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26 Oct 2018 00:00
Limits: Alanis Morissette reminds us there are complications in seeking out the familiar in relationships. Photo: Gallo Images
I never “met” my first love. I showed up one day in January and he was there like the horizon.
There was no “Hello, how do you do?” He was just there.
We had a sorry-looking wooden table of unknown origin where we truly loved each other.
As soon as the more professional drums signalling the news on ZBC would sound, playtime was over and it was time to leave the big guy to Zimbabwean politics and analysis. I would plop on to him, settle my head on his belly to listen for “dad sounds” as he chatted with my mother about the big and the small of the world. Eventually I’d struggle against my drifting mind and fall asleep to the low timbre of his voice.
I’m older and no less shrieky but our ritual is different.
I don’t have a belly pillow to listen to or drool on, but I have something just as crucial. Now he reads everything I write and offers critique, encouragement and help. Now he talks to me like a grown woman and trusts me with his world, big and small. I am grateful and I feel safe. Sometimes I’ll stutter-step when I realise as I age, so too does he. One day he will be gone. That’s just what it is. His kind eyes will not brim with silliness nor will he dance in the corridor to make my mum laugh. He won’t be there to nod as though he understands what I do for a living or what the other hot mic is. He won’t be there. And every time this thought flitters into my mind I remember a song.
The year was 1999 and, in her first live album, the personification of raw emotion was on an MTV Unplugged session alternating between four instruments: her voice, a guitar, a flute and a harmonica. Other versions of MTV Unplugged had come before hers, but there was only one other that was as searing in its intensity, from a group of guys from Seattle. One of those guys would be found less than a year later with a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
It makes sense that one of Alanis Morissette’s most vocally challenging songs would be so loaded with purpose and meaning even in its simplicity.
“Please be philosophical/ Please be tapped into your femininity/ Please be able to take the wheel from me/ Please be crazy and curious/ Papa love your princess so that she will find loving princes familiar/ Papa cry for your princess so that she will find gentle princes familiar.”
In her set, Morissette belted out one of the most bracing examples of the importance of the first relationship many of us have been privileged to have: our first love. Princes Familiar describes how the bedrock of some of our romantic relationships are built on the love between a father and a daughter.
For a chronic daddy’s girl this song is especially important.
At first, this daughter seeks in a man the qualities she admires in her father. Qualities that she believes she will recognise because they are familiar. I can understand how looking for a lee in a man who reminds me of my dad makes sense, or thinking that I would be more discerning because of the treatment I have enjoyed and thus become accustomed to.
But that’s not how it works.
“Please be a sexaholic/ Please be unpredictably miserable/ Please be self-absorbed much (not the good kind)/ Please be addicted to some substance.”
There is a point when Morissette reminds us there are limitations. Even with the best of dads, sometimes we get sucked into harmful situations by trying to “make” our partners, despite knowing better. After failure comes the kind of acceptance that happens when we forget who we are and what we would not tolerate just to feel loved. It is also a strong message to fathers: if you don’t familiarise your baby girl with what a good man is, she is unlikely to seek out healthy relationships.
“Please be strangely enigmatic/ Please be just like my…”
The last line, “please be just like my”, is unfinished because, as in life, never the twain shall meet. No one will ever be a facsimile of our fathers and will continually disappoint us and fall short of the standard he set. The standard, though protective, is also confining and unfair. It’s a point of realisation as well, an epiphany, a moment of clear-eyed understanding. Almost as if she is surprised to find that she seeks a man just like her father.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s online editor. Read more from Kiri Rupiah
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