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Beyond a father's expectations

My father was married for the third time last month. This makes him sound a good deal more Liz Taylorish than is accurate or fair. He is, happily, a good man who loves women and who, sadly, has had two wives die of cancer. Our eldest child wanted to tell the bride, a warm and intelligent woman we liked instantly, that there was a curse on Grandpop.

But there was a blessing on him, really, and that was that he has been able to learn from death and grief the most useful lesson they can teach, the value of life and happiness. He has taught me that, too, as he has so many other things.

I was raised as my father's oldest son. I have always known how to fish, and I have always known how to talk back. My father required of a fully developed human being that she have exhaustively studied both Max Shulman and Machiavelli, Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong, that she never, ever, call N'Orlins New Or-leeens or Philadelphia Philly. His motto was "winners need not explain." He treated B's as if they were F's. He was fast and funny; if you couldn't keep up, you got left.

I kept up.

I was lucky in many ways. I've heard about the men who treat the birth of girl children as something only slightly better than a death in the family. I've read about Elizabeth Barrett and the poor Brontes. If you look in the index of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for the word "father," there are two full columns of entries. But a large number of those are references to God.

My father exercised only the tyranny of his expectations, but it was tyranny enough. And then, not so many years ago, I realized that, like a heart transplant after the rejection phase, his expectations for me had become my own. And I stopped valuing myself by how my father valued me. I know from literature and life that that is perhaps the greatest passage that human beings ever make.

In her novel The Lost Father, Mona Simp-son writes of one woman's odyssey to find the parent who had abandoned her. "I decided if I ever saw him again he would not be my father, but just a man," she says. But of course it is not really her father she is looking for at all, but herself. "I'm still looking, just not there," she concludes after the father has been found, and found wanting.

"There's an axiom in Zen Buddhism that goes something like this," the novelist Mark Leyner said when his father was being honored at a testimonial dinner. "Before you study Zen, a mountain is just a mountain; while you study Zen, a mountain is more than a mountain; when you've finished studying Zen, a mountain is just a mountain."

I confess that this is the first Zen wisdom that has ever seized my fancy instantly. My father is just a mountain to me now, a man and not a mirror. This enables me to love him as I never could when I saw only my own splayed reflection in the lenses of his glasses. His expectations were hard on me, but they took me places I would never have gone otherwise. A curse, a blessing, all in one. We might as well have a universal support group: Adult Children of Parents.

I have never understood those people who believe it is possible to cut the ties that bind without taking a big chunk out of yourself. My first word was Bob, which is my father's name. Perhaps it was when I had children myself that I lost the habit, carried well into adulthood, of seeing him through a child's eyes.

I was less the daughter of the groom at his wedding than I was the mother of the flower girl, worried more about whether she would lift her flowered skirts over her head during the ceremony than how I felt about yet another woman in my father's life. My father says my daughter is much like me when small. And my daughter loves her daddy so. And so it goes, has always gone, will always go.

New York Times News Service