Chicago: “Little One”
My youngest turns 21 today. I recall a father-daughter trip to see wild ponies in Chincoteague, Virginia.
My daughter turns 21 today.
Her mother and I are in France as I write this. We are celebrating our own significant milestone, a thirtieth anniversary, first revisiting the village where we honeymooned in Normandy, and now the South of France where we took the children to live for a wild, reckless sabbatical year. It was the year we planted the family flag. My 21-year-old daughter was 8.
Later today July 4th time, we’ll race home from the airport for the tail end of her birthday, to welcome her to adulthood in full, but also to toast goodbye to a childhood and early adulthood she’s completed with flying colors.
The father-daughter milestones have certainly thinned out. There remain a brief walk down a short aisle, a toast, a dance, grandchildren, I imagine. After that there will be a procession of beautiful echos, but echos nonetheless.
But enough of all of that. Tears aren’t a time machine. This was always coming. Buck up, dad. It was in the manual.
Alannah, your beautiful baby girl, is 21.
With each of my children, I arranged a special father-child trip, one that we picked out together. With Alannah we settled on a trip to Chincoteague Island on the Virginia shore.
It was the spring before her first year of high school, and we flew out from Seattle, rented a car at Newark, and drove through the late afternoon and into the evening.
It was raining and much later than we planned by the time we arrived at our seaside hotel, but our car was filled with excitement and camaraderie the whole way.
For the last hundred miles we played a made-up game to spot fast food places, one for each sequential letter of the alphabet. “A” for Arby’s and so on. First, we realized we couldn’t do them in order, and then we realized we could barely do them at all. More camaraderie.
We played on the same team, which was how we always played. We did not — do not, I must remind myself — compete. Even when we played tennis, we found a way to play together, trying for record numbers of volleys to get to a hundred back-and-forths, laughing when we missed the target because one of us panicked at the buzzer, groaning in shared disbelief, and then eventually blowing past a hundred together and “winning” — or sharing something better than winning and longer-lasting.
Collaboration has been our garden, and — getting right down to it — this is what I fear losing the most.
But even now, both of us adults, we still share our writing with each other, the visual design of our PowerPoints, our analytics dashboards, our latest streaming shows, our discovered music.
At one point over the last year, we declared with delight and complete conviction (and, okay, winks) that “there are no bad songs in 6/8,” and to prove it we now text each other links to incredible songs in 6/8. Even today, hiking high in the hills near our old home in France, she sent me I Shall Be Released covered by Nina Simone. Just the link to the recording. I responded with a “6/8” in my message back.
“Nina knows me so well,” she replied.
So, she has my love of words and love expressed through words. If you’ve read anything of mine, you already know words are the scaffolding of my relationships. In this way, something as simple as “6/8” becomes a shorthand for the larger thing we have been building for over two decades.
Our father-daughter trip was a visit to the wild ponies of Chincoteague. I’d read her the story Misty of Chincoteague a few years earlier - it was the last bedtime book I ever read aloud to her, the red caboose in a long train of childhood goodnight stories, ten boxcars past a box set of Little House on the Prairie and Because of Winn Dixie and Ratatouille, a hundred past the “Bob” Books. And after we folded Misty of Chincoteague closed, I suggested that we go and find the wild ponies. “Maybe for our father-daughter trip someday,” I offered.
The morning after our drive down, it was pouring with rain, and the weather was grim. We were not fazed. We had rain gear and high spirits and weren’t going to be thwarted from finding her ponies.
Through a stroke of luck, the hotel desk clerk told us we’d arrived on the day of the biannual pony health-check round-up. The delighted clerk sketched an impromptu map to where we should go to track them down. From her half-private smile, I’m certain we were not the first father-daughter team blowing through town.
My daughter had a blog at the time called “Miss Tweenster.” The whole serendipity of the round up, notwithstanding the rain, was a stroke of luck and perfect material for her readers. The charm of that blog remains — although she may have forgotten it is still out there until she reads this.
If you do visit, simply look for how she named the days of the week, and you will adore her as I do.
Feel something. Twice a week. Free.
The larger of two pony round-up locations was a few miles out by foot. So we made our way down a long, empty service road until we came across commotion, a cluster of pickups and trailers, and skittish, penned-in ponies.
Local veterinarians and cowboys had herded the ponies up for their semi-annual once-overs and shots. It was serious business, delivered by proud, serious volunteers amidst some earnest confusion.
We took endless pictures that day on our phones. We took footage of everything and everywhere, taking turns sitting in the middle of our empty road, posing by road signs, standing by dunes, everywhere trying to capture something panoramic in the rainy mood of the day.
Of course, there were pictures of the ponies — nibbling and neighing, restive and kicking — and scores of pictures of the men and women caring for them. The two of us peered through the slats of old corral fencing, had one-way conversations with wild-eyed ponies, and tried to stay out of the way of the grown-ups.
They released the ponies eventually, the corral energy settled, and the two of us headed back a few miles to our car. There were charmed sightings of the liberated ponies from time to time as we made our way back along the beach.
Afterwards, in the parking lot we decided not to return to the hotel, and we started shooting video out on the empty beach. We became both silly and creative, that priceless, artistic sweet spot. Take 1, then 2, then 9 and then well beyond.
“Do you want to hold the camera this time and I’ll run?” and “Maybe it’s better if you’re running backwards, too. That will create more motion. Or what if we shoot each other with us both running?”
“Let’s try it.”
Afterwards, in a car steamed up with fog we reviewed the footage and recorded a handful of documentary video narrations about our trip. We targeted an imagined audience reading Miss Tweenster. When we didn’t panic at the buzzer and forget to hit record properly, my iPhone, perched precariously on the dashboard, fell repeatedly to shared groans and laughter.
That night at the hotel we stitched the best shots together into a makeshift music video for Little One, a B-side gem by the band Chicago. We rifled through the footage to match edits, disputed, agreed, picked the titles together, the fonts, the angles, the continuity of facial expressions. We removed unnecessary people from the background where we could without sacrificing the flow of the best moments. We broke a family rule and decided, for the titles, that I should be “Adam” this time and not “Dad.”
Feel something. Twice a week. Free.
The words to Little One were written by the late, and deeply gifted, Terry Kath. They were dedicated to his young daughter.
My daughter knew that my mother had played the song for me when I was her age, and more to the point, she knew my mother had repeated the last line to me, the killer line: “Someday you’ll have your own little one — and you will always be there.”
I was on the far side of the couch facing my mother. She was standing by the turntable.
The Apple movie montage we assembled on my laptop on the hotel room desk at first was fun, then cinematic, and for a moment or two inspired. See if you don’t think so —but mostly see if the connection between parent and child isn’t something more universal and resonant and, I hope, familiar from one side or the other.
There are untold moments of beauty with one’s children, but the ones a parent sets out to create with intention and then delivers are the most precious of all.
“I will prove that I love you.”
And then you do.
Happy 21st Birthday, Alannah, from a rainy beach in Chincoteague where we saw the wild ponies together and shot video for Miss Tweenster. It is a place — haunt — I will never entirely say goodbye to, because I know I will always be able to find you there.
You are — and will forever be — my 6/8.
Now, go get ‘em.
Feel something. Twice a week. Free.