The Case of the Briefly Missing Daughter

Last night I sat on a hard plastic chair in an empty waiting room of a bus station. A sign near the counter in the next room told me that travelers had to report to a reception window, cash was not accepted, and no cash was kept on the premises. Another sign on the wall across from me said, “Smile, you’re on camera.” A window to the right had spider web cracks that shattered outwards from an impact crater.

I read an opening chapter from “Raven Black”, a thriller by Ann Cleeves, to pass the time while I waited for my daughter’s bus to arrive. I had just passed the point where a young woman had been found strangled in a field. Ravens pecked her eyes out. A strange man who lived in a crooked shack at the top of a nearby hill had been implicated in the disappearance of a girl twenty years before. The locals suspected that he had been at it once again. The victim’s father visited the woman who had found the body as he couldn’t face coming home to an empty house. Police had begun to interview the dead girl’s friends and associates.

Two guys emerged from behind the bus station counter and exited. I followed them to a nearby parking lot and saw a double decker bus pull up. A few passengers straggled off, but my daughter wasn’t among them. I checked the sign on the bus, and it said “Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Orlando”. Annie’s route. Annie’s bus. No Annie.

I wandered back toward the bus station thinking that she might have slipped by me. Perhaps she waited for me inside the bus station. Perhaps… Scenes from the novel danced in my head, and lightning flashed in a distant thunderhead. Dark figures crossed the nearly deserted lot.


.A second bus rumbled up to the disembarkation zone. This one was full, and the countermen took several minutes to unload luggage. Annie appeared at the exit door near the driver, and I smiled and waved.

Ravens, if any lurked about, would have to go hungry that night.


*I once gave my wife Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to read on a bus trip (I stayed behind). She called the next morning to yell at me as the story is about a road trip that goes horribly awry (a family gets waylaid, shot and executed by an escaped killer). I finally got my karmic payback 30 years later.


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Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Manage (Torture) Your Teenager: A Father’s Advice

Some fathers worry about losing touch with their teenagers. Don’t bother. You will. Your very existence as their father, as the man who did something (to their mother!!) that led to their entry into this world, is enough to make them cringe with embarrassment. If you are overweight and have hairs beginning to grow out of your nose and ears, your physical presence will act as a reminder that older people are gross, and they will be further repulsed. If you hug their mother in front of them they are forced to envision the possibility that your flabby flesh still comes into direct contact with their mother’s body.  They will turn their heads away and cover their eyes in disgust.

But don’t take on their embarrassment and make it your own.  Use their revulsion to your advantage instead.  When they start to get mouthy and belligerent drive them from the room by taking the simple, expedient measure of giving your wife a sloppy, wet kiss.  Murmur  “Oh, Baby” a few times and they might take their bad attitude over to a neighbor’s house where they can bond with other teenagers suffering from similar horrors.  You’ll be improving their social skills while enjoying some privacy with the woman you love.  Win win!

When your presence in their general vicinity doesn’t appear to disturb them you can always speak to them. Suggestions and personal questions can bring startling results. “Who was that girl you were talking too?” will silence your boy and give you weeks of peace. He won’t be asking you for gas money any time soon. Suggest to your daughter that she should meet a nice young man named Chris (any name will do) that you ran into at the Home Depot. She will scorn and ignore you for at least three days, three days in which her mother will have to deal with her whiny demands.

If your children misbehave at school and start running around with a bad crowd don’t make the mistake of threatening them with outlandish punishments. Don’t tell them that they’re not living up to the family name and that you’re embarrassed to admit to their teachers that you are their parent. Do something much more insidious and terrifying: tell them that you are concerned about their future and have resolved to spend all of your spare time with them until they graduate from high school (and perhaps beyond). Tell them that you will be their close and personal coach until they reach adulthood. And then watch in amazement as they go out and get part time jobs and buckle down at school. They won’t have enough energy to get into trouble while working desperately hard to get enough cash and education to escape orbit from your gravitational pull.

Don’t be obvious and yell and scream when they screw up.  They’ve heard it all before. Don’t give them space when they tell you that they need it.  Space is for astronauts. Insist on being a persistent presence, a pebble in their shoe until you drive them onward to greatness or, at the very least, out of the house. They’ll thank you later…much, much later.

House Husbands Anonymous

Alan lay in his crib napping, and Annie played with her dolls in her nest of toys, stuffed animals and books beside the sofa.  I sat down for a minute to relax before starting supper.

“Hello.  My name is Dennis.”

“Hello, Dennis.”

“I’m a househusband.  It’s been two weeks since an old lady walked up to me while I tended my children.  Alan was in the stroller and Annie held my hand.  We stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building and…and…”

“Take a deep breath and relax, Dennis.  Tell us what happened.”

“Okay, okay.  This old lady came up to me with this nasty grin on her face.  Alan was crying–he was hot and tired–and Annie was tugging on my hand, whining.  My wife, Judy, had a meeting with the dean of faculty.  She told me that it would only take a few minutes, and Annie kept asking me where Mom was when we had been standing there fifteen minutes.”

“And the old lady said something to you, Dennis?”

“Yes. Yes.  She asked me if I was babysitting my kids that day.”

“No!  She said that?!  What did you say?”

“I told her that I was their father, not their babysitter.”

“Did she give you that blank look?”

“Yeah–the one where they can’t figure out how a father could be a caregiver.  But the worst thing was her attitude of contempt.  She looked at me as if she enjoyed the trouble I was having with my children.  She relished seeing a man in a difficult situation with kids.  It was as if she were taking vengeance for all the women who had ever suffered as mothers.”

“You’re a bright guy, Dennis.  Did you really expect some kind of praise from her?”

“No.  I’ve had other experiences like this before and I could tell by her attitude as she approached us that she had nothing good to say.  But it made me so mad, so mad that–“

“Walk it off, walk it off, Dennis…Okay.  Why were you so mad?”

“When am I going to get some credit?  My wife is the only woman who appreciates what I’m doing.  She gets to have a career while I change diapers, wipe noses, mop floors and read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ for the umpteenth time.  All these women, strangers who know nothing about me, stare at me in the park and at the grocery store as if I’m some kind of freak!”

“You’re not a freak.  What about the men, Dennis?  How do they react?”

“They act like I have a disease they’d rather not catch.  Their wives nudge them and whisper, ‘He helps out with the kids–why can’t you?’  That’s when they start to hate me.”

“The men?”

“Yeah, the men.  I try to talk to them about sports and fishing, but they just turn away.”

“Do you want their approval?”

“No.  I just want to talk to an adult.  Judy’s too tired when she gets home from work, and the kids cling to her as soon as she walks in the door.  I guess I just feel lonely.”

“Are there other parents at home during the day in your neighborhood?  Could you arrange a play date and sit and have a cup of coffee with them?”

“There’s a mother down the block from us.  She’s friendly when I see her in her yard but would never have me and the kids over.”

“Why not?”

“The neighbors:  she’s afraid that people will talk.”

“Even if you visit with your kids in tow?”

“Even if…If I didn’t have you guys to talk to I would be totally screwed.”

“We’re here for you, buddy.  We’ve all been there.”

Annie tugged my sleeve and said, “Daddy?  Are you asleep?”

I shook my head to wake up as she climbed up into my lap.  She held up her Barbie and handed me a pair of tiny black tights.  Barbie wanted to change her outfit.  I struggled to open a tiny snap on the doll’s cargo shorts (Safari Barbie!), and couldn’t seem to get the tights up over her plastic hips.  Had Barbie been indulging in late night snacks?  Just as I thought that the seams would rip the cloth slid the final quarter inch–mission accomplished.

Annie wiggled down and scooted off to the kids’ bedroom.  She came running back and said, “Alan’s awake.”  She held her nose and said, ” I think he needs a diaper change!”

He did.  The load had a sticky, grainy texture, and I knew that no amount of baby wipes would completely clean it off.  I did the best I could with five wipes, and then hauled him off to the bathroom.  Fast running water and lots of soap did the trick.

I diapered him back in his crib.  He toddled after me to the carpeted playroom and began to stack and knock down towers of plastic blocks.  I got down on the rug beside him and handed back blocks that he had batted out of his reach.  Annie came into the room carrying a book about a lazy puppy.  I read it to her and Alan crawled into my lap and tried to turn the pages.

I had to get up and start supper and left them in the playroom.  I came back every five minutes or so to check on them and listened while chopping vegetables for the sounds of distress.

They were playing quietly together when I came back after getting supper prepped.  Alan was trying to pry a little teddy bear out of Annie’s hands, but Annie pulled away and set the bear on the futon by the window.

She asked, “Do you want the bear, Alan?”

He laughed and shuffled toward it, but Annie darted in at the last second and grabbed it up again.  “No, Alan,” she said.

Alan frowned at his sister.  That was a bad sign.  But Annie suddenly relented and said, “Here, Alan.  You can have it.”  She handed it over and Alan giggled with delight.  He stuck the head of the bear in his mouth, and drool ran down his chin and landed on his shirt stretched tight over his round belly.

The phone rang and Judy told me that she was coming home an hour late.  I sighed dramatically in hopes of making her feel guilty. 

The kids looked restless when I came back into the playroom once again.  I curled my fingers into claws and wiggled my digits at them.  I said, “My name is Chloe.  You wanna wrassle?”  Annie ran over and pulled on my belt.  I let her take me down to my knees.  Alan ran into me with a full head of steam and hit me in the back.  I fell on my side and Annie jumped on my ribs.  I pushed her off and rolled on my back just in time for Alan to fall on my stomach.  I said, “Ooof!”

We wrestled long enough for them to wear out.  I turned on Reading Rainbow and retreated to the kitchen to finish supper.  Judy came home and the kids swarmed her, and I sneaked away to the bedroom to be alone for a few minutes.

I must have drifted off as I lay on top of the bedspread.  I dreamed that I was back at the Househusbands Anonymous meeting.  We recited our creed:

  1. I cannot make my children stop crying when a toy breaks.
  2. I cannot make other people respect my choice to stay home with my children.
  3. I cannot always control my children’s poop.
  4. I cannot earn enough money to feel financial power.
  5. But I can love my children.
  6. I can love my wife.
  7. I can give my children all the patience and kindness at my command.
  8. When I lose my temper and am harsh and unjust I can apologize and make amends.
  9. The greatest gift I can give to my children is my time and attention.

Annie Baby (II): Rambo-bonding With Baby

We didn’t know what we were doing when we brought Annie home from the hospital the next day.  We knew that she needed to be held, fed and changed, of course, but had no idea how to interpret her cries and how to calm her down when we had exhausted all of the options.  We could have used some hands on guidance, but there was none nearby.  Judy’s Mom lived four hours away and worked, and my Mom lived ten hours away.  The main problem was feeding her.  We followed the advice of the La Leche League:  we didn’t give her any formula or water from a bottle to encourage her to nurse.  But Annie was an unenthusiastic breast feeder, and Judy’s milk didn’t come in right away.

I tried to jolly Annie into a better mood during one of her crying jags:  I jingled my keys, made faces at her and babbled as I held her in my lap.  Her response was to screw her eyes tight shut and wail.  She had no idea who I was and what the hell I was trying to do, but was very sure that she wanted the commotion to stop.  Unfortunately her father was a bit thick and had no clue that he was over stimulating a newborn.

Judy checked her diaper after several hours had passed, and it was dry.  She grew worried and called our pediatrician, who told her that we obviously needed to give her a bottle.  We had Pedialyte on hand, some samples given to us by the hospital, and I gave Annie her first bottle.  She sucked it dry in a couple of minutes.  As I held her and watched the fluid level go down and down and down, I felt a strong surge of emotion.  It was enormously gratifying to give her what she needed.  At the very same time I felt very strongly that she was mine to protect, and that I would attack anyone who tried to hurt her.  These reactions seemed automatic as if they were hard wired in my brain.

Homicidal urges, no matter how well intentioned, aren’t usually associated with bonding with a baby.  When parenting books illustrate that moment they usually show a mother holding a baby in her arms with a sweet smile on her face while the infant looks up in adoration.  My version of the experience would require a picture of Rambo firing a machine gun with a crazed look on his face with the baby held in a papoose across his chest by bandoliers filled with ammo.  The baby would be wearing a camo onesy and giving her father the thumbs up.  The bottle she held in the other hand would be shaped like a grenade.

I was a practicing Quaker at the time who believed that nonviolence was the best policy when dealing with a conflict.  I deeply admired Gandhi.  After the bottle was empty and I held Annie on my shoulder to burp her, I realized that I was no longer in complete harmony with the Quaker peace testimony. A switch had flipped on in my crocodile brain as soon as Annie latched onto the rubber nipple and took her first long pull. I was willing to kill.