Daddy’s Gunslinging Daughter

marilyn monroe sings happy birthday

In 1962, when Marilyn was queen, Ina Chadwick could never keep her union-leader father’s attention—until she picked up a .22-caliber rifle.

—-

On August 5, 1962, just 18 months before my father would drink and medicate himself to death, he was on the dock of our lake house, giving his boat a tune-up. The sun was darkening his broad shoulders; his toolbox was open as he leaned over the outboard motor.

I inched up behind him to tell him what I had just heard on the radio: Marilyn Monroe was dead from an overdose. I watched as his wrench fell onto the gunwale. He slumped forward to cover his face. His broad back heaved, and then he wept.

♦♦♦

Three months earlier, my father had phoned from his office to ask me if I would accompany him to Madison Square Garden for John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday party. My mother couldn’t come, he said. She was boycotting the president’s rumored affair with Marilyn Monroe. And to top it off, “that husband stealer” was supposedly going to sing “Happy Birthday” onstage. In front of America.

I was ecstatic. Fifteen thousand important guests—and I, at age 15, was one of them. On the way to school with my father, I tried to discuss the event and its political importance. I wanted to make my daddy proud of my intellect.

The night of the party, I put a peroxide streak in my beehive hairdo. When Dad rang the buzzer from the lobby to let me know he was waiting in the car, I teetered to the curb in four-inch heels I had never worn before.

Walking into Madison Square Garden was intoxicating. Flashes of white ermine wraps and diamonds glittered around me. I tried to make out the faces of movie stars in the front rows, but all I saw were a zillion small heads bobbing in the dark. Daddy and his union buddies climbed the stairs to the balcony together; I trailed behind them, hobbling. No one turned around to see if I had fallen, or even if I was still there.

The men were lined up in the front row of the balcony. When Marilyn Monroe sashayed onto the stage, my father’s jaw went slack. She appeared to be naked. She had been sewn into a flesh-colored dress. There was no underwear to speak of.

My father leaned precariously over the railing. Watching Marilyn blink and flutter her fake lashes, I wanted to cry out, “Daddy! She’s pathetic!” But I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. As that breathy voice began to sing, the noise from the male audience was overwhelming.

I looked around me. These were important men, men with brains, hypnotized by a woman’s hip gyrations. For the first time, I understood the divide between the demure daughter I was and the women whose looks and actions caught the attention of grown men.

And not just grown men, but heroes—heroes like the president. Heroes like my father.

On the silent ride home I felt an insurmountable barrier growing between Daddy and me. His significance was increasing. He’d be an important man. And I, his daughter, standing in his shadow, would grow more anonymous, noticed by nobody.

♦♦♦

My father was “not the marrying kind,” but at age 40 he got hitched to my gorgeous torch-singer mother—shortly after getting her pregnant.

For a while, he’d been despondent after receiving a written rejection from the army for having high blood pressure. He had been dreaming of combat, not domesticity.

Though both of my parents knew how to find a doctor to end an unwanted pregnancy, my father got dewy-eyed at the prospect of having a son. My parents tied the knot at City Hall exactly seven months before their first child, my sister, was born.

My mother’s attempts to keep my father’s interest at the dining-room table and in the bedroom (festooned with chintz floral draperies and flouncy bed skirts) consistently failed. And then she gave birth to yet another frilly daughter: me.

I was the littlest and most girlie girl on the planet. I was a puzzle to my father, who treated me as if I were fragile as china. He discouraged my enthusiastic running jumps from across the room onto his belly while he was still sleeping. He cautioned me about paper cuts if I tried to sit in his lap while he was reading the Sunday Times.

I was the daughter with blonde ringlets, the one who wrote tormented love poems before age 12. As far as my father was concerned, I never picked up a baseball bat, never had a skinned knee. My mother scrubbed my dirty neck and sent me out to see him on weekends, all perfumed and powdered—not at all like the sturdy son Daddy would’ve loved.

Except for the late weeknights, when I took off his shoes and helped him stagger, drunk, to bed, he would squirm when I hugged him.

The older I got, the more uncomfortable Daddy became with my personality. As a teenager, I finally turned my attention to more accessible things, such as neighborhood boys. They were simple dolts, but they thought I was excitingeven if it was because my father had bodyguards and box seats at Yankee Stadium.

That summer in 1962, I hung around our lake house, lounging on the raft with my friends, concentrating on getting the perfect tan. Daddy came up on the weekends and puttered around. We rarely spoke.

The lake residents had been grappling all summer long with a festering cesspool at the back of the Chadwicks’ property. A family of beavers had dammed up an inlet. To get the critters out, my father went to Town Hall for a gun permit.

While Daddy had never seen the badges I won at camp, I was a Junior National Rifle Association marksman. When he put the gun permit on the dining-room table, I put my hand on it and boasted to him, “I could hit a slow, lumbering beaver with just one shot.”

My father seemed amused. He offered me the first crack at shooting them.

Later, waiting for dusk, we stood hip to hip on the flagstone steps at the front door. I hoisted the .22 onto my shoulder as soon as I saw an undulating mound of black mud at the end of the swamp. I don’t remember pulling the trigger, but I do remember the deafening explosion.

In the silence that followed, I rested the butt of the rifle down near my feet, and Daddy reached out as if he were going to tousle my hair, as if he were going to pull me close to him, and hug me, kiss me, praise me, do it all in one gesture that would make up for my 16 years of hunger for his sober attention.

But he stopped. “Didn’t know you had it in you, kid” was all he said. He reached to take the gun back into the house, to the rack where he kept it on display.

I smiled. I knew I should smile when I was successful. But moments later, I wound up in front of the toilet, retching. The horror of having killed a living thing—just to show Daddy what I could do—made me sob, made me vomit up the longing and the sorrow I’d been swallowing for too long.

It made me know I would have to stop trying to be what I wasn’t—whatever that was—or surely it would kill me.

—-

Read “Hush Money,” the first in this series, here.

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About Ina Chadwick

Ina Chadwick grew up in a highly controversial family structure, one where her father, a union leader who was never home, warned the children to “never tell tales out of school.” She had no idea what that meant, but her father’s union’s transcripts during the McCarthy era are up in her attic. She was too young to tell tales at that time. Now, years later, the tales are flooding back into her memory. And she can truthfully say that she is willing to tell them in her own way, and that every man she has ever flipped for has has some sort of addiction problem, just like her Dad, whom she worshiped. Visit her website.

Comments

  1. Terrific piece.

  2. Wonderfully written, you really drew me in. So good.

  3. This has to be a movie. This piece and its predecessor paint a painfully vivid picture. Keep it up Ina!

  4. Diane Effros says:

    Boy Oh Boy can this lady write!

  5. Jeff Klein says:

    Thanks for sharing those memories, Ina. For a petite one, you sure have a mighty pen.
    Miss you.

    Jeff

    • Funny thing, Jeff. You knew me then. Did we ever know the significance of the things we did. We were more interested in filling our lungs with helium from balloons and scaring the birds off their perches in the apiaries at Central Park Zoo. Those were meaningful capers!

  6. Christine Pakkala says:

    A beautifully written essay. I loved the contrast of high heels and hunting–both tools to attract the attention of her distracted father. The insight at the ending took my breath away.

  7. Fathers. Their ability to make us weep, no matter what we do, is captured so well in this piece. As is the incredible misogyny which was so prevalent then. But a writer who can bring these feelings to life is providing a way for others to understand their own relationship with their father.

  8. wow…….so well written, captivating, sad and soul bearing.
    Great work.

  9. No fat, no filler. Good, clean writing. Thank you!

Trackbacks

  1. albert says:

    albert…

    excelent post, keep it coming…

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