A Darker Kind of Dad…
September 2, 2013
Circa Summer, 1989
Her name was Sarah.
She was 11… perhaps 12.
She was bright, and intelligent, and had a smile that could make a halogen bulb hide itself in shame.
Her parents were good people. They had married very young, and had Sarah right off.
And while they were good to Sarah, and were in all ways good parents, they had never really put their partying days behind them.
As my wife at the time and I struggled to have children and become parents, we would often “kidnap” her for a Saturday afternoon. This afforded her parents the time to get their party on, and hang with their single friends who still liked to cut loose. It afforded us the opportunity to play at being parents while we waited for the magic to happen to us.
On this summer day we were bound for the big amusement park.
Sarah had an adventurer’s heart, and bore the lines and the heat with her usual bright smile. At one point she hauled me over to the bumper cars. The line was unusually long. As we waded through the twisting maze of velvet ropes, we questioned Sarah relentlessly about her school, and her teachers, and her friends, and her life. We were parenting vicariously through her. At one point a shadow crossed her usually happy face, and she confided in us that her dad had been drinking more than usual lately. We knew that her father probably had a problem with alcohol, but, we would never presume on the relationship to the point of actually saying something. We never wanted to do anything that would cause a riff that might mean we couldn’t steal Sarah from time to time. I remember quickly changing the subject, and steering the conversation toward happier themes.
Finally, our time came at the bumper cars, and Sarah and I climbed in. We spent the rest of the afternoon slamming around that amusement park. No ride was too scary. No coaster too high. When the temperature got crazy-hot we headed over to the water world side of the park, and hit the wave pool and the water slides.
In between we stuffed our face with hot dogs and French fries, and a crappy ice cream called “Dippin’ Dots” that looked a lot cooler than it tasted.
We stayed until they were closing the park. Sarah was in no hurry to get home, and we where in no hurry to return to our childless life.
Eventually our tanks were empty, and we headed home, exhausted from the heat and the fun.
As we turned down Sarah’s street… we were a little alarmed. There were police cars and EMS vehicles everywhere.
At first… we thought there had been an automobile accident of some sort, but as we drew nearer to Sarah’s house, our hearts began to pound when we realized that all the emergency vehicles were at Sarah’s address.
Before we had a chance to fully comprehend what was going on, a St. Ann police officer tapped on our window, and asked for our names. When we supplied them the officer’s eyes narrowed and he turned and spoke into the microphone attached to his collar. Within a few seconds another officer appeared, and ushered Sarah out of the car, and took her somewhere out of our line of sight.
At first, we had a hard time getting any answers. We couldn’t see Sarah, or her parents, and we were very concerned.
Eventually, a Sergeant wandered over, and told us what had happened.
In a sad voice he informed us that Sarah’s father had passed away while we were at the amusement park. Shocked, we pressed for more information. Her father was barely 30 years old and was in perfect health when we left that morning. Reluctantly, he gave us the details:
He’d been drinking. A lot. He’d drank an enormous amount of vodka, and then made the fatal decision to mow the yard in the mid afternoon heat. Sarah’s mom had found him lying behind the lawnmower, dead from an alcohol induced heat stroke.
We had a million more questions. Was Sarah’s mother okay? What would become of Sarah? Did the family need any help? But… because we weren’t family… the police didn’t want to say too much more. We were ushered on our way, shocked, and very, very sad.
Some months later, we’d get a chance to see Sarah again.
But… the light in her eyes had gone out. Where once she’d chatted endlessly about her favorite school subject, or the boys in her class, or the MTV videos she loved, now she talked only about her dad. And his funeral. And where he was buried. And how many times she’d been to see him. And talk to him. We told ourselves that it would take some time for her to overcome the emotions she was feeling, but it hurt us a great deal to see such a little girl carrying such a huge burden.
Years later, I would finally be a father, and looking back I still can’t get my head around what would make a man who was as lucky as Sarah’s father was prefer the inside of a bottle to the gift that he had held in his hand.
Never having battled with addiction I suppose it’s easy for me to be glib, and say that he should have been able to look at the wonderful life and family he had, and that it should have been easier for him to turn away from the addiction and turn toward those that love him, but… I also know addiction to be a powerful thing.
I look at my own father, and remember in wonder that I until I was 23, I never saw him drink so much as a beer. He wasn’t a tee-totaller. Or a bible-thumper. And I’m quite sure he enjoyed a beer from time to time. He just didn’t do it in front of his kids.
One part of me is very sad, that this small life was impacted so deeply by this tragedy.
But one part of me is very angry too.
Too often today fathers are portrait as either drunks, or abusers, or both.
Divorced Dad’s too often fight these stereotypes. I get angry when I see men reinforcing these stereotypes.
Sarah would be… dear G-d, 35 this year.
I’m left to wonder what lessons her father’s death has taught her, and how it may have impacted the way she’s raised the children of her own she surely has by now.
And I wonder… if she remembers me.
Memories of My Father : The Bug
August 29, 2013
Circa Summer, 1976
The Aggravator’s Gene I surmise, must be responsible for heightened levels of creativity.
Our Dad was never a very artistic kind of guy. But when the aggravation gene kicked in, he was a veritable Picasso.
Dad had many hobbies. All were of the healthy, stay at home variety. He built models. He built radio kits. He learned to cut gemstones. I look back now and realize that some of my friends had fathers who hung out in bars. Some had Dads that were gonzo sports fanatics. My Dad made things. Some were unique. Some were meaningful. Some were even useful. But all were made with a careful hand, and a steady eye.
One afternoon in the summer of my 15th year, I walked by his workbench, and saw him carefully sculpting something out of the odd black clay he used to hold his gemstones in place while cutting. It wasn’t modeling clay, and I’d never known my Dad to sculpt anything before, so I leaned over for a better look. When I did, he sort of slid the whole sculpture under some other work, and gave me a “What’s up?” smile. He wasn’t telling me to go away. Dad would never do that. But… he didn’t necessarily want me in on what he was up to either.
“Whatcha makin’?” I asked innocently. “Ah… nothing.” He said, dismissing me. It was obvious that he wanted to keep his private project private. I didn’t take offense. I had only got a brief glimpse at it, and it looked like some sort of bug or something. I just figured that he was goofing off, and didn’t feel like anyone making fun of his little attempt at sculpting something. That was cool with me.
But two hours later, I walked by again, and he was still working on it. I didn’t pry further, but I thought it unusual that he was investing that much time in his little sculpting project. Little peeks here and there confirmed my assessment. He was making a bug. This was tres strange on the one hand, and clearly none of my business on the other hand. Later, after he was finished, I saw no trace of the finished work. I figured maybe just once in his life my Dad had gotten bored, and done something silly. Like sculpt a bug, and then smoosh the sculpture back up into a blob when he was done.
Now, it’s important to know that in our small suburban house, there were two bathrooms. Our bathroom, meaning mine, my brothers, and my Dad’s. And mom’s bathroom. Mom’s bathroom was inviolate. No male human had ever stepped foot in that room and come out alive, and none ever would. Under pain of death. Horrible, agonizing, excruciating, painful death. It simply wasn’t done. No matter how bad we had to go.
So I thought it unusual when I watched my Dad disappear into Mom’s bathroom, and re-appear a minute later. Surely he hadn’t actually used Mom’s bathroom? The Mysteries of the Mom/Dad relationship were still totally beyond my young years, so I let it pass. If he was dumb enough to risk the wrath of Mom, then he deserved what he got. I pretended not to notice, and vowed silently to myself to deny all knowledge if questioned on the matter.
Time passed. Maybe it was an hour or two. Maybe longer. But eventually I saw my mother disappear into her bathroom, and shut the door. I had forgotten that Dad had been in there a bit earlier, but when she gave a loud, startled scream, and came tumbling through the door, her side-zipper polyester pants undone, but held together at the waist by hand, I suddenly remembered Dad’s furtive moves of earlier. And then I remembered the sculpture.
You know, the one that looked like a bug…
Suddenly a mental image flashed across my mind. I knew my father well. He had placed it under the seat. Where maybe one hairy little bug-leg protruded. Maybe protruded just enough to be felt by a bare bottom. The owner of which would almost certainly have to lift the seat a tad to investigate what might be causing the foreign sensation. Where her eyes would fall upon… a big, hairy, black bug.
I totally lost it. So did my Father. My younger brother Chris didn’t have any idea what was going on, but Mom was screaming, and his older brother and father were laughing their butts off. That’s funny to an 8 year-old. He fell down on the floor with us, and began to howl.
Now, my mother has a sense of humor. About most things anyway. But that sense of humor tends to only stretch one way. When she’s doing the dishing. Being dished on was another matter entirely. My father and I continued trying to catch our breath through the gales of laughter, while Mom gave us a look that could wither an oak tree. She turned on her heels, zipped up her polyester slacks, and slammed into the master bedroom in a huff. I heard her rattling around, and I buried my face in the cushions of the couch to stifle the laughing fits.
Suddenly, I realized that my Dad’s laughter had stopped abruptly. I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway holding a 3-foot long strip of wood. It was a yardstick. It was the yardstick. The one she used from time to time to discipline her unruly children. Dad was still lying on the floor, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He was checking his exits, and then he made a truly Herculean effort to push off the floor and make it through the door to the kitchen, and down the steps into the basement. To safety. But it was way too late for that. Mom was on him in an instant with that yardstick.
Now, my brother and I pulled some shenanigans that truly merited the whippings we got with that yardstick. But we never saw the like of the beating that she threw my father that afternoon. My father is built like a fireplug. Short, broad, and not an ounce of fat on the man. I’ve seen him dead-lift the railroad ties we used for landscaping in the yard, the ones that weighed maybe 175 pounds each, without even turning red in the face. And here he was, his arms slung over his face for protection, getting the Holy BeJeezus smacked out of him by this tiny, angry woman, trying desperately not to let her see the giant smirk on his face, which would undoubtedly make the whipping harder and longer. And it was truly the most hilarious thing I think I’d ever seen.
More hilarious were the implications. It never once crossed her mind that perhaps my brother or me may have crafted the evil sculpture. She had gone straight for my Dad. It did our hearts good. We’d suffered much over the course of our lives as a result of The Aggravator’s Gene and we fairly howled with laughter while he took his beating. With every whap of the stick across his scalp, and arms, and back, and butt, we howled.
Paybacks were sweet.
Little Mouse Phones It In
August 26, 2013
Circa Fall, 2004
From “The Urban Dictionary”.
The Definition of “Phoning it in” :
To put in a half assed effort at something, but complete it. Often pertaining to work which is complete and pretending to have worked a long time on, when in fact little to no effort was put into it. Derived from deciding to not physically attend a meeting in person, but rather to be present by phone only. Example :
“Even though he had a huge project due Friday, he went to a party and got hammered Thursday night. He totally phoned it in.”
In My Dream, it is always the same, and tonight – The Dream is no different.
I’m standing at The Bus Stop. The Bus is there. The Bus is big, and white, a white so stark it’s almost hard to look at and it gleams in the bright afternoon sun. Its big engine is idling and it sounds like a gigantic cat purring so deeply you can feel the vibration in your soul. On the front of the bus, over the driver, there is a digital sign displaying a moving message made of amber pixels. The message tells when The Bus picks up, and where it’s going. The message races by every few seconds.
It says : “12:00 to The Future”.
I look at my watch. It’s 11:59.
The Bus is packed. All of Mouse’s friends and peers are on it. Everyone she knows. There is one seat left on The Bus. It’s been held aside for Mouse. I’ve made sure of that. For years I’ve fought, and sacrificed, and saved, and waged a thousand bloody battles at enormous cost of life and dignity to be sure that seat was there for her when the time came for her to get on The Bus.
Mouse is not here.
It’s almost 12:00 and Mouse is not here.
I look around.
Every few feet there are pods of people huddled together. Each pod is a family that came to see their loved one off. Parents, Grandparents, Brothers, Sisters, Family, Friends, all waving to bright faces beaming back from the spotlessly clean windows on The Bus. The faces are bright and a little scared. Not scared in a crippling, terrified way, but scared in an excited way. Scared in the way that people are when they board a carnival thrill ride. Frightened and a little uncertain, but smiling and eager to see what the future holds.
I stand alone, apparently the only person in Mouse’s life that actually expected her to show up. The rest of the people in her life worked hard to make sure her seat on The Bus went empty. They are all at home, secure in the knowledge that all of their hard work has paid off, and smirking a little to their self at the idea of her foolish Father waiting at an empty stop. All of the bloody battles and hard work were for nothing as I stare at the empty seat in the back of The Bus.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I hear a tapping sound. I look up. It’s The Driver. The Driver looks exactly like Steven Wright. His uniform is as crisp and white as The Bus itself. Even his hat is white. With deft movements he pulls a lever and the door folds open. He looks at me. He looks at his watch.
It’s 12:00 exactly.
In Steven Wright’s voice he deadpans “Gotta go. Can’t hold everyone else up.”
I know he’s right.
Everyone else on The Bus deserves to get to their Destinations on time. It’s not fair to hold them up. The rules governing when The Bus leaves are Immutable Laws. They cannot be changed. For anyone. Ever. The Bus leaves on The Appointed Day at The Appointed Time in every person’s life. You are either there on time, or you aren’t.
I lower my head.
The Driver that looks exactly like Steven Wright crisply shuts the folding door, and I hear a great blast as the giant air brakes on The Bus exhale mightily and the engine roars to life, pulling away from The Stop.
And just like that… The Bus is gone.
The crowd of people cheer and wave until their arms are exhausted and their voices are hoarse as they watch The Bus begin its All Important Journey.
With each passing yard The Bus travels into the distance, their hopes for their family on board gets higher, and their hearts get lighter and more excited and they cry great tears of joy because they know that their loved one is on their way to Great Things.
With each passing yard The Bus travels into the distance my heart sinks deeper into the Sink of Despair, until, eventually, it shatters to pieces on the bottom. I too have tears on my face, but they are not tears of joy.
Overwhelmed with sadness and grief, I leave the waving crowd and head back to my car.
On the long drive home I am haunted by so many ghosts.
A long time later my cell phone rings. It’s Mouse. Her voice is upbeat, as if nothing in the world could possibly be wrong.
“Dad… sorry I got busy, I’ll be there in a little bit.”
“Be where?” I ask, incredulous.
“At The Bus Stop.” She says, her voice the picture of earnest. “You told it to wait for me, didn’t you?”
At once I’m both amazingly surprised, and amazingly angry. Angry at myself I suppose, for actually being surprised.
I had lectured her relentlessly about this. She understood all too well that The Bus shows up once, and only once in every person’s life. She understood all too well that it leaves precisely at noon on The Appointed Day. She understood all too well that it waits for no one. Ever. She understood all too well the consequences of missing The Bus.
This was so… Mouse.
She had missed the All Important Time on the All Important Day and somehow, it would be Someone Else’s Fault because they hadn’t changed the Immutable Laws of the Universe for her sole benefit.
I choke on the angry, hurtful words that threaten to spill out of my mouth. All I can manage is a sad little laugh before I let the dial tone that used to be my end of the conversation speak for my feelings.
Little Mouse had “Phoned It In”.
She had learned at the feet of The Master, I have to say.
Her mom had been “phoning in” motherhood for Mouse’s entire life. Her mother had loved the idea of having a child, but loathed the idea of actually doing the work that being a real parent required. She went AWOL shortly after Mouse was born and within a few months had learned that converting one’s marriage into cash was a fairly easy thing to do when children are involved, all the while keeping the title of “mother” while never actually having to do anything to earn it.
I’ve often heard it said that writing a child support check doesn’t make you a father.
Let me assure you, cashing a child support check doesn’t make you a mother.
For the whole of Mouse’s life, I’ve been the ‘parent’ while her mother has been the ‘buddy’. As the ‘parent’, I was left to deal with the doctors and the discipline and the schools and the grades and the real every day work that is being a parent. Her mother… just… didn’t. She never came to a parent teacher’s conference. She rarely took her to the doctor when she was sick – her favorite trick was to simply let Mouse be sick until it was my time to have her – then I could deal with her (and the co-pay). To this day Mouse and her mother have never been on a trip alone together. Ever. Anywhere. But you can be certain that she’s quick to claim the title of “mother”. Just not so quick to actually do anything to actually earn that title.
Slowly, inexorably, Mouse had been programmed to fail.
Misery needs company.
I have tried valiantly to overcome this programming.
But… I was left to be the parent that rode her about her homework, and her responsibilities, and her choices of friends.
While her mother told her not to worry about her homework, and encouraged her to hang with the detrimental friends to curry favor, and told her that ‘some people’ worry just too much about being responsible.
After a point, Mouse came to the stark realization that face time with me meant face time with her responsibilities as a student, and a person, and a daughter.
So… it is easier not to face me.
It is easier not to face her self.
I’ve become a mirror.
And lately, she doesn’t like what she sees.
So she stopped looking after a bit.
After all the years of never letting her down, or selling her out.
She just stopped looking.
She doesn’t need to. Her mother has provided her with a haven where there are no mirrors. Anywhere. Her mother’s Apartment of No Responsibilities is preferable to her Father’s house.
There are mirrors everywhere here, and I keep them very clean.
And today, at precisely 12:00 noon, on her Appointed Day…
The Bus left without her.
Little Mouse had totally Phoned It In.
I awake from this dream with a start. I look around for what has shattered the silence in my home, and brought me out of The Dream. It’s the phone. It’s ringing.
At first… I’m glad to have been awakened.
I hate The Dream.
I hate it more than you can imagine.
Relieved to be awake, and relieved by the idea that it’s not yet “too late” for Little Mouse, I stumble to the phone.
It’s one of Mouse’s teachers.
It’s Monday and she hasn’t handed in the work that was assigned on Friday. She has also totally tanked the quiz that was worth a third of her final grade because she apparently didn’t study over the weekend. She went to a weekend party with her mother instead. Her grades are in trouble. Big trouble. Again.
My heart sinks.
Maybe being asleep was better.
This journal entry dates from a time when Mouse was in her early teens. She’s in her early twenties now, graduated from high school on time and on plan, and attending college. She works full time to pay her way, and has, by all accounts righted her ship in big and important ways.
I couldn’t be more proud of her.
I told her early on, that it was all going to be here.
Hey, it can’t all be about the joys of going barefoot, someone has to warn you about the dog shit, and the broken glass.
Now I Lay Me, Down To Sleep
August 24, 2013
Circa Spring, 1995
One of the great, great experiences of parenthood is the deep abiding feelings of love and peace that a parent gets from holding a sleeping child. There is nothing quite as endearing as when a child of a certain age climbs up in your lap, and goes into a deep sleep against you. The small, warm body and the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo transport you to a place that is difficult to express in mere words. This innocent act forges a connection between parent and child that is strong, and important.
One of the great tragedies of being a father in a contentious divorce means that your lawyer will caution you before even the final papers are signed: “Don’t forget and take a nap with your child. It will be seen as… ‘inappropriate’.” I scoffed at this. What could be more innocent?
Until the day in the custody hearing when I was asked “Do you let your child sleep with you?”
“No.” I stated plainly.
“Even at naptime?” the judge had asked pointedly.
I wanted badly to spit “Why would that matter?” in defiant tones. But I knew it did. And I knew why.
Mouse was very afraid of the dark. One of our permanent bedtime rituals was that I would lay beside her on her bed, and read to her before bedtime. I would gently run my finger along the hair at her temple as I read, and she would slowly, inexorably, sink into sleep.
I had mastered the art of slipping from beside her and exiting her room absolutely silently.
It broke my heart to know that because of the divorce, I’d be confined to a chair beside her bed, or be labeled in a way that angers me to even communicate.
The ex, on the other hand, had absolutely NO problem allowing Mouse to sleep beside her. In her bed. All night. Every night.
This set up a dichotomy between her mother’s house and mine that was difficult to manage at first.
I knew that Mouse loved me, but, the truth was, at her mom’s house she would be allowed to sleep with her mom in her mom’s bed all night long. She would never be without a ‘buddy’ beside her in the dark.
When she would rotate back to my house, she would have to sleep in her room. Alone.
Her fear of the dark insured that this was actually a barrier to her enjoying our time together.
This was by design, of course. A first glimpse at what would be years of poor behavior and manipulation that would, in years to come, escalate into scenarios that no father should ever have to endure.
One evening, after putting her to bed, I decided to turn in early. I went through the house “buttoning up”, turning out lights, locking doors, checking the house. A few weeks before we had decided to divorce, I had bought a boxer puppy that required emptying and putting away in her crate so she didn’t fuss and roam all night.
As I passed Mouse’s door, I heard whimpering. She was crying. Not the pouty, petty crying of a petulant child, but the soft whimpering of a sad little girl.
I entered her room and sat beside her on the bed. Brushing her soft brown curls away from her face, I asked her what was wrong, although, in my heart of hearts, I already knew.
She struggled to put into words something that was a lot bigger than she was. But… in a small voice she explained to me that she looked forward to coming to my house all week. Things at her mom’s were “hard”, although she wouldn’t say exactly what that meant, and while she was anxious to get back to Dad’s house, which she considered “home”, bed times made her “tummy hurt”. Mostly because she had to sleep by herself. She was caught between her love of her Dad, and having to sleep alone.
I had to fight back tears myself, but they were tears of anger. Anyone who would set a little girl up to be this confused and heartbroken needed help.
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked her.
“The dark.” She said in a tiny voice.
“I’ll fix it.” I said.
“How?” she asked.
I had no idea. As a father I like to think I have the wisdom I need. Sometimes I have to turn to another Father for that wisdom.
The next day the Father was watching out for me, and showed me the way.
I was paying for my gas at the small station near the house while on the way to work, when my eyes fell on an impulse display setting near the cash register. It was one of those gaudy cardboard affairs designed to catch the eye. For $1.99 you could have your very own Guardian Angel. It was made of cheap, stamped metal. It had a thin stem on the back, which was poked through the cardboard and held in place with a pressed tin button the color of brass.
I slipped one from the cardboard cut-out and paid for it, slipping it into my pocket and forgetting about it for the rest of the day.
On the way home that evening, I stopped at two places. Sears, and the pet store.
As the evening wore on, Mouse became more tense. I understood why.
Eventually, I had to break the uneasy silence. I looked at the clock, and said quietly. “Bed time, Mouse.”
She’s never been a whiner, or a fit thrower. She lowered her face and quietly padded in to put on her pajamas.
“Let’s do something different tonight.” I said.
Mouse’s eyes searched my face for some hint.
“Got something for you.” I said. “Few things actually.”
I asked her to go sit on her bed.
A few minutes later, I came into her room bearing gifts. Three of them.
I handed her the first. It was one of my old t-shirts. On me, it barely fit. On her tiny frame it went all the way to the floor. She put her face in the soft cotton and sniffed loudly. “It smells like you.” She said simply. It didn’t sound like a complaint.
“Can I wear it every night? For real?” she said with a bright smile that only a small child can manage.
“For real.” I assured.
The second gift was a small Winnie the Pooh lamp. At the base was a smaller lamp, with an opaque plastic cover on it a night light. I plugged it in and put it on her dresser. We fussed with it a few minutes, learning the sequence of knob rotations. One click. Lamp on. Two Clicks. Lamp and nightlight on. Three clicks. Nightlight only. Four clicks. All lights off. The small nightlight at the bottom of the lamp threw enough illumination around the room to chase out the majority of the darkness, but wasn’t so glaring that sleep would be hard.
“Wow!” She said.
“Wow.” I repeated.
The third gift she didn’t understand. At first. It was a dog bed. I made a great display of taking it from the box, and putting it on the floor near her bed.
Then it hit her.
“Ripley?” she said.
“Ripley.” I agreed. “She’s a good guard dog.” This was, of course, just silly. Ripley was big, and slobbery, and like all boxers an ass-clown that was friendly to the point of ridiculousness. But to a small girl she was as good a guardian as one could ever want. And another warm body in the room to make her feel as if she wasn’t sleeping alone.
“Can I go get her out of the crate?” she said, with excited eyes.
“Yah.” I said, with a look. “But if she doesn’t behave, or roams around, we’ll have to put her back in the crate.”
“I understand.” Mouse said. I knew she did.
I was concerned about the puppy not sleeping, or roaming the floor. But the big, slobbery girl seemed to immediately grasp the situation, and went right to the dog bed. She stood in the middle of the overstuffed dog bed, turned around once, twice, three times, then laid down with her face on her paws as if she’d been sleeping there from the beginning. I didn’t know it that night, but she would sleep there most nights for the rest of her life.
“Bed time story.” I said.
“Five.” She said.
“Two”. I counter offered.
“Three.” She countered my counter offer.
“Done.” I said. We shook on it as if we were Arab camel traders.
Down from the shelves came three of the small books that were her “stories”.
As we finished the third and final, I pointed to the lamp beside the bed. One, two, three clicks. Nightlight only.
As I got up to leave, I searched her face to see if these new additions to our nighttime ritual were going to ease her mind.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She said. I could tell she was trying to be brave. But her voice still sounded small and afraid.
As I stood there searching for a way to make things better for her, my hand slipped into my pocket, and closed around the tiny little guardian angel pin. It was the Father’s hand on my shoulder.
My heart leapt a little. It was the perfect closer to the gifts already offered.
“One more thing,” I said, and sat on the bed beside her. “I have something, very, very, very special for you. But… you must promise to take very good care of it.”
Mouse sat up a little intrigued by the conspiratorial tone of my voice.
“What is it?” she asked.
I brought my hand out of my pocket, the tiny angel hidden inside. “Promise first.” I said.
“Cross my heart.” She replied.
I pressed the little $1.99 angel into hand as if it was a priceless diamond.
I felt a little spark of magic transfer.
Her eyes glittered as I pinned it to my (now hers) oversized t-shirt.
“It will keep you safe, and guard you against all harm.” I stated emphatically.
And in that instant, she believed it would.
Later that night I peeked in on her.
Ripley had sneakily slipped from the dog bed to the foot of Mouse’s bed, and shot me a look as I peeked as if to say “Get over it, Dude. You want her to feel safe, don’t you?” I resolved to take her advice. As I brushed the hair from her little face I could see that the nightlight had driven the shadows from it.
The little guardian angel pin glittered cheaply there on my old t-shirt, the best $1.99 I’d ever spent in my life.
Thank you, Father.
Who Can Say… Where Magic Lives
August 18, 2013
Circa Winter, 1998
There is a moment that one can only find on rare Midwestern winter evenings. A small window in time after a heavy evening snow, when the violence of the winter storm has moved on to other cities, and the stars come out, and the snow has glazed over to a crisp, unbroken sheet that mutes every sound.
I am standing hand in hand with Mouse as we marvel at how unbelievably clear the evening air is, and how unbelievably silent the world has become. There is a sparkle in Mouse’s eyes and I hear her small voice softly whisper “wow”. Dad and nine year old daughter are connected by this magic.
“Are you ready?” I say. My voice sounds supernaturally reverent in the muted winter air. “Are they really here” Mouse asks? “I’m pretty sure.” I reply. “We’ll have to see.”
“Where do they live?” Mouse asks. Her voice matches my reverence automatically.
“I’m not precisely sure, Mouse.” I say. “I’m not sure where they actually live at. But I know they like to play under trees and bushes, away from the street and people and dogs and traffic.”
“Quiet places.” She states. It’s not a question.
“Exactly.” I say.
We walk along the silent suburban streets. The plows haven’t made it through here yet. There has been six, perhaps eight inches of heavy, wet snow. Another quarter of an inch of freezing rain has put a fine glaze on the new fallen snow. Everyone is tucked up tight, avoiding the dangerous roads, and keeping warm.
Everyone but the two adventurers.
“What will they look like?” Mouse asks. She is normally a quiet and pensive child, content to let the adventure unfold, and enjoy where it might take us. But tonight her excitement level is palpable, and she is having a hard time constraining it.
“Not sure, Mouse.” I say, “Not sure they are even out at any rate.” I offer. “I was your age the last time I saw them.” I offer.
Another soft “wow” escapes her.
Our winter boots are doing a wonderful dance, the steps of which require us to put our foot down, apply a little pressure, and listen for the sharp, crisp, “snap” as the glaze of ice gives way and our weight falls through the ice to the street below. The snaps give a strange, out of phase echo against the sides of the houses and street signs as we walk.
“You cold?” I check.
“Nah.” Mouse says. I can see by the color in her cheeks that she is, but she’s never been a whiney kid. There is adventure afoot. She knows if her Dad thinks she’s cold or uncomfortable he’ll begin to worry about colds and flus and missed schools etc. No way is she letting that happen.
Her tenacity is one of the things I admire so much about her.
Our adventuring takes us to the top of the street, and then to the grade school. She points out “her” window. I’m pretty certain it is the exact same room I had when I was in the fourth grade. We marvel together at the fact that there are still teachers there that I had when I was her age.
As we round the corner on the return trip home, I hear an audible gasp. Her small, mitten covered hand tightens around mine. She freezes in place, motionless and silent. Her voice is very small, and very soft, but the muted winter air amplifies it. “Dad…” she whispers.
I can see on her face that she’s seen something. I track her line of sight to the side of the grade school. There is a small, snow covered bush near the ancient, rusted and also snow covered bicycle rack. Her eyes are riveted to the snow beneath the bush.
I squint to see what she is seeing.
And there… dancing on the snow… about three inches above the ground, is a tiny blue light. It bobs and circles, and plays along the bark of the base of the bushes. It dances from bare branch to bare branch, and then back to the snow beneath the branches.
“Is that…” she asks excitedly.
I suppress a mighty laugh of happiness. “I can’t believe it Mouse.” I say, letting her hear the smile in my voice. “You found one!” I let the mighty laugh out. The dancing blue light vanishes at the sound of my voice.
“Dad!” she admonishes. “You scared her off!” She’s visibly disappointed.
“I’m sorry Mouse.” I offer. I’m truly contrite. “I didn’t mean to scare him off.” I shrug apologetically. “Let’s stand here a minute. Perhaps he’ll come back.”
“It’s a she.” Mouse corrects. “All faeries are girls.”
I did not know this. I’m not prepared to argue. Mouse has been reading a great many “Faery” books lately, and knows her stuff. I’m pretty sure she knows more about this than I do.
We stand for long moments. But the blue faery does not return.
“Let’s head home.” I say. It’s getting late, and we are both very cold.
“Just another minute” Mouse says.
“She’s moved on. “ I offer. “If we’re quiet we may see another on the way home.”
She pouts a little. Not a small, petty pout. Just a little disappointment shining through.
We turn back toward home, and begin to retrace our steps. There is now a very distinct halo around all of the streetlights, and they are throwing an eerie glow on the glassy snow. Our encounter has changed the tone of the evening to a darker, more conspiratorial one.
About half way home it’s me that hushes us to an abrupt halt.
“Where?” Mouse whispers quietly.
“There.” I say. “Near the top of Mr. Washington’s Catalpa tree.”
Her eyes track up, up, up the ice covered branches. Approximately half way up a pale blue light dances and sways. Mouse and I stand transfixed. The frost blue light bounces and weaves and plays among the branches.
For long minutes we watch the faery dance. It darts from branch to branch then back to the trunk. The long thin Catalpa husks that refuse to fall until spring twinkle in the gentle winter air, and the small blue light delights in spinning in and out and through and around them.
“She’s a tree sprite.” Mouse whispers.
“You think?” I ask. My knowledge of faeries is not what it should be.
“I’m certain.” She states. “Sprites live in trees. Faeries live in more open areas.” My education continues.
“Do you think she’d let me get close?” Mouse asks.
“Pfft.” I offer. “I wouldn’t think so, Mouse. They seem really skittish.”
“I’m going to try.” She says quietly.
“I’ll wait here.” I say. “I’ll watch over you.”
Her small hand slips from mine, and she begins to very, very slowly edge her way into Mr. Washington’s front yard, the crisp glaze of snow crunching beneath her small boot-covered feet.
She makes it about half way to the Catalpa tree when the small blue light freezes suddenly. Mouse freezes as well. For a long moment they are both completely still, frozen motionless in the winter air. Then suddenly, the blue light flicks left, then right, then quickly down, to the base of the tree. It skitters across the snow and along the base of the base of Mr. Washington’s well maintained home, then it slips beneath the neatly landscaped bushes, and is gone.
“Wow!” Mouse says. No longer taking the pains to be quiet.
“Wow.” I repeat.
“Wow!” She says again.
I cannot hide my smile. Mouse and I have shared a magical moment, on a crisp, Midwestern winter night.
In the half of a block that remains until we reach our front door, Mouse educates me in the ways of faeries and sprites, and nymphs and assorted other magical creatures. I listen intently as she downloads the data she’s acquired through the reading of the eight or ten books on faeries that lately have populated her reading queue. I’m careful to listen much, and talk little. I ask the odd, appropriate question, so that she understands I’m truly interested in the things she has to share with me.
Later that night, tucked warm beneath the covers in room, with Ripley our big, slobbery Boxer standing guard dutifully at the foot of her bed, we relive the adventures of the evening in bright tones. We speculate about that which we do not know.
Our operating theory is that the faeries are blue, because it is wintertime. It seems to make a great deal of sense to the both of us.
The magic of that evening infects our conversations, and our evenings together for many weeks afterward. During the weeks that followed she occasionally calls me from her mother’s house to ask if I have seen any more of them. My answer is always a variation on the theme. In my evening walks with Ripley I have searched and searched, but haven’t seen any faeries as of yet.
Winter warms to spring, and spring to summer.
There is a summer counterpart to the magical Midwestern winter nights that happens on only one or two evenings a year. It is “The First Warm Night of Summer.” The first evening of the summer that is truly a “summer” evening, and one realizes that spring has faded, and summer was truly, officially on deck.
It was one of these rare evenings, when Mouse and I decide to take Ripley for a long evening walk.
Unencumbered by heavy winter clothing, and pulled along by an eager Boxer, we head out on along our regular route. The first warm days of summer were and remain special days for Mouse and me. Our steps are quick, and bright, and we are happy to be alive, and in the world, and adventuring together.
Near the schoolyard, almost in the exact same spot we saw the winter faery, Ripley begins to bark and pull at her leash. Mouse’s eyes flash and her voice is bright and excited.
“Dad! I saw one!”
“Where?” I say. “Where?”
“There!” Mouse squeals, pointing to the same bush we saw the first faery during that winter night.
My eyes search the bush, but I see nothing.
Ripley is threatening to tear my arm off as she lunges in the direction that Mouse is pointing. She has apparently seen something interesting as well.
“She was there!” Mouse says. “Ripley barked and scared her, but she was there!”
I can see she is in earnest. I’m certain she’s seen something.
“Can we take Ripley home and look some more?” Her eyes are so bright and excited. I will not deprive her of this adventure.
“Sure.” I say. “Let’s put her up, and we’ll come back.”
It is not a ‘school night’, and we have nothing but time.
Thirty minutes later, Ripley is safely put away in the yard, and we have returned to the spot where we know the faeries frequent.
“She was red, Daddy.” Mouse states. “She was red this time.”
My eyebrows arch a little at this revelation. “Hmmm.” I say. “Kinda makes sense.” I offer.
“Yes!” Mouse says. “Summer time faeries are red. Winter faeries are blue.” I’m buying what she’s selling, and I let the look on my face tell her this is so.
The red faery of the summer evening is no longer in evidence at the schoolyard. Nor can we find her in the top of Mr. Washington’s tree.
Mouse looks terribly disappointed.
“Let’s take one more trip around The Big Block.” I say. “You up for it?”
Our suburban neighborhood is a nested series of concentric circles. There is the “small block” which is comprised of a small square bordered by the immediate streets surrounding our house. Perhaps a quarter of a mile in total. Then there is the “big block” which is a longer set of streets that make up a walk that is perhaps as long as a mile and a half in total.
“Please?” Mouse asks.
We head down the street at an adventurers pace.
Approximately a half a mile into our journey, we are brought up short. It’s not a house we recognize or are familiar with, but there… under a bush near the front porch, was a small red light, dancing in the darkness. Mouse and I both see it at the same time, and stop in unison. I can hear her breathing quicken. The magic in the summer evening air and between us is very present.
We watch for a long time as it dances and plays beneath the bush, and then blinks out.
“Wow!” Mouse says again.
“Wow.” I repeat.
We spend another evening in awe of our adventure. The magic we had experienced with the blue faeries of winter we relive with the red faeries of summer.
Two weeks later, she has rotated back to my custody, and we are at Target and have been shopping for “summer clothes”. In line, at the checkout counter, there is a wall of items meant to entice impulse shoppers. Hanging near the cash register are small blister packages, with what appears to be a tiny flashlight encased in it. There are two distinct models. One is red, and the other blue. The gaudy packaging declares them “laser pointers” good for any number of useful purposes. One is “LazerRED”, the other is “IceBLUE”. The blister packaging is cut away around the on/off switch and the writing on the package declares loudly “Try Me!”
I am trying to hurry our purchase through the process when Mouse’s eyes fall on the brightly colored penlights. Her eyes meet mine, and I know I am minutes from being busted.
Typically well behaved, Mouse fights years of “Don’t touch stuff” indoctrination and reaches out for the packaged labeled “IceBLUE”. Her finger finds the small rubber stud that operates the tiny blue laser penlight and a frost blue colored light dances on the display rack. In Mouse’s hands it dances and darts. After only a moment’s practice, it is dancing and darting and precisely mimicking the dance of the faeries. She repeats the process with the “LazerRED” penlight.
She gives me a long look. In her eyes I see the reflection of a conversation we had over a year ago, when she was poking around in my study, and ran across two identical penlights in my study drawer.
“What are these?” she had asked.
“Just some flashlights that don’t work anymore.” I had said, and then I had quickly spirited them away.
Slowly, the truth behind the magic of the faeries dawned in her eyes. An incredulous smile spreads across her face.
I know beyond any doubt she has put two and two together, and now realizes the truth behind both the blue faeries of winter, and the red faeries of summer.
On the long ride home I wait for her reaction.
She says little but she has an odd smirk on her face. The smirk says “I knew that old fart was behind the faeries somehow, but I just couldn’t figure out exactly how. I have finally figured it out. “
She never verbalized the fact that she had completely discovered her father’s shenanigans, but neither did she ever again pester me to take her out faery hunting. Nor did she bring it up in casual conversation again.
Some years later I would ask her about this, when I was certain that the statute of limitations on parental war-crimes had expired. She confessed to me that for one short winter, and for one short summer, she had allowed herself to believe in faeries, and to believe in magic. She confessed that she had not been upset at all.. She recognized that her Dad hadn’t faked the faeries in an effort to fool, or make fun of her, but in an effort create a magic that we could share together.
In short, she “got it.”
It was “Daddy Magic.” And remains one of the great memories of her childhood.
August 18, 2013
As August spins down and the dog days of summer begin to fade, there is always this moment where the approach of autumn becomes palpable, and the stores inevitably fill up with school supplies.
The emotions surrounding this time are very strong for me. Especially where my daughter is concerned.
Part of me becomes incredibly sad, because, in very real ways, summer was OUR time. She spent the vast majority of her days with me over summer, and we had so many great summer adventures. Camping. Movies. Float trips. Chicago. Bicycling. And the pool. Especially the pool. We practically LIVED in the water from the moment the pool opened on Memorial Day to the Moment we made our annual pilgrimage to watch them close it up the day after Labor Day.
In spite of the sadness that summer was passing, part of me actually became very excited. Excited about the new school year. The new opportunities for her. The fresh start.
This past weekend would have been the one where I took her to buy school supplies and school clothes.
I miss the hell out of that ritual.
The smell of new paper and number two wooden pencils. Of freshly washed cotton and new blue jeans. The bright splashy colors of Lisa Frank folders, and scented markers and unicorn erasers.
The nervous/excited look on her face as the first day approaches.
I know she is 22 this year, but as I wander through the aisles of Target, I’m gripped by the desire to snatch a new Lisa Frank backpack off the shelf, and fill it with pencils, and folders, and erasers, and “college ruled” notebook paper neatly snapped into a three ring binder with the singer from Evanescence on the cover.
Then I’m going to point the cart down the girls clothing aisle, and fill it with overalls, and denim blue jeans, and shirts with lady bugs and SpongeBob on them and shoes with lights in the heel that blink as she walks. Maybe I’ll stop at “Hot Topix” on the way home and get some black pants and t-shirts with quirky sayings from way before she was born on them. I was never more glad to see one of her phases pass than I was to see “Goth” go on its way.
I know that in a few weeks those perfect binders will be defaced with crude ink drawings of odd things, and the names of her newest “boyfriends” or BFF’s all over them as they are tossed unceremoniously on the floor beside the door in the afternoon as she gets home.
It may seem very strange to admit, but I wouldn’t even mind standing in line to register her for classes, only to find that she failed to turn in some obscure text book last semester that I will have to pay some enormous sum for today – only to find in the bottom of a forgotten book bag in the bottom of an even more forgotten closet mess eight months from now.
I miss having to bring something up to school and drop it off about twice a month because she forgot her gym clothes/lunch money/math assignment.
I miss this aspect of being her father.
I miss our rituals.
The Fall always makes me feel this way.