Letting Go

Four o'clock and I arrive to pick up my daughter Rose in front of the Moscow, Idaho, Public Library. She sits on the west-facing stone stairs, the unused entrance to the old Carnegie section that now houses children's books. On the stairs with Rose is Rachel, also of the Moscow High School ("Pride of the North") class of 1998. Here sit two seventeen-year-olds deep in conversation and school about to end for the year. The weak rays of this spring's on-and-off sun hit their faces and hair in such a way as to warm the coldest heart with youth and promise.

This is May on the Palouse, a tender time when the fat buds of ancient lilac bushes break apart and seduce us with scent. From every distant corner of town cock pheasants call in their hens, and quail offer their high purrs. Finches, mourning doves, and black-capped chickadees compete for birdsong space and nesting sites. Cottonwood flotsam drifts overhead like snow. I feel lazy, almost drowsy, so I sit in the car and drink it all in for a moment, letting the nonsense of the electronic workday evaporate, and hoping the girls don't spot me.

I've been picking Rose up after school for years at the library. Most afternoons I find her curled up with a book or magazine in the back room; lately, in these teenage years, she sits close to her boyfriend Ray, at a secluded table, sometimes studying and sometimes pretending to study. She is rarely late, always dependable except for once.

Two years ago on a brilliant Indian Summer day she and John, in the midst of stealing time together, walked out of school after third period to take turns calling in sick from a phone booth, lowering their voices in their best parental imitations, which were as transparent as cellophane to the school secretary.

John's father called me at work with one of those, "We have a problem," which means "I have a problem that involves you and now we have a problem that I expect you to help me solve." John had finally turned up at home and come clean with the whole scam. I found Rose exactly where I knew she would be: at the library, calmly reading. What followed could be classified as an authentic "scene"-a scolding in my fiercest father voice, Rose defiantly denying, then giving in to confession and tears. She said they'd only been drinking coffee at Third Street Market (for four hours!) and, besides, school was boring. I sat in front of her, brought those tears right out, and gave her an earful about responsibility and truth, questioned her sudden interest in coffee. (I never mentioned, of course, that I walked out of high school in Chicago my junior year to protest the shootings at Kent State, but instead of going to an anti-war rally, I spent the afternoon in the left field bleachers of Wrigley Field watching the Cubs lose).

Nearby, in the library, a young mother carrying her baby in a trendy Mayan wrapping glared at me with disapproval. "Just you wait," I thought. "That cute cherub baby sucking on fruit leather will someday carve deep worry wrinkles into your healthy face. It won't even matter if you are a vegetarian, a new-ager, or a life-long member of the Green Party. There may come a point where you may question if in fact, this is your child, instead suspecting that she is the product of an egg dumper, a human cowbird. And someday you may even regret not eating your young."

The next morning I had the vice principal, Mr. Whitmore, a large somber man with the strut of a small-town cop, who has seen them all and heard every excuse, a man who you might suspect has a flask of Wild Turkey stashed in a filing cabinet, haul Rose out of third-year Spanish into his office, where I sat waiting (surprise!). The vice-principal frightened me, bringing back the terror of the Chicago Public School system where I labored for twelve years with more than one trip to a vice principal for an attitude adjustment. For this visit, I had ironed my best sweatshop Gap pants, a conservative white shirt, and put on my least scuffed shoes. I matched up my socks, dug out a tie and attempted a dimpled Windsor knot. I wanted Mr. Whitmore to see that he was not dealing with trailer trash from the Idaho bomb belt; that we owned bookcases that actually held books, not rifle parts and piles of TV Guide, that I did not fear my government, and that even though Rose was failing geometry, this cutting of school was simply an aberration, a slight bump on an otherwise smooth road toward middle-class adulthood. While more tears squeezed down her cheeks, she got a tough love lecture from an authority figure other than me, a Saturday of detention (with John unfortunately), and a barrel of public shame. After she left, with a look toward my direction not unlike the one I received from the young mother at the library, the vice principal turned to me and said, "You know I'm glad you did that. Most of the parents here try to cover up for their kids. No one takes responsibility anymore. In fact, most parents would not have come in at all."

It was all I could do to smile a thank you in his direction. What I really wanted to do was rush after Rose, apologize for causing her any discomfort, and then buy her a mint chip ice cream cone. (Please don't hate me!) I felt awful for embarrassing her, like I was headed for an appearance on the Montel Williams show-"Mean fathers who go too far and the daughters who hate them"-but she hasn't cut school since and she passed geometry.

I look away from the girls across the street to a long staircase leading to the Russell Elementary School playground where, on a fall day ten years ago, I watched Rose climb those two dozen stairs alone, and with a bag lunch, a cigar box full of colored pens, a gum eraser, and blunt scissors, begin her slow ascent out of my life into first grade.

I always look forward to this after-school hour with Rose. It's an important father-daughter time for us, these twenty-five minutes in the car west over the Idaho-Washington border to Pullman, where we've lived since I remarried. A 1989 Subaru hatchback may be an unlikely setting in which to communicate ethics and values, and reaffirm love and family, but it works for us. Anyway, as a parent of a teenager, you are always off balance, grasping at straws, parenting books, or a bottle of Zoloft. So you tend to stay with any small success. Sociologists love to rattle off statistics about how many minutes per day fathers spend with their children, always discounting the power of silent communication and the value of mere presence, along with the all-important fatherly stare and raised eyebrows. And they rarely speak of how little or erratically a teenager wants to relate with any parent.

Commutes have definite advantages. A moving car does not allow for any getaways, there is only the window to stare out of, although I'm sure we've both felt like flipping the handle, screaming, and jumping out. We know each other so well that we can slash and hurt in the time it takes to tie a shoe. We've taken turns apologizing, yelling, and in our worse moments, picking at old scabs to get the blood flowing. ("I didn't ask to live in two homes!" is her worst.) But we also discuss our own modest history, the state of affairs with her friends, and sometimes her mom. I let her speak first and failing that, I ask some questions not so cleverly disguised to elicit more than a yes or no, or a nod, which is hard to see when you are driving fifty-five miles an hour on a two-lane highway. "What did you have for lunch? Did you eat lunch? Where? Do you have any homework?" If it's a good day, a "thumbs up day" as her first grade P.E. teacher called it, she has a lot to say. "I got two poems accepted in the literary magazine, and I think I'm getting an A in chemistry." But if the day turned sour, and they often do, she gets into the car lugging a stone wall to place between us.

If she is noticeably quiet I wait it out, knowing that by the time we cross the state line, she might offer something about her lousy day. It might be a friend that she's upset with, or a teacher who lost her extra credit, or a substitute teacher that ridiculed her in front of the class about her negative feelings concerning the Vietnam War, or a word in a poem that was changed without her permission. When she lost a homework file to a temperamental school computer, she asked, "Why do we have to be so dependent on these computers?" by which time she's bent over, crying into her hair.

This little intersection of the library and school at Jefferson and First streets is in many ways the core of our fourteen-year history in this town. And although there has been no change in the surroundings of this corner, Rose is now a young woman of seventeen and somehow I've managed to turn middle-aged, my face a map of well-earned worry wrinkles.

There's comfort with the same surroundings and anxiety with too many changes. Lately, as I look past the dignified stone façade of the library, solid and unyielding, to the streets beyond this corner of our world, it's change that has the upper hand.

Our little town rings with the dissonant boom of cul-de-sacs and ugly housing developments with names like Quail Run, Cottage Estates, and Rolling Meadows. We see too many cars on the small streets and a more impatient breed of driver not afraid to lift the middle finger or lean on the horn. On those same crowded roads is more trash from new fast food joints. More baseball caps turned backwards. More sameness. Less respect.

I wonder if Rose and her generation feel as much grief as I do with these changes. I can't assume they do, although they have plenty of anxious feelings. It's a common mistake to think our kids are carbon copies of us; that through some kind of experiential osmosis their lives mirror ours. But Rose is part of a new generation of Westerners that have, in fact, only lived here while many of us grew up elsewhere. They may have no sense of grief about a wheat field turning into a Wal-Mart. Or a clearcut in the wilderness. Or a new trailer park on the edge of town that replaced an aspen grove. Do we appear angry and sad to our children when they listen to us discuss environmental and social issues? Are we supposed to teach them that grief? Have we already?

I think back to an assignment I gave Spokane high school students when I was invited there as a guest writer. "What are you afraid of?" "Making a mistake. Rapists. Going to college. Becoming my father. Staying the same too long. Environment becoming bad. The future. Death of a loved one. Admitting my love for another. Spiders. My grandmother's perfume. Losing my convictions. Loneliness. Leaving behind what I love. Prejudice. Being torn from all I believe in. Not being able to make a difference. Machines. Dark basements. Raising my children wrong." We should memorize this list.

I know some things about my daughter. My life is defined by being her father. Rose affects me both at a cellular and emotional level, in ways so subtle, deep, and even biological that I cannot imagine ever living in a world in which she did not exist. She is always on my mind, sometimes out front, sometimes at the edges, but always there. (Thus the worry wrinkles and crows feet.) Yet, I cannot always remember her early years with much detail. We did not keep a baby book. There are no videos, thank goodness. Relatives were all back in the Midwest or the East, not a part of my life then. Photos were few and now they are scattered between two households. I mostly remember being tired and frustrated, trying to climb out of poverty and sort out why I wasn't becoming middle class like everyone else in my generation. For several years I made $130 a week, and each time my boss would hand me the check he would hold the other end for just a second too long and ask, "Do you mind waiting a day before you cash this?" Despite my erratic memory, there are times, seasonal and aromatic in nature, involving light or sounds or colors, when I do remember details. The way she felt on my back as I carried her down the street. How she would point and crow when I would tell her words to give her vocabulary. The way she would greet me when I returned at the end of the day exhausted from picking daffodils, driving grain trucks, or cooking omelets. Rose is leaving, not permanently, but certainly she's ascending another flight of stairs to a new level of life and this time the lump in my throat is the size of a pineapple. The question is not whether she is prepared, but whether I am.

I never imagined how fast we would arrive at this crossroads. Rose is at that magical age, on the doorstep of possibility, about to enter a rarefied state of young adulthood, where excitement and enchantment collide, and the world is vast and beckoning. I am mostly settled, feeling those enhanced emotional moments of inspiration less and less, but instead experiencing a richness that I never felt at seventeen, a context and texture that comes with being alive for four decades. Some goals remain. I still hope to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, or visit Tuscany, or learn to play tenor saxophone, get a degree in natural science, play guitar like Chet Atkins, and get published in The New Yorker.

Rose bounces up to car with Rachel in tow. They have a plan that involves volleyball and bikes, and can we get a snack on the way home? If I could preserve this moment, bottle it and place it in a locked chest I would. This is my life, I say to myself. Everything I could ever want is right in front of me. The girls get in the car and we’re off, the three of us a perfect picture of energy and gossip and glorious laughter. 

A few weeks later, on Father's Day I decide we should drive to Elk River, a sleepy timber town on life support. Not long ago, customers at the Elk Butte Log Inn watched a logging truck rumble by every three minutes. Those days are mostly over-in the immediate area at least. The population sign says 149. Another sign in an abandoned building says, "Coming Soon," but no one believes it. The only school finally closed several years ago, after graduating its last two high school students, and has been replaced with a few gift shops. Just outside of town we are delayed by hundreds of cattle sauntering down the middle of the highway. At the end of the herd is a family on foot using sticks and tree limbs to keep the cattle on track.

Some arm twisting was involved to get Rose to agree to this trip. "Can't I just take you out for breakfast?" she asks, looking pained. We negotiate. I tell her we don't have to leave until eleven and I agree to buy her a steamed milk on the way. We rent a canoe at Huckleberry Heaven and put in near the Elk River pond. First we have to negotiate a narrow channel. We have only canoed together one other time, and it's a struggle to synchronize our J strokes. We crash into a few bushes along the bank, get stuck on every sand bar, and manage to cover a hundred yards going sideways. Neither of us gets mad and the idea of Rose being in a canoe under paternal duress passes with each paddle. Besides, we are out on the water with the turtles, a family of Canada geese, ducks, and a watchful pair of osprey. I don't ever want the day to end.

As we eat cold pasta salad and rhubarb muffins in silence (while high-centered on a sandbar) I wonder what Rose is afraid of, but I don't ask. She has enough to think about. Instead I say, "There's some potato salad and grapes if you're still hungry." I think I'm finally beginning to get it: Rose is mostly grown up. I need to step back even more and let her grow into her life. And I need to get on with mine.

After two hours of canoeing, of which the last part is spent floating in circles around a smaller pond full of warm algae that I tell Rose is actually body snatcher people, we pull the canoe out on the bank and head back. "Let's take the long way, the dirt road to Helmer. We haven't been on it in a few years," I suggest, wanting to draw the afternoon out into twilight and to go somewhere that hasn't been subdivided. But even out here there is change.

After just a mile of driving comes evidence of every conceivable type of logging practice: clear cuts, selected cuts, burns, and new plantings. New roads are everywhere with numbered signs, and many have the ubiquitous locked green gates. Rusty culverts lie in piles like intestines, along with discarded steel cables, parked bulldozers, and other earth movers. I look for a campground that I'm convinced is out here but I can't find it among all the chaos. Signs warn us to watch for heavy equipment, but it's Sunday and even the work of destruction needs to rest.

I start in with my usual rant and rave about all the new roads, the wreck and ruin, the shrinking habitat for animals, overpopulation, and de-evolution, but after a few minutes I shut up. I can tell where this is going. What do I expect Rose to do? Come out here and blockade a bulldozer? Spike a tree? She's heard all this before. She'll figure it out for herself if she hasn't already. Or maybe she won't. These are my struggles. She has the rest of her life to acquire her own.

Instead of a meaningless lecture I pull over at the crest of the hill and we sit for a moment as the sun fades to look at what is still there: dark cedar forests and wide, wet meadows of tall grass, skunk cabbage, and wild flowers; creeks that make you weep with their simplicity. Then I start up the Subaru and we drive home, taking our time, following the back roads just like all the times before. Just like nothing has changed or ever will.
Stephen Lyons
is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.   He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. His next book—profiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwest—will be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in the anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com.