Saturday, June 16, 2007

Glad to be a daddy ...exhibit A

The lost necklace....or barbies overboard! (a cautionary Father's day tale)

Tess found a small yellow bungee cord in the grass near our campsite on the canal. She fitted it around Colm’s neck and he sported it around very proudly. After a while I lost track of what the kids were up to until a few minutes later I heard Colm wailing and saying no repeatedly.

I called him and when he came I asked what the matter was. He told me that Tess was going to throw the necklace in the canal. I looked beyond the boat and sure enough there was Tess standing at the water’s edge, her right hand holding the necklace aloft. She appeared poised to throw it in the canal. On her face was a sly, malign expression. Colm began gibbering, pleading for the necklace to be spared.

I looked flatly at Tess, annoyed but determined not to feed her bid for attention. Instead I spoke to Colm.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “She won’t throw it in the water.”

Tess doesn’t move. Colm studies her and seems to consider the plausibility of what I’ve said.

A minute later, Colm is gibbering again. This time I’m a little annoyed by him and I tell him a bit testily to stop it and I repeat the assertion that she won’t throw the necklace in the water.

“She’s only trying to scare you. If does throw it in the water she’ll have to accept the consequences.”

I glance at Tess. She is listening.

There is a beat then, “Daddy.”


“What are consequences?”

So now we arrive at the point in the story where the wise parent seizes the teachable moment and responds to the child’s question in a sage and elemental way…perhaps kneeling down to pick up a stone and, holding it aloft over the water, saying something like “observe, Grasshopper. This stone is your desire. Now watch your desire in action.” I drop the stone and it disappears into the water which undulates and sends ripples spreading outward in concentric circles. “What do you see now?”

“The stone has disappeared,” says the child.

“What else?”

“Little waves moving in all directions.”

I smile wisely, sadly perhaps, “Everything you see and everything you do not see, those are the consequences of your actions.”

But that is not what I say to Tess.

I say this instead, “You’re being mean to your brother. Consequences are the bad things that happen when you do mean things to other people.”

Tess receives this gem in silence. She appears skeptical though altogether dismissive. I decide I’ve done all I can do or rather, should I say am afraid of doing any more than I’ve already done, and go inside the boat to help with dinner, but before I do I have one last word for Colm.

”Colm, just walk away will you? Ignore her and she’ll stop.”

I have hardly enough time to slice one onion when I hear Colm again, but this time his voice is in a higher register. “She threw it in the water!”

I go outside and look. It’s true. Tess is standing there empty handed looking into an equally empty expanse of flat green water.

“Where are your Barbies?” I hear myself say. These words spill out of my mouth completely without premeditation, but as I pronounce them I begin to feel an intention forming.

Tess’s demeanor is instantly affected by these words. She intuits instantly a connection between the necklace at the bottom of the canal and her box of barbies somewhere in the boat. “What are you going to do?” She says, not answering my question.

I turn on my heels and reenter the boat. “Where are the barbies?” I ask Beth.

“On the shelf in their bedroom. Why?”

I tell Beth what happened. She looks shocked and sad, a mother’s pain, a father’s anger. I descend the steps into the sleeping compartment and a moment later I have the barbies in my hand. Tess is already at my heels. The space is cramped, I feel her behind me. I sit down on one bed and tell her to sit across from me.

I’m contending with anger but, at the same time, I feel composed. I want to feel composed.

“You threw the necklace in the water. Colm asked you many, many times not to throw it in the water, yet you threw it in the water and now it’s lost.”

“I wanted to see if it would float.” Her candor momentarily disarms me and brings me perilously close to a smile.

“How would you like it if I threw your barbies in the water?” For an instant I consider this theoretical event. I never did like those barbies. Perhaps this is the pretext I’ve been waiting for…

Tess reacts suddenly and wildly. “No!”

I can see that the threat is palpable to her and she’s horrified by it. She begins to cry, distraught. Once again I am unprepared for her reaction. She is sobbing now, gone is the coolly calculating girls asking about consequences. Instinctively I try now to protect her.

“I’m not going to throw them in the water, Tess. That would be mean.”I’m going to take them and put them away where you can’t have them for a long time.”

Between sobs Tess blurts out, “Can I bring them to the United States?”

I am chagrined by the fact that Tess has already imagined me doing far worse things than I myself intended.

“I’m just going to put them away…I don’t know for how long. You simply have to wait.”

Tess goes to Beth hoping for a reversal in a higher court of appeals but Beth says simply, “I agree with every word your dad said.” Then she adds, “I think you should tell Colm you’re sorry.”

Tess bolts out of the cabin and crawls all the way to the end of the bow where she sits moaning and keening alone over the water. The sound seems to funnel up and down the canal from where we are moored. She remains there for several minutes. Through all of this Colm has kept a low profile. I do not think he really misses the necklace (perhaps he knew it was a bungee cord all along) all that much and as usual when there is strife involving his sister he becomes anxious to reaffirm his own goodness in our eyes.

“Why is Tess crying?”

“She’s sad.”

“I’m not crying.” He gives me a hug.

Man, this parenting thing is not easy.

Finally Beth suggests that I take the kids for a walk up the canal while she finishes dinner. So I muster an energetic and enthusiastic tone and broadcast, “Who wants to go with a walk down the canal?”

Immediately Colm says, “I do!”

There is a moment of uncertain silence but then Tess turns her head, her eyes red, her cheeks wet. “I wanna go too.”

My heart relaxes for the first time in what seems like half an hour. “Alright then. Let’s go!”

As I kneel down and help Tess put on her sandals she begins to talk to me.

“I didn’t want you to throw my barbies in the water…I didn’t want you to because my angel barbie’s wings they would get wet and then and then she won’t be able to fly and her dress will get all dirty and I don’t know if we can clean it after that.” Her words tumble out, interrupted by short gasping breaths.

“Tess look at me,” I say, trying to calm her. “I would never, ever, throw your barbies in the water. Do you understand? Never.” She nods. I continue. “I just wanted you to understand how Colm felt when you threw the necklace in the canal…and to understand the consequences.” I pause for a moment. “What do you think of all that, Tess?”

“Daddy, you made me remember that I found the necklace.”


“I think I won’t give it to him next time if I find something.”

Who am I to argue with the conclusions she draws from her own experience. “Ok, if you find something, you can do whatever you want with it sweetie...unless you give to someone first.”

We give each other hugs and get up to go on our walk. Colm is right there to take my hand. As we get to the top of the bank and start down the trail, I feel Tess’s hand slip into mine. It is a gesture that touches me in that moment as both instinctive and intentional. I am her father; we love each other. I could burst in blossom at this moment.

“Why don’t you guys find some flowers to take back to mommy for the dinner table.”

Tess and Colm are suddenly animated, they run off side by side, together again, joined by a desire to find something pretty to bring back to Beth who sent us out here in first place. She’ll love the flowers but it’s the smiles on the kids’ faces that she’ll treasure.



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