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Father Absence – Longing for What Never Was

Kate Campbell never really knew her father – and is still trying to understand him. We are happy to share this beautiful post that previously appeared on Kate’s blog.


Father Absence - Longing for What Never Was

Things get so muddled. Remembering is like pulling cold taffy from my reluctant brain. In my recollection, the day comes out stiff and sticky, only the light feels true. It was late morning on the marble stairs in front of my grandmother’s front door, the sun not quite at its apex, but high enough to fill the tunneled entrance to the house in Noe Valley with bright clarity.

I stood on the threshold, my father standing about six steps down, looking at me evened-up, eye-to-eye. I remember the warmth of the house behind me, the interior mix of muted yellows and greens, drawing away from the cool, crystal morning and his leaving.

He had a battered suitcase in his hand and tears on his cheeks. I remember thinking that he looked good out of bed, standing on his own, stronger than I’d imagined his long, thin form covered for so many years in the white chenille shroud of my parent’s bed. I hadn’t seen him standing in the light for a long time.

“Where are you going?” I asked and felt the churn of corn flakes and toast.


“Where?” I asked and braced for a lie, having learned long before I recognized the lesson and worried about the drinking, about the dank, sour places he used to go, before it made him weak and sick and he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, that I couldn’t trust his answers. Everything he said had to be weighed and analyzed to sort out the few grains of truth.

“Your grandmother says I have to get a job before I can come back.” His problem, our problem, sounded easy enough to fix.

“You can do that.” I heard the doubt in my voice, pulled the skirt of my homemade cotton play dress across my thighs, tried to reassure him. “You can work with horses, like you used to when I was little.” He locked his flat brown eyes on mine, shook his head.

“Well, you can drive a truck or fish. Remember when . . .”

“Kate, this is the city. No horses or fish in San Francisco.” He rested the suitcase on his knee like a lap desk, leaned forward, balanced on his elbows. “I will stay with friends, get a job. I’ll come back for you and we can get a horse . . . and rabbits. You can feed them. I’ll come get you and then we’ll go back to the farm, back to Marin.”

“But, you can live here. With me and Mom and Gram.” I cried, he offered a wadded expression, choked.

“Not anymore,” he said softly. “Think about what you want to name the horse.”

He lifted the suitcase from his knee, set it on the step, reached for me and kissed my forehead, hugged me until my shoulder blades touched. He turned and clutched the handle of the suitcase, his curly black hair disappearing at the bend in the tunnel. I ran to the window to look for him, to watch him go, but the sidewalk down the hill was bright gray and blank in late morning, a breeze bobbed the wiry red blooms of the bottlebrush tree that grew by the curb.

I waited then, for years. I went down the stairs, always expecting the pile of black curls to emerge from the tunnel’s bend, to color the white stucco, to move up the cold marble steps to meet me.

One day in April, when I was in junior high school, they called me into the living room and told me. He broke his neck in Tallahassee. At the window, that day, looking down, the light withered like dry cheese and the vivid red bottlebrush wept in the wind, its fractured filaments flying away.

Note: For 50 years, I did not know anymore about my father, never saw him again. I don’t know why, but five years ago I contacted the Leon County, Florida, Office of Vital Statistics to see if they had any record of my father’s death. They sent me the death certificate.

It said he died Nov. 26, 1963, four days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, about a week after I turned 14. Cause of Death: Apparent broken neck. Residence: Farm. Usual Occupation: Cowboy.

From The Fatherless Daughter Project: A Book, a Documentary, a Movement. Find out more online at The book “Fatherless Daughters” published Penguin Random House, will be released in the fall of 2015. Find out more at

How Father-Absence Can Affect A Girl As She Grows Into A Woman

  • Significant psychological distress
  • Childhood behavioral problems
  • Depression in adolescence
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Low self esteem
  • Earlier sexual activity and teen pregnancy
  • Feeling a void and holding silent emotions
  • Carrying anger, pain and resentment
  • Lowered academic performance, dropping out of school

“Weeping Bottlebrush” is included in Songs from the Caldera, Kate’s essay collection in progress.

Kate Campbell

In addition to writing fiction and poetry, Kate Campbell is an environmental and political writer. Her work appears regularly in newspapers and magazines throughout the West. She lives in Sacramento and publishes the Word Garden blog.

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Carol Graham

Monday 15th of June 2015

I am so blessed to have been extremely close to my father even though my parents were taken from my life far too young. I wept for you - realizing you did not have those kind of memories. I rejoiced for you - realizing you have been able to process and understand the effects it had on you and to help those who have experienced similar. I have observed many women as you have described them - growing up with out a father's presence and the negative impact it can have. I will share this post to those I believe will benefit.

Kate Campbell

Tuesday 16th of June 2015

Thanks for commenting, Carol, and for sharing this little glimpse into what it feels like to lose a father, how it leaves a longing that is never filled. I appreciate your compassion.

Nancy Lowell

Monday 15th of June 2015

This is a wonderful, clearly and well told story. I am familiar with that sort of waiting, and your portrayal was perfect.

Anne Parris

Monday 15th of June 2015

Kate, I was very touched by this story. Really beautifully written.

Kate Campbell

Monday 15th of June 2015

Thank you so much for taking time to comment on "Weeping Bottlebrush," my story about losing my father. It's a story I've waited a long time to write and publish, it's a story that puts a finger on my life-long feeling of shame and inadequacy. And, it's a story about an experience women all over the world will recognize. I'm privileged to put words to it. Thanks again for your kindness.

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