Note – Many southern women use the endearment “daddy” when referring to their fathers, and most use the term well into adulthood. My Aunt Virginia, now in her 89th year, is one example. Stories of her father, my grandfather, often begin with, “I remember the time Daddy . . . ” My own father will always be my daddy, regardless of the passage of time.
Confession – This week’s essay represents a personal risk. I don’t usually use this style as I find my attempts clumsy and awkward. Risk, however, is the only way I’ll improve so here I go. Devan assured me that it wasn’t “too hokey.” (He also tells me that certain pants do not make me look fat so I’m not sure I can trust his critique.)
Once upon a time there was a flaxen-haired girl who lived in a kingdom governed by a handsome and benevolent ruler, a ruler affectionately known as “daddy.” She lived in a terrazzo-floored house built by the ruler’s own hand, a house which still stands, and the girl was protected. There were two mothers; one a raven-haired poet who loved the girl as best she could, but only for a moment; the second, a wide-eyed teacher from a country far north who loved the girl as if she were her own. Three older siblings coddled and spoiled and teased. There were also patriarchs and matriarchs – grandparents who worked the land and filled in the cracks and held gas-lamps aloft so the girl could see through the darkness, a darkness that too often seemed stronger than the light. The ruler, however, was the chief protector of all. At times he reigned with ruthlessness and at times with indifference, but he always ruled with love.
Periodically he took his family on journeys . . . camping trips to smoky mountains, road trips to northern valleys, short jaunts to nearby magic kingdoms, and afternoon drives to the wide Gulf. He taught the girl to watch and listen.
“Have you ever felt water so cold? It started its journey as frozen ice far up that mountain. Here, feel it.”
“Thomas Jefferson built quite the house, didn’t he?”
“Mexico? Why it’s right over there beyond the horizon. Can’t you see it? I bet you could swim there.”
Standing on her daddy’s shoulders while peering into vast seas, the little girl felt that she could do anything, be anything, even though at times the distance seemed too great. Her daddy coaxed her – “. . . you can do it . . . don’t be afraid . . . jump” – never imagining that one day his girl would jump so very far away.
In reality her initial jumps were really only small steps. The first time she was allowed to drive one of his beloved steeds (a ’72 Mach II Mustang, long and lean and golden), he chased her down the road while urging, “Keep the speed below the limit. Keep the music quiet. Keep the gas tank filled.” When later that day she returned the prized possession bearing a hideous scar, his silent disappointment spoke more loudly than shouting ever could.
Eventually those steps did evolve into jumps – college a few hours away at 19; teaching at a nearby school at 21; traversing Europe by foot, train, barge, and car at 23; working with displaced Haitians at 25; backpacking (alone) in Yellowstone at 27. Never did the girl stop to think how worried he must have been each and every time she stepped out of his field of vision and never did the girl fully appreciate the fact that in spite of his worry, he never stopped her from leaving.
Before too long her jumps became leaping bounds. Papua New Guinea, a country little-known until the girl announced it as her destination. Devan, a man little-known until the girl announced him as her partner. The ruler visited this faraway land and while he did not stay long, he tarried long enough to glimpse the life she’d chosen. He met the locals and ate their food and marveled at how their differences were in reality not very different at all. He reassured himself that his girl was safe.
Leap. Africa. Kenya. This time the girl not only followed her husband to faraway lands; she took the ruler’s grandson away as well. Did she realize what a huge chunk of her daddy’s heart she carried with her? She did not. Once again he visited her newest adventure, and this time he donned a floppy hat and dug in her garden and traded cheap watches for Masai blankets and peered at elephants through binoculars and tried not to worry that she lived in a place so foreign to him.
Throughout these years the ruler, a man of few words, often limited his conversation to the concrete, the tangible, the things he believed to be within his control. At times he found his daughter’s dreamy speech and head-in-the-clouds persona confusing, disturbing. Taking risks was not his way and at times he found it hard to relate to her, a girl who seemed to take risks with abandon; at times the girl found it hard to relate to the ruler’s unwavering commitment to the known. In spite of their different views, however, they talked, and while their talk often centered on what could be seen and touched; the weather and sports and inflation and progress; in quiet moments, they talked of more, of things not seen. They often talked of loss, for as life went on it was their mutual losses that drew them together even when miles kept them apart. And the years, like the conversations, passed far too quickly.
Hop. Jump. Leap. Pause. The ruler, now embracing his graying locks, and the girl, now denying her own, continue their separate-but-not journeys, the girl offering an arm as the ruler’s gait slows. Past and present bleed together and at times old memories appear even clearer than immediate moments. Who is now the protector and who the protected? Perhaps the roles have been synonymous from the start.