Asheville Citizen-Times 11/22/2014 –
After turning off the baseball game, I drove aimlessly around the local streets, crossing vacant railroad tracks, passing an ivy-covered Irish pub, before arriving at the old elementary school that had become a public library.
I walked to the grassy lot behind the building, to a corner of the rusted chain link fence surrounding the property. As I ran my fingers across the cool steel of the railing, I realized that with just a few weeks until the wedding, this place was the tie to the photograph with the red sneakers.
Yes, the red sneakers: bright canvas with metal eyelets, white laces and double rubber toes — oddly delicate considering their purpose. When I think of them, I also see the white ankle socks, the cornflower blue-checked dress and her sweet face waiting for me to take the photograph.
Once the snapshot was completed, she raced over, offered a hasty kiss, gathered her backpack and darted toward the school. As I waited for her to stop at the entrance, then turn and offer me the usual final wave, I had already begun mentally reviewing the phone calls required at the office. But instead of slowing when she reached the door, she swung it open and disappeared inside without once looking back.
That could not have just happened, I thought. She always glances back and waves goodbye before she enters the school. I expected that. It made me feel, well … necessary.
I grudgingly acknowledged that my little girl’s uninterrupted run into the elementary school was the first of many strides, some big, some small, that would lead her to herself. Recognizing that moment for what it was — transitional, and understanding that there would be many more, I figured I’d better psychologically prepare myself for the next time she took a step away.
But I never did.
Five years later, we drove to her first sleep-away camp. I carried blankets, two stuffed animals hidden in a laundry bag, and a trunk into the cabin. An hour later, saying goodbye near the cabin’s planked steps, she was fidgety and obviously eager to rejoin her new friends.
As I drove away, I slowed and glanced into the rearview mirror to see if she was watching us depart. No one stared through the cabin window.
“She’s not looking,” I said to my wife.
“That’s healthy,” she replied.
Years before, seated in a small-town diner, my future wife and I had discussed children for the first time. She told me that a parent’s unwavering devotion to their child was instinctive, that without a second thought any mother or father would singlehandedly defend that child from stampeding horses, invading armies or runaway trains.
I knew what she had said was true — but later discovered it wasn’t the whole story. I could only temporarily reroute the runaway trains, or momentarily subdue the stampeding horses. My job was to demonstrate to my daughter how it was done.
It was the proper and necessary path, but not the easiest. I preferred the role I had stumbled upon at the very beginning — one that allowed me to deliver a glass of water and a security blanket to a frightened little girl suffering from a bad dream. Watching over her had been a natural undertaking, one I was never quite able to detach from — until, of course, it detached from me.
As the years passed, the steps grew larger, and I became better acquainted with my lack of control. Then in February she was engaged to a boy from Connecticut. Away for college, OK, a couple of boyfriends along the way, well I could live with that — but marriage?
That was too final for my liking.
The August wedding was outdoors and alive with beauty. A bagpiper playing “Highland Cathedral” led us down the aisle. Later, when the reception was nearly over, our daughter and her new husband were quietly conversing. She saw I was approaching and briefly turned away to complete a sentence before looking back at me.
That same night, with the wedding already a memory, my wife and I sat on our back porch sipping iced tea and listening to the crickets. I was wearing old jeans, a dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, and a hangdog expression. On my wife’s knees sat the red sneakers — the first-grade sneakers she had saved for 25 years.
I stared into the night and thought about a different girl with dark eyes. A young woman who had danced with me on a scuffed gymnasium floor while the Blue Velvets band played slow song after slow song — a girl who at our May wedding turned briefly away from her approaching father. A girl who never looked back.
Finished with the tea, I reached for the sneakers, then her hand, before we went inside.
Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His first novel, “The Fall of Summer,” a 1960s coming-of-age story, is now available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and via http://tedmalexander.com/Books.html. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.