Man with a power saw

Daddy’s Best Helper

By Shirley Jones


Daddy turns on the power saw and slices through the pine board, sawdust flying everywhere. We’re in the basement making shelves, and I’m pretending we’re a team, but we’re not. I’m just a ten-year-old girl squatting barefoot on the cold cement floor, waiting for orders.

I wish I could be Daddy’s best helper, but he likes my brothers better. He says women need to know their place, and I guess he means cooking and housework. I hate those things. I’d rather be blasting tree stumps in the pasture with him and my brothers. They pack big sticks of dynamite under the stump, light the fuse, then “run like hell” behind the barn before it blows to smithereens.

He studies the pine board like it’s the most important thing in the world. Why can’t he look at me like that sometimes?

Sawdust clogs my nose. I swallow hard, trying not to sneeze while he’s concentrating because he doesn’t like to be interrupted. Us kids never dare make noise during his favorite TV shows, either, because he can get really mad really quick.

I wish we were like Father Knows Best on TV. The father never yells and hits anyone, and the mother looks happy, even though she walks around in high heels all the time. I tried on Mommy’s once and when I grow up, I swear I’ll never ever wear those things.

Sometimes, I feel like our dog, Lady, who watches for scraps of food from the kitchen table. She’s good at grabbing them and running before Daddy kicks at her and yells, “You damned mongrel, get outta here.” The only time he notices her is when she’s doing something wrong, and that makes me sad.

 After class today, my favorite teacher, Miss May, told me I got an A in math, and she hugged me. No one ever hugs me, and it felt so strange, I pulled away.

I shiver and look at my toes. They’re blue, and feel like icicles. Will they snap off when I stand up?  

Daddy turns toward me and points across the room. “Get me that plane.” I jump up as fast as I can, grab it, and wade back through the thick sawdust. I like leaving a trail like the deer do behind the barn after a snowfall. 

I hand him the plane, proud I found it so fast. He looks at me— looks right at me—and smiles. “You’re a gentleman and a scholar.”

If I were Lady right now, my whole behind would be wagging. I walk back to my corner and wonder about things. Why did he call me a gentleman when I’m just a girl? And I don’t know what a scholar is, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that, either. Still, Daddy smiled at me, and I heard something kind in his voice—something like love.


Shirley Jones HeadshotShirley Jones is the author of Learning to Dance, a collection of original poetry. She’s been published in newspapers and magazines on a variety of topics from Chicago’s advertising industry to adventure travel.

 In 2022, two of her short stories won top awards from the Florida Writers Association. In cooperation with the Women’s Ad Club of Chicago, she produced and directed Inside Advertising, an educational film widely distributed to high schools throughout the country and is in the Library of Congress’ permanent collection.

Shirley enjoys writing, travel, Zumba, and hanging out with friends at her home in The Villages, Florida.

7 thoughts on “Daddy’s Best Helper”

  1. Marsha+Shearer

    Absolutely stunning. Heartbreaking. So few words that convey so much. Beautifully written.
    Takes a lot to make the tears flow, but Shirley’s words did it.

    I want/need to read more.

  2. Alvin M Stenzel

    That was painful to read. I was married to a young woman who had that problem, only worse. She was the oldest of three children and until she was about 11, she was her father’s favorite companion. She worked with him in his shop, and she helped just as described. She was so happy. Then, all of a sudden, at that delicate age, he was done with her. “You’re almost a woman now,” he told her. “Your place is in the kitchen.” He banished her from the workshop and never showed her any love ever again. He didn’t even want her to go to college, unless it was to get a husband.

    During my time with her, she was tortured. She suffered emotionally every day for the ten years we were together. Trips to see her mother (and her father) had her sick with worry for days before and after. I’ll leave out any more details.

    The only good news is that at some point after we parted, she did find another husband, had children, and seems to have led a good life. I am happy to hear that but have always been sad that I couldn’t help her myself. If you want a quick explanation of why we didn’t succeed, look up codependency.

  3. Shirley! You had me at bare feet on cold cement. You aptly portrayed being a dog and being your dad through the heart of a 10 year old girl. You’re an amazingly sensitive writer. Thanks for sharing!!

  4. On the farm at ten years old. Loved the setting through her innocent eyes. Why a father shows love, or a mother — gives praise, or not — guards emotions — are mysteries to a young heart hungry for love and affection. What explains it— the father? I don’t know—I don’t know. Could be anything. My family kept emotions under cover—bear-up, toughitout. Anyway, it hurts, and lasts, sometimes a lifetime, and might be repeated, or not.
    Thank you for your story Shirley

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