Dad Was Always There for the Big Stuff

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My dad was always there for the big stuff, like my brothers graduation from Chiropractic College. He was also at the after party held at the house I grew up in with my mom, after she split from Dad in the late 60’s.

Steph and Dad

Stephanie Cenedella with her dad, John Viggos

The party took place on an early June night in 1995, a warm one for Iowa, so we comfortably sat on the back deck in celebration. Mom and Dad hadn’t been on the best of terms for more than a decade but that night was different. They put their differences aside for my brother.

Dad was very proud of my brother’s accomplishment, he beamed all night. He was excited for what was ahead and the endless possibilities.

As for me, my life had taken a turn in the last five years. At 25 I’d divorced after a short 18-month marriage. I was devastated with shame because I couldn’t make it work and because I let myself get into the situation in the first place. But it was Dad who was my rock when I needed one most.

He said, “If you aren’t happy you need to go.” Period. He held me as my emotions unraveled. It made me look at him differently. I quickly realized he knew something about making difficult choices to become happy, to be true to yourself.

The picture of my Dad and me is from my brother’s party that night. I was so happy that Dad was my dad. It hadn’t always been that way. At 13 I uncovered Dad’s gay secret and for many years to follow I receded into my own sort of shadow, afraid someone might find out about Dad’s truth. I loved many facets of my crazy, zany, loving Dad, but soon began to understand his complexities. I didn’t know how to navigate his unconventional layers that society labeled taboo.

As Dad showed me what it was to be a supporting, loving father those embarrassing labels began to melt into the background.

At this party I took him in fully, I was as proud of him as I could be, as proud as I was of my brother, for his accomplishments. I was proud for who they both had become.

A highlight of the evening was when my mom and Dad began to dance on the back deck after dark. Dad took Mom by the hand and whirled her about the small confines of the wooded space. When they were young they loved to dance, I’d heard rumblings of such blissful times. As he swung her around they smiled and moved together so naturally. I never thought I’d see such a moment between them.

Through the years there had been so much pain in our lives, so much desperation and disappointment because of divorce, because Dad was gay, because we had little support from society. But in this graduation party moment Dad was my hero, a grounding force that completed my family. That said, I was comforted that we were in the safe confines of our back-deck space and that I didn’t have to fear judgment from onlookers, I didn’t worry about negative labels. I simply loved that as a family we could take in my brother’s achievement.

This was in 1995 when plenty of people might easily charge my dad with being irresponsible, being second-class, being disgusting. It was the time when AIDS was not only prevalent but the heated hot button of the moment. Little did I know HIV/AIDS was about to surface in a big way for me, become another tangle in my family web.

But that night all possible negativity felt a million miles away. In my eyes Dad was the love of my life.


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  1. Such a lovely memory, Stephanie. Such a sweet evening for your family. It reminds me that my parents loved to dance, too, and I have the last photo of them dancing together at their 50th high school reunion. This is a beautiful piece, thank you.

  2. Laura Hall says:

    Because of your dad’s difficult journey in accepting his own true self, he was able to light the way for you to yours. What a sweet, tender story, Stephanie. Thank you for sharing it.

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