father raised me from the time I was 16, after my mother killed herself. Then, six years later, I nursed my dad through his short and losing battle with HIV. So by the time I was 22, I’d decided we Ellises were good at surmounting the seemingly insurmountable. If we were destined to be tragic heroes, I dedicated myself to being the best tragic hero ever. The most noble single dad in all of single dad-dom.

Somewhere along the line I think I forgot that raising kids was a marathon and not a dash. I foolishly believed that conscientious parenting covered zero to five years, and with that good base, the kids were set for life. They’re in school now, my job is done, I tried to make myself believe.

The reality is that, as I write this, Ava will soon graduate from middle school, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt less prepared.

I should’ve known I was heading for trouble when Ava was 8. The wife of one of my best friends asked me how, when the time came, I would explain to Ava puberty and menstruation. Back then I thought I’d just consult what I always consult when I want to know more about something, but then I realized that doing a Web search on “training bra” and “menstruation” was not only ineffective but seemed like a great way to get Chris Hanson from “To Catch a Predator” breaking down my door.

So my friend’s wife urged me, when the time was right, to buy the American Girl book, “The Care and Keeping of You.” Being addicted to the near-instant gratification of Amazon’s one-click , and even though my daughter was only in the second grade, I immediately ordered it. Two days later I unzipped the cardboard envelope and pried off the shrink wrap — and the book fell open to a two-page spread of a cartoon vagina.

I instantly closed the book and haven’t touched it since. It wasn’t a total waste, however. Just last month I discovered that Ava had rediscovered it, but of course when I gingerly tried to quiz her on its contents, she offered only her name, rank and serial number. I was hurt. I realize that most daughters can’t talk about such things with most dads, but c’mon, me? The guy who makes her lunches for field trips? The guy who volunteers to run the Hot Wheels racing booth at the school fair? The guy who sits down for an hour every Sunday and conditions and detangles her magnificent hair?

Ava’s hair. A young black woman’s hair. Volumes have been written on those voluminous manes. I pride myself on my prowess wrestling with my little girl’s locks, yet for her middle-school graduation she wants braids. “You can do it, Daddy,” she told me. Flattered as I was, I’m afraid she’ll end up looking like she’d been electrocuted. I’m working on getting her mom up here from her home in Atlanta, not just to be there to watch her daughter march, but the day before to do her hair.

But there is another, more personal part of Ava growing up that has recently made me nervous. Two years ago, I wrote a book of creative nonfiction laying bare the most painful events of my nuclear family’s young life. I began the book, “Bedtime Stories,” when Ava was in the second grade, so there was no chance of her reading it. Now that she’s heading into the sixth, I’m petrified that I’ll come home and see her nose in the (sometimes steamy) pages.

Novelist Meg Wolitzer, daughter of novelist Hilma Wolitzer, wrote about this writer-parent dilemma in Salon five years ago. When a boy in her high school discovered that Meg’s mother had written a scene about a blowjob in her latest book, it instantly became the scandal of the school. My memoir is not only dirtier but also involves tough family secrets. While I tried my best not to make Ava’s mother my story’s villain, the question hangs there, nevertheless, between every line and piece of punctuation: Why did a woman walk out on raising her babies?

Amanda, my amazing girlfriend, is convinced that Ava will sometime soon open the book. I’m not so sure. Ava’s heart is as finely tuned as a Stradivarius. I think she intuits that at just 10 now, she’s still way too young to understand her father’s complicated, R-rated life. Kids are amazingly adept at self-preservation. Just because they can hear their parents going at it if they press their ear up against the bedroom wall doesn’t mean they necessarily want to.

Still, if I were writing the same book now, I know I’d greatly abridge the story of my recovery from divorce and learning to raise two little ones alone.

Maybe what I’m writing here is an explanation, an addendum, to what I wrote in the book — this time tailor-made for the most amazing little girl on the planet. Few things are more important to me than loving her through the difficult tween and teen years. As I wrote in the book, “Almost every woman whom I have ever dated has also had a troubled, contentious, aggressive relationship with their own fathers. Perhaps for me it’s a prerequisite. In my lowest points, when everything around me seems to be disintegrating, I terrify myself with the thought that my own little girl will one day stop loving me. After all there was a time when her mother looked at me the way Ava looks at me now.”

But I didn’t realize how much stronger my bond was with Ava than, I think, most dads have with their daughters, until I met Amanda. Amanda sometimes calls Ava my other girlfriend. Ava isn’t classically jealous. Around Amanda she’s been less jealous than her brother in general, but I do get the sense not only that am I her “best friend,” as she tells me daily while she squeezes her whole body against my arm, but that I’m also “her man.” It’s unbelievably cute to watch her just now as she begins to separate. She became addicted, instantly, to the “Twilight” books and it was so lovely to see in her the precise moment that she felt romantic love for another man. She is “Twilight’s” Bella Swan, and Edward the vampire is taking her away from me. She actually told me, “Don’t worry, Daddy.”

It’s hard to know what she will make of love, of mating. With my loving, long-term relationship with Amanda (we plan on marrying), I hope to model for Ava a counter-argument to the failed relationship that hatched her.

The more that I think about it, perhaps reading the book, when she’s ready, will answer some questions for her. Or at the very least it should be the start of something else: a pretty interesting conversation with a newly minted adult.

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter and assistant professor at Columbia University.

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, blogger and Assistant Professor at Columbia University. His new memoir is "Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood," from which this is adapted.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>