My parents did not name me Penelope, I did. Penelope isn’t my official name, she is one of my parts. Penelope was born out of my need to cope with feelings of fear toward my Dad, when I just didn’t know how to connect with him. Penelope is my trickster protector—she wants me to be brave, but helps soften the edges a bit. She coaxes with childish whimsy, kicking my pants with her clown shoes. I know in my heart Dad did the best he could. As for the wounds that remain–sometimes like scabs, that just beg to be picked–I accept them as a part of me, albeit I would really love them to fade away completely like a bruise, because I love my dad and I think he would feel sad and ashamed if I admitted to him that I had felt this way, and still do at times, even in my forties.
I read once that I fit a profile called a “highly sensitive person,” one whose response to stimuli is reactive and vulnerable. My melodrama-scabs are not literal and I wasn’t burned or physically abused by my father— he lacked in the ability to be tender or gentle–qualities we HSP’s need while developing our emotional control panel. He was an earnest provider for our family. He worked more than one job, while taking classes too so he could finish his bachelor’s degree. He was tall and imposing, with large hands and broad shoulders. His working hands always looked swollen, like generous sausages filling the casing. He worked on cars in the garage, cut plywood and drywall so he could finish our home that he himself built.
We feared the hands when they started swinging—usually over the front seat of the car to the back seat where we squirmed and cajoled each other. My brother and I knew we better shape up when the mammoth hand flew over the seat—sliding to inner and outer edges of the seat, as the hand smacked upholstery instead of fleshy legs or arms, staying just out of reach, a cat-and-mouse bit that served only to frustrate him more. Not that we wanted to be smacked, but we took some pleasure in the blind searching of his hand while he tried to keep his eyes on the road. It was not quite as exhilarating as taunting our grandparents’ cat, Mittens, who hated us and when cornered under my grandparents bed would resort to whacking our hands in cartoony-fast thwaps.
Dad worked daily in his garage, shelter from the reality of an overwhelming life of being parent to 4 kids. Before we had a phone extension out there, we would rock-scissor-paper our way out of having to be the messenger if a phone call came for him. WHAT do you WANT?! He would bellow from beneath the chassis he worked on. Later, he got an extension out there, but I never understood why, because interrupting his process served only to infuriate and annoy him. If the phone was allowed to ring more than 2 or 3 times, he would inevitably lumber to the phone, answer and terrify the caller, because they were sure to hear, “HELLO!!!!” roaring like a grizzly, volume stretched above his stereo and engines. Everyone knew this was the reality if you had to call our house. Our friends were either terrified or amused by his antics, depending on their previous exposure to his cursing and bellowing.
Calling the house inspired major dread for me. Of course this was pre-cell phone time, so I couldn’t just choose who I called specifically. Calling home from a friend’s house, so I could ask for a ride, would summon boiling gut-acid. If Dad answered the phone, I hung up; couldn’t face it and I didn’t dare try again—I would do anything possible to delay making the call again–I’d find a ride, or walk. When I went away to college, I was homesick and really missed my mom, but I continued to hang up if Dad answered. His greeting never changed— he had no idea back then if it was me, no caller ID. So I would call and pray that my mom would answer and thankfully, most of the time she did.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was really bored with the phone call game, tired of hearing his annoyed barking, when in fact I wouldn’t have minded a conversation with my dad. I couldn’t reconcile the startled emotions I felt when considering telling him off. So one day, I braced myself and prepared for the inevitable retort when the lines connected. I managed to stomp my foot and say, “hello.” “WHO IS IT?” he yelled, channeling his inner Archie Bunker. “Well……. it’s …..Penelope,” I offered hopefully. Pause. Surprisingly I heard him laugh with surprise–I took him off his guard, reduced the churn of annoyance that so often led his responses. “Well well well, Penelope who?” he mused and I laughed too, relieved by the way this was going. We actually talked for a few moments until gruffly he said, “OK, talk to your mom.”
To this day, when I get a message from my Dad to call him back, my first reaction is that child-remembered dread, a slight jolt as the contents of my stomach take a little tilt. With slight delay–it depends on my vulnerability on a given day– I return the call and wait for his answer, which is much less barky these days. His “bellow” has “mellowed” over the years. He still asks, “who is it?” when he answers and my reply remains “It’s Penelope.” One of my sibs may have told him why I address myself as Penelope on the phone—he’s never asked me why though. I’m sure a part of him understands down deep, that it would be ok for him to be a little vulnerable…but Penelope is my part, she helped me be vulnerable enough and I love her.