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A Tale of Two Father FIgures

The lessons I learned from one ultimately led me to the other...

By Morgan Rhianna BlandPublished 2 years ago 10 min read
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“All I wanted was to be loved for myself.” That is a quote from The Phantom of the Opera, and it’s something that every human being wants. We want to believe that our society is a caring, accepting place, and it is for some of us, namely those whose true self aligns with social norms. But what about the rest of us, the Phantoms of this world who look, think, or act in a way that defies convention?

For many of us, being loved for ourselves becomes an unattainable hope. We face a choice between donning a mask of normalcy for the sake of companionship or resigning ourselves to a life of rejection and loneliness, desperately hoping someone will see something worthwhile in our eccentricity. I’ve been blessed to have two such people in my life. Two men from two vastly different backgrounds on two different paths in life, two father figures who showed me the same compassion and acceptance.

One was on my side from the moment I entered this world until the moment he left it. The other entered my life in the most random way possible at a time when I needed him most. One made me who I am today. The other reminded me that being who I am isn’t a bad thing. The lessons I learned from one ultimately led me to the other.

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All my life, people have told me, “You’re just like your father.” More often than not, it was meant in a less than complimentary way. My dad was, to put it politely, a nonconformist. While other Southern men held conservative beliefs, he was an outspoken liberal. While other men’s lives revolved around football season, he rejected sports in favor of more scholarly pursuits. Other men gave their daughters trendy names like Hailey or Lindsay or biblical ones like Sarah or Rachel. He named me Morgan Rhianna, after Morgan Le Fay, the witch of Arthurian legend, and Rhiannon, the Celtic goddess. The spelling of the middle name was changed at my mom’s insistence to avoid association with the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name.

A mystical-sounding name and nonconventional political beliefs weren’t all that my dad passed down to me. I also inherited his light hair, steely blue eyes, and love of reading. Since I can remember, our bond involved books. When I was little, he used to read me stories until I learned to read by myself. I still remember the first book I read. It was a Cinderella Little Golden Book. I was three years old, and my dad was so proud that I could read at such an early age.

The highlight of my week was going to the library with my dad on his day off from work. We would go our separate ways, he to the adult fiction and I to the children’s area, to peruse the shelves and return home with an armful of books apiece. My first library selections were picture books, usually ones about animals. As I grew, so did my reading ability, and I graduated to chapter books. My favorites were historical fiction series like American Girl , Dear America, and Little House on the Prairie. Then when I hit middle school, it was Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. By the time I started high school, I was reading books that my dad had read himself long ago, and we would carry on intellectual debates about classic works of literature, to the confusion of anyone else who happened to be within earshot.

My dad would time his library trips around the school day so I could tag along. On the rare occasion that I couldn’t be with him, he would bring back a book that he thought I’d like or he’d share his books with me, as we had similar tastes in literature. Sometimes he would read a library book on his own first, then give it to me when he was done and ask me what I thought about it. Other times, we would read the same book at the same time. My mom would find our library books scattered throughout the house, and the sight of the two bookmarks - Dad’s cheap cardboard one and my fancier, store-bought one - sticking out sometimes only pages behind each other often made her laugh.

Our shared love of books didn’t stop at the library. Every time I went to the mall with my dad, our first stop was the bookstore, where I’d always spend some if not all of my allowance on new books. Books were a regular part of gift-giving between us. Every Christmas and birthday, at least one of our gifts was always a book. I’d pick out a book I thought he’d like and buy it behind his back to surprise him or when I didn’t have money, I’d write stories and make my own book to give him. The books he gave me always had to do with whatever interest I had at the time. Sometimes, there was no special occasion, and he’d surprise me with a book just because.

Once when I was nine, I came home from school to find three Titanic-related books waiting for me. One was a historical book with firsthand accounts of the sinking and a map of the ship. The second was a book about the making of the movie; the third was a magazine about Leonardo DiCaprio. Then one time in seventh grade, he gave me a copy of Sense and Sensibility because I’d just seen the movie and wanted to compare it to the book. When I was in high school, he brought home a magazine he saw at the grocery store checkout lane because it featured interviews with Johnny Depp and Avril Lavigne, of whom I was a huge fan. Before he passed, one of the last things he gave me was a nice hardcover edition of Dracula because my well-worn paperback one had finally fallen apart.

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My dad always encouraged my love of books, no matter what it was that I wanted to read. Be it fairytales, poetry, celebrity biographies, Spider-Man comics, or even the brief Twilight phase I went through. If he didn’t already know the books that interested me, he was willing to learn either by reading them himself or by asking me questions, which is more than I can say for most people. I learned the hard way that the love of books he instilled in me was a double-edged sword. Although it brought me closer to my dad, it also alienated me from people my own age.

I have no idea what schools are like in other parts of the world, but in Tennessee in the 1990s-200s when I grew up, it was frowned upon to be a nerdy bookworm. Not only was I a nerdy bookworm, I was a liberal, nonreligious, fat, disabled, aroace nerdy bookworm. My life interests and life experiences were so far apart from my peers that there was no common ground between us. Try as I might, I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t relate to me.

So I found the companionship I lacked in - where else - books. I found myself drawn to a specific character type, what some would refer to as the dark brooding guy. As that moniker suggests, they were usually men, as I found most female protagonists too emotional, self-absorbed and romance-obsessed to be relatable. They were intelligent, tortured, wayward souls, more often than not with tragic backstories, outcasts who didn’t fit into normal society, much like myself.

A lot of people would tell a kid like that to dumb herself down, to hide herself to fit in with the crowd. A lot of people, usually teachers, did tell me that, but not my dad. He never once made me feel like I had to be normal to be liked. Quite the contrary, he always used to tell me, “You shouldn’t give a pinch of camel [crap] what other people think of you.” Unfortunately, that’s something easier said than done. When he was alive, it was easy to detach from societal pressure because I knew that even if the rest of the world shunned me, my dad would still be on my side. That changed when he died.

When I lost him, I lost my reading buddy. I lost the only unconditional acceptance I’d ever known. More importantly, I lost part of myself. Without him on my side, I no longer had the option of not caring what people thought of me. I was afraid that if I didn’t at least try to conform to society’s expectations, I would end up all alone in the world. With no one left in my life who shared my affinity for reading, I had to put my bookish tendencies aside and put on the mask of a dumb blonde who cared more about lipstick and lesiurewear than literature. For ten long years, I kept up that mask… until Father Figure #2 entered the picture.

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While my dad introduced me to the worlds of books, this man brought those worlds to life in a way I’d never seen before. I came upon his work completely by accident at the height of the COVID pandemic, and I was blown away by what I saw. The type of characters he brought to life were exactly the dark broody sort to which I gravitated, and through his work, I rediscovered the kinship I had with these characters and in a way, rediscovered the kinship I once had with my dad.

Finding someone else who not only knew my favorite literary characters but appreciated them as I did inspired me to not only rekindle my love of books but also to turn that love into an art form. An art form which I shared with him on the night I met him. I had no idea how he would react, so I prepared myself for the blank stares and eye rolls I usually got when I made the mistake of talking about books. Despite everything, I tried to keep up the facade of a shallow emotionless bimbo, but he saw through that in a heartbeat. Even more surprisingly, he tried to understand me and accept me as I am.

It didn’t click until much later, but I realized that he reminds me a lot of my dad. I see it in his intellect, his concern for the world around him, and his kindness and patience with me, despite my awkwardness. I see it in the way he comforted me when I was a nervous wreck around him and in the way he goes out of his way to acknowledge and encourage me. I see it in the way his eyes lit up, like those of a proud father, when I told him that I’d turned my art into a business and made my first sale.

I don’t make a habit of comparing people to my dad, nor is it something I take lightly. I’ve never said that about anyone before and don’t expect to ever again, but this man went above and beyond to earn it. He was the only person since I lost my own father to accept me without the expectation that I dumb myself down first, and that gave me hope that others might accept me as well. Although the fear is still in the back of my mind that the day will come that he’ll shun me once he sees just how dark and different I really am, my mask falls a bit more with each interaction, exposing more of my true self. Although what he thinks of me remains to be seen, I can say with a degree of certainty that he is the closest thing to a dad I have left, and that is the highest compliment I can bestow upon anyone.

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About the Creator

Morgan Rhianna Bland

I'm an aroace brain AVM survivor from Tennessee. My illness left me unable to live a normal life with a normal job, so I write stories to earn money.

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