Bringing Up Daughter

Posted on January 27, 2011


The age-old struggle for supremacy between father and daughter is not well understood. Few scholars have dared approach the subject, preferring to wade into less treacherous waters of study, such as the transmission of plague or the destructive results of being hit by lightning. I have not enjoyed the luxury of such gutless timidity.

* * * * *

When my daughter Allison was a year old, we relocated to another city and I needed to open a checking account. At the bank, I put her into the stroller, one of those fancy models with big wheels and a handle that could be flipped around to allow you to either push or pull. On this particular day I had the handle set for pulling. The bank officer asked me to follow him to his office, which was down a carpeted hallway, past three or four cubicles and at least a half dozen large potted plants on the floor. I walked behind him, holding paperwork in my right hand and guiding the stroller with my left. At some point I noticed that it was taking more effort to keep moving, but attributed that to the thick carpeting. When we arrived in the office, I turned the stroller around so Allison and I could see each other. That’s when I noticed the huge plant she had dragged with us the entire length of the hallway. Apparently, as we walked she had reached out, grabbed the leaves, and just held on as I pulled them both along. When the plant tipped, the dark brown potting soil spilled over the side, leaving a long trail of dirt that began near the empty round impression in the carpet and ended in front of the bank officer’s neatly-arranged desk.

“Well,” I said, aiming for humor, “at least we’ll be able to find our way back out.” He smiled, but it was the smile of someone who would have killed me if he thought for a second that it wouldn’t cost him his job, or leave stubborn blood stains on his furniture.

* * * * *

When Allison was in kindergarten, her class took a trip to some kind of park where exotic animals were housed and kept for school visits and demonstrations. I went as a chaperone, because I had read in a book that I should always try to get out of my comfort zone, and I could think of few things more uncomfortable than riding in a school bus with twenty-seven five-year-olds to a park crawling with strange creatures. All of the other chaperones were women.

I can’t recall any of the animals now, except the python. I remember the python principally because it was handled by a young lady who seemed completely unaware that she was holding a snake that could swallow her whole and still have room for a small raccoon. In the middle of her lecture, the handler asked the kids if they wanted to touch the snake, which each of them did without hesitation. Then she asked if any of the parents wanted to, and the mothers all backed away and crossed their arms. My daughter, I should interject here, had developed a knack for saying things in an unusually loud voice, things that would either embarrass me or put me into some kind of mortal danger. This was an opportunity to do both, and she accomplished it with a deftness that should give pause to anyone considering parenthood.

“My father isn’t afraid of snakes!” she yelled while pointing in my direction.

I suppose there are neurons responsible for telling the legs to back away and the arms to cross, but before they could even fire in my brain, the small woman with the large python was standing directly in front of me. There she resumed her fascinating lecture on the texture of the animal’s scales, its life expectancy and eating habits, or whatever she was talking about. I didn’t know because my sense of hearing had been shut down as I focused on the snake, now approaching me in the slow, deliberate way that snakes have, with that look of confidence that seems to say, “You can make this easy, or you can make it hard. It’s all the same to me.” With the python’s squiggling tongue just inches from my face, the handler announced that the presentation was over. I believe I brushed a fingertip along the snake’s side, just so I wouldn’t have to endure Allison, at some future and most inopportune time, announcing to a large crowd that I chickened out after her entire class of kindergartners had touched a python.

* * * * *

Allison’s combination of loud voice and embarrassing commentary had frozen me dead in my tracks on at least two other occasions during the previous year. Both times we were in the supermarket. In the first instance, Allison didn’t want to sit in the shopping cart; I had no time to be chasing her around the store, so I tried to pick her up and put her into the seat. She squirmed to get free and I tightened my grip. Realizing she couldn’t compete with me physically, she employed the only advantage she had: intelligence.

“Daddy!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “You’re hurting me!”

There was no need to look around. The entire 60,000-square-foot store fell silent and I could feel every pair of eyes turn to stare in my direction. Fortunately, by the time I managed to get both of Allison’s feet through the openings in the shopping cart seat, everyone else had returned to whatever they had been doing.

On another grocery shopping excursion months later, in the canned fruit aisle, Allison again summoned her vocal cords to full volume as she was overcome with a sudden and inexplicable urge to describe the size of the woman making her way toward us.

“Look, Daddy. She’s fat!”

And then again, as the woman was passing by: “Isn’t she fat, Daddy? Really fat!” I never looked up. I pretended to be reading the ingredients label on a can of sliced peaches, which took some fairly decent acting skills, as the only ingredient was peaches.

* * * * *

Our adventures at home tended to be less embarrassing, if only because there were fewer witnesses. One night I ran into the kitchen of our apartment still wearing my heavy winter coat, grabbed a large pot, and rushed over to the sink to fill the pot with water. I couldn’t begin to explain now why I was in such a hurry to heat up some water that I didn’t even take off my coat. All I know is that I swung the pot over the top of the sink and smacked it, hard, directly into the faucet, which most surprisingly went flying across the room and landed on the counter several feet away. This instantly removed any obstacle to the flow of water, and it now shot straight up into the air and came down onto the top of my skull. Stunned into inaction for several seconds as water cascaded off me and onto the floor, I then resorted to pure reflex and pulled the hood of my coat over my head.

One night in that same kitchen, I was cooking dinner for Allison and two of her friends when my oven mitt caught fire. There was something in the toaster oven, and when I reached in to take it out, the tip of the mitt grazed the red hot coils just long enough to ignite. Holding the tray of food, I set it onto the table and only then noticed the flames shooting from my hand. (I’d always thought oven mitts were made of a non-combustible material, but here was clear evidence to the contrary.) As entertained as she’d been by the plumbing mishap, Allison found even greater amusement in this unexpected blaze, her enjoyment enhanced by the company of friends.

* * * * *

I’d have to say the struggle is over now. Allison is a grown woman and we have few reasons to jockey for control, or to take any real pleasure in each other’s inherent goofiness. At the same time, I still feel a wave of anxiety whenever I meet with a bank officer, or see large plants resting on a carpeted floor. I try to go to the supermarket during off-peak hours. When filling a pot of water I take my time, always careful to first remove my coat. And I have some trust issues, especially regarding toaster ovens and small women holding large snakes.

My solution is to defy the experts and their pushy books: I stay inside my comfort zone as much as possible. It really is safer there. I’ve even managed to avoid catching the plague or getting hit by lightning.

So far, anyway.