When I first saw the light of day, my parents were utterly stumped. I was supposed to be a boy and my high-pitched girly wails interfered with their well-laid plans. They only had one name picked out, Giacomo, in honour of my godfather, a famous soccer player and family friend. He and I were going to have a lifelong bond and a shared name.
With my sincere apologies to all the Giacomos out there, I am quite happy I came out willy-free and wasn’t stuck with a name I detest. My ever practical mother looked at the calendar and, as my birthday fell on St. Claudia’s day, she decided Claudia would do.
And thank god for small mercies – it could have been St. Apollonia.
My father’s disappointment didn’t last long. Just because I was a girl, it didn’t mean he couldn’t raise me the same way Giacomo would have been: an unlikely choice on the part of a very conservative man, but one Sheryl Sandberg would approve of. My childhood was marked by Sunday visits to every museum in town; books and education were encouraged; tennis and swimming lessons were inflicted while piano and ballet were prohibited (I still think the world missed out on an Italian Margot Fonteyn). I became a fan of basketball, tennis and Formula One racing, religiously watching matches on TV with my dad.
I was taken on business trips, given a lot of latitude and freedom and I grew up under the unspoken expectation I would take over his business one day. Then, I turned into a rebellious teenager and the independent mind my father had helped shape made other plans. I acquired knowledge of bone china, crystal and silver by osmosis, making me a snob on the matter to this day, but my interests lay elsewhere. As did my political views. Our family dinners were punctuated by screaming matches on the state of Italy, both of us entrenched in our positions and behind the pages of opposite side of the spectrum newspapers.
Suddenly, when I was in college, my father left my mom for another woman and I started hating him. Caught in the middle of a nasty and contentious divorce, my sister and I sided with my mother, the injured party, the weaker party. Matters were not helped by my father’s lackadaisical interest in our life. He was busy being in love, I suppose.
Years went by with very little communication between us, of the polite and non-committal variety when it couldn’t be avoided. To this day, I can’t claim to have a close relationship with my dad but, at least, it’s a warmer one, that takes into consideration his long illness, his attachment to his “new” wife and my more adult view that blame doesn’t lie squarely in one camp. It also acknowledges that I am my father’s daughter, whether that collides with the opinion I have of myself or not.
It’s widely believed that women tend to look for their father in the romantic relationships they form later in life, and my particular father shouldered the blame for all my unwise and disastrous choices of married men early in my adulthood. Cheap psychology at best, but my girlfriends and I liked to believe I was trying to recreate a pattern. The men I loved deeply, on the other hand, tended to be responsible to a fault and never of cheating ilk, so there goes that theory. Until: a gesture on their part, a choice of words or a hobby would remind me of my dad, in those better days of my childhood, when he would spend hours building model trains under my admiring eyes or elucidate a point of Italian history.
The relationship between fathers and daughters is indeed more complex and deeper than just a bunch of shared genes. Even absent fathers, or dads who did not attend to the minutiae of a little girl’s life, end up having a larger influence than we sometimes give them credit for. Their presence in our choices – and not just in matters of relationships – looms large. They influence our self-esteem, our core values, our financial outlook and our scale of priorities. It’s not an accident I always put my brain first, or that I would rather drive a sports car or that I ended up living in a house outside the city – all activities he preferred.
Hopefully, we learn from our parents’ mistakes. It took me a long time but I know I did, and it’s that perspective that made room for forgiveness and understanding. I ran from my father as far as I could and yet I grew up to be the strong-willed, opinionated, independent boy he always desired and that he never was.
To all dads out there, especially single ones, Happy Father’s Day.