King Triton & the Little Mermaid: Fathers, Daughters & Weddings
by Melissa D’Agostino
I watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid last week for the first time in decades as research for my show BroadFish. As the opening sequence began several things occurred to me:
a) The themes in this movie are seriously fucked up (Don’t get me started on Ursula the Sea Witch. Don’t.)
c) This was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theatre, and I went with my Father.
As I continued to watch King Triton rage against his daughter’s wishes and use all of his force to ‘protect’ her, including the destruction of her cave of treasured human possessions, it occurred to me how strange it is that my first cinematic experience with my Dad was this very traditional and patriarchic view of Father/Daughter relationships. Because ours is definitely not that.
My Father and I share a lot – we have the same eyes – they droop a bit. We share a name: his name is Francesco (Frank) so they gave me the middle name Francesca as a tribute. And we share a deep appreciation for a cleverly timed one-liner. My Dad is a gentle, lovely, kind soul that will surprise you. One day he was driving me home from dance class and the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly was on the radio. Imagine my surprise when my quiet, introverted Father started singing out ‘One time’…’Two times’ along with Wyclef Jean.
He’s one of a kind.
My Father was never a blustery, over-protective, Alpha-male Dad. I always knew he loved me and wanted the best for me, and he was fairly easygoing about my choices. I always felt that he trusted me. I never felt pressure to be a certain kind of daughter for him.
That said, I did always picture him walking me down the aisle, if I ever decided to get married. And I certainly always pictured dancing with him at my wedding. There were traditions I wanted to preserve and those were two of them.
When it came to planning our wedding, Matt and I decided not to get married in a church. This was a challenging decision to make for me. Not because I’m religious — I parted ways with the Catholic Church many years ago for many reasons, and though I remain a spiritual person, I do not follow a particular doctrine, most especially Catholicism. And my fiancé Matt is an Athiest, so getting married in a church seemed like a lie, and I didn’t want to start out this new phase of our relationship with any ritual that wasn’t based in our ideals.
But it was a ritual that had happened in my family as long as I can remember, and I didn’t know how my family would react to it.
I had to really consider what I believed in.
At one point in my decision-making process I asked my Dad if he would be disappointed if he wasn’t walking me down the aisle of a church, but instead walking me down an aisle in a secular location. He didn’t seem to mind, but then there were other elements of this ritual that were on his mind.
My Dad has Multiple Sclerosis. He walks with a cane, and often has trouble with his balance, and one of his legs in particular is very difficult to control. This is a fairly new diagnosis, so his symptoms have progressed rather quickly. I knew when we started talking about him walking me down the aisle that there were many emotions coming up for him. It would never look like what he had pictured when I was growing up, because things are very different for him now.
We always talked about dancing a tango should I ever get married: my Dad was a fantastic dancer, having trained in all the social ballroom dances when he immigrated to Canada. Watching he and my Mother dance at weddings was a real treat. Would he be able to dance now? If he couldn’t, how could we create a special moment between us? How do we not get stuck in the fact that we can’t do this ritual the way we always pictured it, and instead focus on what we can do to celebrate the moment?
Truthfully, I was surprised just how much this affected me emotionally. I’m usually really good at adapting to a situation, and seeing the benefit of a challenge; rising to the occasion. But, it’s been heartbreaking to watch my wonderfully energetic Father lose mobility, and lose some of his effervescent spirit.
I’ve noticed that when we discuss the topic, there is a sadness around it, like we’re sitting in the reality of the past, wishing that we were back at a time when my Dad was able to walk independently and trip the light fantastic. We’re Southern Italian – we like nostalgia, we like drama, and we find it easy to see the bruise on the apple. Take us or leave us!
Very recently, however, I had to make a real choice to fight that urge and see the positives of this situation.
The wonderful thing is that my Dad can share in these rituals. They may not look like the traditional Father/Daughter dance or walk down the aisle. They may not happen in a church. They may be filled with mixed emotions and vulnerability in a way we never anticipated. But they can happen, and that isn’t the case for everyone. I am grateful for what is still possible.
I recently saw these beautiful images of a daughter and her father, who is in a wheelchair and how they made these rituals work.
And I’ve had several friends suggest wonderful ideas, like dancing for a few shorter dances if my Dad’s stamina isn’t great, or dedicating a song to Fathers/Daughters should things progress and make dancing difficult.
The interesting thing about planning an event like a wedding — an event that has so many cultural and societal rituals and expectations, is that it has helped me clarify what is truly important to me, and what is truly important to us as a couple.
The truth is that anything is possible, and that the joy of bringing families together is the creation of new rituals, and the celebration of all that is hopeful and positive about love and family.
And whatever these rituals look like on my wedding day, I know they will feel incredibly special, and full of love.
I’d love to hear about your experiences – @melissadags