I sit in the sunroom and look at the strewn possessions of my youngest, my daughter who will be thirteen in three short months. The boys don’t leave clutter like she does—their socks lay limp around the house like the shed skin of fat albino snakes, but that’s about it.
Grace is the one who leaves her possessions all over. From the chair where I sit, within reach is her page-a-day DOG calendar, her Discovery Girls magazine with a special section by Taylor Swift “on mean girls, fitting in & more!” Her black travel jewelry organizer that says umbra on the front. A small bottle of pink bubble gum hand sanitizer that really does smell like bubble gum.
Here’s her change purse on the table, with swirling green and pink and orange and turquoise patterns that spin into paisleys and leaf shapes. Inside she has a library card, lots of loose change, gift cards from Starbucks and Michaels, “where creativity happens.” She also has paper cash, a five and some ones. And a receipt from a boutique called Silver Thistle, where she bought her grandmother a silver candle snuffer for Christmas. With her own money.
This almost looks like the purse of a woman, not a little girl, in which case—I know the rules—I really should keep my nose out of it. This strikes me, hurts a little. I always knew it was coming, the age at which parts of her life would close off to me, as they should, but to realize that the time has come is still a bit of a shock.
My wife discovered last week that our daughter joined the ranks of grown women a couple weeks earlier, and took it in such stride that she didn’t bother to mention it. Liz went into her room and they had the talk about it, whatever that particular talk consists of. Afterwards, Liz asked me, “Do you want her to tell you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. Not only because I thought it was unnecessary, but also because I didn’t want to think about it; what I really wanted to do was put my fingers in my ears and sing, “La, la, la.”
I’ve written about watching my boys grow up. Those struggles are simply not the same. I heard a friend, talking of her daughters growing up, say, “If it’s a boy, you only have to worry about one boy. If it’s a girl, you have to worry about all the boys.”
That’s part of it, of course. But for a father, it goes much deeper. It’s not just the boys who are already calling and texting her day and night. It’s the predators, real and imagined.It’s watching her all the way down the street in the morning until she disappears behind tree leaves on her way to the bus stop, and then worrying about her. It’s telling her, “If a creeper drives up, run to a neighbor’s front door and ring the bell,” and making sure she understands that not all creepers look creepy.
It’s having swift and merciless violence in my heart for anyone who would harm her, but knowing that she is out of my care for most of every day now.
One of my favorite stories of all times is Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” and it breaks my heart every time I read it. The protagonist is a faithful Catholic, his best friend is his priest. And yet when his girl gets in real trouble he is willing to sacrifice everything for her. In prayer he argues with God, says that if it had been his boy he would have let him suffer the consequences of his action, even been proud that he took it like a man.
He prays that if God had had a daughter and not a son, things would have been different for everyone.
When the kids were small they rode into the restaurant with me early every morning. They helped me put away the crates the milkman brought, and the food from Sysco. They broke down boxes while the aroma of baking muffins and bread filled the kitchen. They dragged the flat cardboard to the recycling dumpster in the morning dark out back. I fed them breakfast while I prepped my sandwich board, and when my morning baristas arrived, I drove them to school.
Gracie was very small. She would often keep a Vie de France baguette box in the kitchen to play in. I let her use a serrated spreader to cut out windows, markers to decorate it. And while she did this, too many mornings to count, she played, on repeat, Ben Folds’ song “Gracie Girl,” which she naturally assumed was written for her alone. The boys would moan and groan and eventually just leave the kitchen, as I prepped and Gracie sang “Gracie Girl” over and over and over again.
Now she is very close to the age Ben Folds sang about when he said, “You’re not a baby, Gracie, you’re my friend. You’ll be a lady soon, but until then, you gotta do what I say.”
This little creature who for so long has jumped on me like a baby baboon, wrapped arms and legs around me and squeezed until I groaned, “You’re going to pinch me in half.” This child who curled up in my lap feet and all at shows and movies and on the couch watching TV is no longer a baby.
All that is over. As is only natural and right, and what every father of a daughter faces. I am looking forward to the wacky, fun-loving, self-assured woman she seems aimed toward being. But I will forever miss my baby Grace.