When my daughter Erin was three weeks old, I typed out Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and thumbtacked it over her bed:
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful . . .
May she become a flourishing hidden tree . . .
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place . . .
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious . . .
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
As I changed her diapers, or soothed her arms and legs with lotion, I read the poem. Courtesy, fertility, joy. I wanted those things for her as surely as Yeats wanted them for his child, and I made Yeats’ prayer a talisman to ward off evil and bring her bounty. I believed that it and I could keep her safe.
Many nights I rocked her for hours while she cried, tight with rage or pain. Half-asleep myself, I nursed her, patted her, rubbed her soft back till her milky mouth loosened and she dropped off to sleep. Then I would get up stiffly, straighten my flower-strewn flannel gown, tip-toe to her crib and gently slip her in.
One night as I wearily left the nursery I turned back for a moment, and found her eyes wide open. She didn’t cry, but lay quietly looking at me. Her eyes were deep and black and knowing. A stranger, with a mind and will unknown to me, looked out of those eyes. “Who are you?” I asked her softly. “What are you like? What do you want?”
She lay unblinking, her face closed and quiet. Deep in the night she seemed more a fairy child than a human one. What were custom and ceremony to the wild thing trapped in this fragile frame? To remove the spell of those alien eyes, I lifted her again to my shoulder and sat down in the high-backed mission rocker.
As she grew I came to know her better, and she was mine. Leafing back through her photograph album, I wonder if in some way I didn’t create her imaginatively as much as I created her physically. In snapshot after snapshot, she is so posed, so well turned out.
A chubby baby with duck-yellow hair and round blue eyes, she sits placidly on a log on the beach. She wears a white swim-suit inscribed “Li’l Mermaid” and a coolie hat, while behind her stretches the blue Gulf.
At four, she stands at the piano, wearing a recital dress of rose organdy. Her feet in their little white socks and black Mary Janes are turned out delicately, her smile is happy. But it was I who coached her to cross her left hand over her right hand to reach the high notes in “Clouds on a Hilltop.”
At a Christmas wedding when she is about six, her hair a brushed and shining golden fall over her deep green velveteen frock, she stares bedazzled at the glorious white cloud that is the bride.
Feeding the baby goat with a nippled bottle, reading The Wind in the Willows to her Raggedy Ann, trick-or-treat-ing with her baby brother, both of them in leopard suit pajamas, her pink face beaming under fierce mascara whiskers, Erin is a dream of a child. My dream, perhaps. I was the camera. I saw what I wanted to see.
One picture is different, an old school picture. Tousled, impatient, Erin stares angry and unsmiling into the camera. She has no coquetry. She wants out of this room, this picture, this album. In her eyes I glimpse the changeling that once before said without words, “I’m not your little girl. I am wild and distinct and I belong to me. I have no name you can give me and I know my-self but you don’t know me.”
A daughter is an undeveloped picture. As the chemicals work, a shadowy outline emerges slowly, slowly of the person to come. Nothing is clear.
I remember the letters during her summer visit to Grandma’s and her two weeks at camp.
Dear Mother and Father,
I am having a wonderful time. She made me a sun basket. It is very cute. And 1 like it. I do miss you alot. But I don’t want to come home. So don’t worry. How is everybody? Tell me the truth.
Love, Your Daughter
I am having alot of fun except!!!! I have a terrible cold and my head is all sloped up & my nose is running. We were having flashlight relays at night. I slipped on the rocks and fell. I skinned both knees, which are all right now but my hand still hurts so and 1 can’t play tennis or swim. My wrist is hurting so 1 will stop. Here is a famous camp song: “This is the nite fer luv oom ba baby baby oom ba ba U en me en the stars abuv oom ba baby baby oom ba ba I want you for my own my own My luv fer u has grown & grown This is the nite fer luv oom ba baby baby oom ba ba.”
Some people love other people like rocks sometimes.
Me A cute note
I remember her victories. We lived on a farm for three years from the time she was 10 or so and kept horses. I am afraid of horses, so it seemed perfectly natural to me for Erin to be afraid too. More than afraid; she had a terrible allergy to them. At the barn her eyes turned red and swollen, her voice grew husky, and the noisy sneezes would come till she wept and retreated.
Occasionally her father would saddle a horse and put her on it and lead it around the pasture. There she would sit, trembling, sneezing, and crying, begging to get off, till at last he’d take pity on the whining child and jerk her down. “You’re just like your mother,” he’d say, marveling at the cowardice of women. “You’ll never be a rider.”
He said it once too often. I was washing dishes one Saturday morning when she stormed by me and slammed the door of her room. I could hear her crying.
Her father came in, and I faced him accusingly. “What’s wrong with Erin?”
“Nothing much. She’s just a big baby. Old Bess is too old and tired to throw anybody. I’m fed up.” He left for the feed store.
In a few minutes, Erin appeared, dry-eyed and tightlipped, and headed toward the barn. Some time later, making the upstairs bed, I looked out of the window and saw Erin on old Bess’ bare back, slowly circling the upper pasture.
I flew downstairs and out to the barn. Before Erin noticed me, I saw the angry, proud, fierce look in her eyes. She had cut loose from my fear. I turned back into the house. Erin never sneezed at a horse again, and she learned to handle skittish Taffy as well as old Bess.
A year or two later, she learned to handle boys. The memory that comes to me is about three years old, an accidental recollection. We were on our way to Mississippi for our Thanksgiving visit. We had a late start. An hour out of Dallas, on the other side of Lake Ray Hubbard, we heard ominous noises under the hood. It was 10 p.m. We found a station run by a mechanic and his family, who lived just down the road.
While the repairs went on, Erin, a slender blonde in jeans and bare feet, sat disdainfully on a car trunk just out of the circle of light. She was embarrassed that we weren’t driving a Firebird, embarrassed that when we drove up to the garage she was discovered in the back seat instead of behind the wheel, embarrassed that we had a breakdown. It was just what we would do. In my mind I see her dismayed, downcast face, her dangling bare feet. She was 15.
The mechanic’s son was about her age, with hair as blond and long as hers. Impish, thin, and wiry as a monkey, he was covered all over with a delicate layer of grease. He slipped away from the family trade and paid her court, their two yellow heads close together in the dark.
As we traveled east again, her brother, at 12 something of a voyeur, jubilantly reported the approach line, recited word for word in the patois of the region: ” ’I like this little old girl over here. Hey, woman! When you come back through, I’m goin’ to ask your momma if I can borrow you for a while, ’cause you be pretty.’
“1 promise, he did, he said be. ’Cause you be pretty.’ But she wouldn’t look at him, Mom. She just turned her head around and held her Coke can up-in front of her all the time,” he said in disgust.
“Well,” Erin answered, “I have a fever blister. Mind your own business anyway, you punk.” Her face was serene, and she didn’t even ask to drive for the rest of the trip.
Perhaps the strangest of her victories was her track record. All of a sudden, her second year in high school, Erin began running. She was best at cross country. I, who couldn’t run once around the football field without seeing stars, had a child who ran eight or ten miles every day, in March rain and August sun and December snow. I could understand the drive but couldn’t see where she got the stamina. We have a picture of her in the big mid-winter race of her junior year. She lost her right shoe in the first mile and ran the wet and freezing course one shoe on and one shoe off, her soggy sock flapping cold and heavy. As she comes up from the back in our picture, ready to cross the line, she’s scowling hard with concentration. Her eyes are set dead ahead and you can tell she prays only that her body will cross that ribbon ahead. It seems a far cry from the prayer for custom and ceremony over her baby crib.
If her victories were strange to me, what were her defeats? Were they even hers, or were they mine, defeats of that ideal of daughterhood I carried in my mind?
The most serious, to my way of thinking, was her defeat in college. My ideal daughter would get a good degree that set her solidly on a path of service to others and independence for herself. Erin didn’t want to go to college, but I insisted. On her letter of application, she wrote: “I am a very active person. I like to do things like dance and run and ride horses. I don’t like to read or study. I think I am ambitious but I don’t know for what.”
The summer after her last year in high school she partied every night and slept till noon every day. I’d heard about the senior summer, so I didn’t worry too much. She’d settle down, I figured, when she got into the fall classes. I came home from summer school one hot afternoon to find she’d gone swimming as usual with her friends, but she’d left a note.
I am accepted to SMU! I’ve got the letter with me-will show you when I get home from the quarries-
We marked the clothes, bought the sheets and alarm clock, got oriented, and on her 18th birthday Erin moved into the dorm. She had four mornings a week of eight o’clock classes; rough for a girl who’d not arisen before noon all summer. I hoped it would be all right.
Within a month I saw it wasn’t going to be. At her request, 1 began calling her at 6:30 every morning so she’d quit missing classes.
“Erin? It’s 6:30. Are you up?”
“Up? I’m up.”
“Are you awake? Don’t go back to bed.”
“No, no, I won’t. I’m up.”
I’d hang up. And wonder. Finally one morning she came to my office on campus, a wet chilly day, and she had no shoes or jacket on.
“Erin! What are you doing running around like that? You’ll get sick.”
“I am sick.”
I looked at her. She looked feverish and wild, disheveled, defiant, uncertain, on the brink of an abyss. Finally, I sat down and listened.
It all poured out, the missed classes, the failed tests, the confusion of boys, dances, frat parties, the angry teachers, the whole hopeless story of failure and shame.
“I can’t do it, don’t you see, Mom? It’s all so pointless. I’m not doing it for me anyway. I’m doing it for you. I hate college.”
I winced. “But honey, you need to learn, to know more about the world. You’re not ready…”
“Maybe not, but I won’t get ready reading those dry old books and listening to those contrary old bats talk for hours and hours. There’s no way in the world I can get up at eight o’clock in the morning for that. I want to do something for me.”
I looked at her, at the look in her eyes. It was a look I knew.
She’s back at home now, working as a file clerk in some sort of placement service for engineers. Every morning when I get up at 6:30, she’s already had her shower and she’s carefully blow drying her stream of blonde hair. She has to be at work at eight, and she’s punctual. When she comes home at 5:30 or so, she’s tired. The files are a mess in her office, she says, and she’s trying to figure out a way to bring some of the work home and catch up. It’s hard to, with files.
Friday evening I have dinner ready and the table set before my family gets home. I pour myself a glass of red wine, and the puppy and I relax in the window seat of our upstairs living room and watch the darkening streets. The corner light flickers on, the stars come out, and the man next door comes home with his little grandson high on his shoulders. The students behind us ride up chilled and red on their bikes. The young couple across the way walk to their door hand in hand, deep in conversation.
A pretty blonde girl comes swinging down the street from the bus stop on the corner. Hands in her pockets, head thrown back, she walks with a long loose stride on heels that would cripple me. I watch her come toward our house, confident, happy, at ease with herself. Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned. I know she is my daughter, but I wonder who she is.
May her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious-
This is the nite fer luv
oom ba baby baby oom ba ba
This is the nite fer luv.