The Madonna Timeline: Song #93 – ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – Fall 1986


{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Papa, I know you’re going to be upset,
Cause I was always your little girl,
But you should know by now
I’m not a baby…

1986 ~ When Mom told me and my brother that our paternal grandmother had died, Dad was already at work. Yes, the day after he found out his mother was dead, he had to go to work, because when you’re a doctor you can’t always call in sick or bereft, especially when another life hangs in the balance. All through the day I pondered if he was all right. Having never seen my father cry, I wondered if he would. When he returned from work, I watched him walk into the family room like usual. There was none of the excitement that occasionally accompanied him home, just a slightly downtrodden look to him. I wanted to go up to him and hug him, but he’d never been that kind of man, and in the strict Catholic upbringing we had, I wasn’t that kind of boy. Instead, I think I did my best and uttered a heartfelt ‘I’m sorry’ when I finally got over my shyness.

The next day, we took him to the airport to make the long journey back to Philippines to bury his mother. I remember he wanted gum for the plane rides, so his ears wouldn’t pop. I had never met his mother. In fact, the only grandparent I ever knew was my Mom’s mother. Because of that, I held her a little closer to my heart. Grandparents were a luxury to me, and I listened with envy to tales of other kids seeing their grandma or grandpa every weekend or, fantasy of fantasies, having them live in the same house. As much as I cherished solitude, I longed for a large family on the periphery.

We hugged him good-bye, drove back home, and began the long wait for him to return.

You always taught me right from wrong
I need your help, Daddy, please be strong
I may be young at heart
But I know what I’m saying…

On an afternoon a few days later, the sun came in through my brother’s bedroom window spotlighting the tiny particles of dust in the air. My brother was outside somewhere, and I was alone. I shuffled idly through his cassettes, moving them out of the direct sunlight. Madonna’s ‘True Blue’ was still in its case. (Amazing fact: my brother is the one who bought the ‘True Blue’ album first.) I popped it into the tape player and the opening strings sounded. I’d heard it on the radio, and started to sing along, still not putting together what all the words meant.

The one you warned me all about
The one you said I could do without
We’re in an awful mess
And I don’t mean maybe…
Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep
Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby.

I didn’t quite know what the song was about. I was only ten, and ten-year-olds in 1986 were far less advanced and worldly than ten-year-olds today. But I did sense the note of rebellion, the cries against a father’s advice, and for some reason I couldn’t listen anymore. I quickly stopped the tape. For the first time ever I silenced Madonna.

My thoughts returned to Dad, who was somewhere in the Philippines now, at the funeral of his mother, and hearing Madonna tell a fictitious father not to preach seemed disrespectful. The fierce but veiled protectiveness I have always felt towards my family reared its overcompensating (and often nonsensical) head. (I once took great offense at a girl who mentioned that the milk I brought in for lunch – the milk that was packed by my Mom – was made at her Dad’s plant, as if she was somehow attacking my Mom and taking away from something she had done for me.)

The slightest bit of talk-back-to-your-parents defiance seemed ill-timed then, and I shut off ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ for the rest of the week that Dad was away. It felt like I’d be jinxing his safe return if I played something like that. I can’t explain it. At least, I can’t explain it well. Who knows, maybe such childlike rules made a difference. More likely they were just a waste of worry and concern for a ten-year-old. Whatever the case, Dad returned from the Philippines intact. He brought us back the miniature amenities from the plane – the neatest gifts to us kids. I studied him from a slight distance, wondering how something like this would change him, but couldn’t discern any distinctive differences. He had always been hard to read, at least for me.

He says that he’s going to marry me
We can raise a little family
Maybe we’ll be all right, it’s a sacrifice…

When Mom was going to school at night, Dad would be the one to tuck us in. On one evening, when I was missing her, I had dabbed some of her perfume on my neck, and as he tucked me in he said I smelled nice. Out of everything I had done to try to get his attention over the years – and out of all the convoluted ways in which I would attempt to gain his love in the future – it was my mother’s perfume that elicited one of the moments of affection I remember most fondly.

My father never talked to me about girls (and certainly not about boys). In fact he never talked to me about much. He taught his greatest lessons through example. A hard worker. A loyal husband. A good provider. Love wasn’t expressed or talked about, and rarely shown. He was not raised that way. As a child, that’s sometimes tough to understand or take. As an adult, I can understand a little better.

But my friends keep telling me to give it up
Saying I’m too young, I oughta live it up
What I need right now is some good advice…

In some ways, it’s rather befitting that this song from 1986’s ‘True Blue’ album should so remind me of my father. It was, according to some, a metaphor of Madonna’s own ambivalent relationship with her father, masked in a fictional narrative about a girl getting pregnant and seeking her father’s love and approval over scolding and punishment. She would more directly address the theme in 1989’s ‘Oh Father’, but back then ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ was a more-than-compelling study of parent-child relationships, and let’s face it ~ like it or not ~ they form the basis of the people we will one day become.

My rebellion wouldn’t begin for a few years. For now I was still under the authority and ambivalent auspices of my father. Defiance was too far ahead for me to realize its worth.

Daddy, daddy if you could only see
Just how good he’s been treating me
You’d give us your blessing right now
Cause we are in love
We are in love…

That year ~ 1986 ~ I loved my father as I always would ~ unconditionally, helplessly, trepidatiously, hesitantly, earnestly, wistfully, willfully, reservedly, all-encompassingly… and it was unthinkable, as much as I might sometimes disagree with him, to ever tell him not to preach. My life-long dance with Madonna, which had just begun, found us – for the moment – at opposite ends of the ballroom.

Yet I was drawn to the song. It haunted me, calling from the future ~ from a time when I finally realized that parents weren’t perfect, a time when parents let their children down, a time when a father could be ashamed of his son. But that time hadn’t quite arrived, and I unknowingly – blissfully – basked in the final vestiges of the love that childhood protected. At the very least, I would always have that. I wasn’t quite ready to let that go, because when you lose the love of a parent, there’s nothing that ever makes up for it.

Don’t you stop loving me, Daddy…
Song #93 – ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – Fall 1986
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