~ for Mom and Dad
Mark half-turned toward the house, reached back to grasp the door handle, and pulled it shut. Tracy waited at the bottom of the porch steps. He joined her, and the two set off down the sidewalk. She caught his hand.
“It’s a beautiful evening,” she said as they began to walk. He glanced at her face – her slight, relaxed smile, the brown, silver threaded curls bobbing about her forehead. He followed her gaze to the quiet street and the trees in their late-summer green. He looked up at the blue, cloud-wisped sky and the lowering sun. He nodded.
“Okay, Sourpuss,” she tugged playfully at his captured hand. “I knew you were grouchy. I’ll leave you alone. But there was no way I was going to let you sit in your study and pout while I missed out on this.” She swung her arm through the cool evening air. “Besides, it’s an established family event, and it wasn’t just for Melody.” Her eyebrows arched as she said this, challenging him to challenge her. Indeed, challenging him not to challenge her, to leave her – if he dared –with the last word. He knew he really ought to jump in. Such a challenge should never go un-met. He really ought to let her draw him out of his own, gloomy thoughts.
But he didn’t want to. He lifted his free hand and shoved it into his pants pocket, then changed his mind and pulled it back out again. He hooked his thumb into the pocket and drummed his fingers against his jeans. Carlton’s Night. Their family tradition. Almost from Melody’s babyhood, they’d set aside the last Friday of the month to spend together. During warm weather, they’d walk the few blocks from their home to Carlton’s Café, where they’d sit and enjoy and ice cream. During cold weather they’d drive and get coffee and hot chocolate instead. From the very beginning it had been an event for three, a time for their family to draw together.
And it wasn’t the same without Melody. He looked down from the familiar neighborhood houses and trees to the concrete squares of the sidewalk. This wasn’t a true Carlton’s Night, anyway. They had taken their real Carlton’s Night last week, with Melody, on her last night home before they drove her to college, four hours away.
That had been their family time. At first Melody had held his hand, swinging their arms back and forth the way she had when she was a little girl. Then she had run up ahead to climb her tree – the oak in the park with the low branch that he had watched her climb so many times. It had been years, but he remembered it vividly. “Just for old time’s sake,” she’d said, “though it’s not like I’m never going to see it again.” She’d sat on her branch, swinging her legs as she waited for them to catch up, then hopped down and grabbed her mother’s hand. Watching her up there, he’d barely been able to keep the lump in his throat from turning to tears. And she had talked with them. She had told them of her excitement and her worries, of how she wanted to set up her dorm room and what she hoped her classes would be. As she had spoken, one thought had echoed in his mind: My daughter is a young woman, and she is getting ready to leave.
Now, tonight, she was somewhere else. She was doing other things with other people. She was making memories that he didn’t know and couldn’t share. And she wasn’t here.
He walked on, one hand held by his wife, the other drumming against his jeans. They walked along the same sidewalk that they had last week, last month. They passed and bushes and flowerbeds that looked much the same as they had for years. She’s not just been my daughter, Lord; she’s been my friend. Now she’s going to college, and I know she’s going to change while she’s there. What if she comes back, and we’re strangers? Of course there would be phone calls. Of course she would come home on holidays, and they’d sit and talk and catch up on life. But could one really catch up? On life? Sharing life was walking into the house after work and having her get up, hug him, and tell him about her day. It was sitting down and sharing the events of his day – the good, the bad, the accomplishments and frustrations. Nothing could replace that. It’s all changing. It’s all changing, Lord, and I don’t know what to do with it. What if, away at college, she decided she didn’t even want that exchange, that friendship anymore? I’ve tried, Lord. I’ve tried to love her and know her. I’ve invested my life into trying to be the father to her that You’d want. But what if it wasn’t enough? She’d be out among so many different voices, ideas, opinions telling her so many different things. What if she looked back on everything they had taught her, and decided to throw it away? She’s going to change and make choices. I know that, Lord. She’s going to mess up, make mistakes, possibly even get hurt. But Father – my Father and hers – how am I going to watch her do it?
Grahm Street, which marked the end of the housing subdivision, lay about a half a block ahead. Across the street, two storefronts from the corner, the blue awning of Carlton’s Café hung still in the early-evening air. As he and Tracy approached the corner, his eyes shifted from the café to the crosswalk signal on the opposite corner. A red hand flashed from behind the black cover grid, and as they reached the corner, it stopped. The two stood on the sidewalk and waited as the cars at the light began to move. Mark gazed absently at the crosswalk light’s red hand and its solid glow, and his mind wandered…
Mark stood on the street corner, with Carlton’s Café finally in sight. Tracy, beside him, held the handlebars of Melody’s stroller. Behind them four neighborhood kids, probably in high school, also waited for the light. Melody squirmed in her seat, tossing her curl-covered head this way and that. She lifted a chubby little hand and pointed across the street.
He looked up to see where she was pointing, then suppressed a chuckle. The crosswalk light! “Yes, that’s right, Melody. That’s a hand.” He looked down at his little girl, smiling. “It’s a red hand. And you know what? In a few minutes, the red hand is going to turn into a little person, and then it will be time for Mommy and Daddy and Melody to go. Can you watch until the red hand changes, and tell Mommy and Daddy when it’s time go?” He glanced up at Tracy, who smiled back, sticking out her lower lip. He could tell that she, too, wanted to laugh at this newest adorable feat of their little girl.
“Go. Go.” Melody bounced in her seat and pointed. The hand still shown red, but the traffic had cleared, and in both directions the street was empty. Tired of waiting, the high-school kids had looked up and down the street and then begun to cross, ignoring the signal. From half-way across one of them apparently heard Melody’s announcement, because she looked back over her shoulder at the little girl, smiling slightly at the toddler’s innocent mistake.
“No, no, honey,” he heard his wife address his daughter, “it’s not time to go yet. The red hand needs to turn into a little person. Keep watching.” He glared at the backs of the four kids, now on the other side of the street. Did they think it was cute? To confuse a little girl in the safety lesson her parents were trying to give? Sure, he’d also crossed at crosswalks before it was time. Sure the way was clear. But they’d heard him talking; they had to have known what he was trying to do! Couldn’t they have waited just a few minutes? As he watched their retreating forms, he yelled after them inwardly, Are you in such a hurry that you just couldn’t wait? What kind of examples are you being? The red hand means stop!
“The red hand means stop.”
“What was that, honey?” Tracy glanced over at him, her mouth drawn in, small and questioning.
“Sorry, what?” He shook his head a little, then met her eyes.
“I know the red hand means stop, dear.” The corners of her mouth twitched now. She nodded her head toward the crosswalk signal. “And the walking person means go. Come on.” The two stepped off the curb and out into the street.
“I was thinking about Melody,” Mark explained.
“Indeed. ‘Hand means stop.’ Melody. I see the connection. Makes perfect sense.”
“You’re making fun,” Mark mumbled, glaring at her out of the corner of his eye. He could feel his mouth beginning to push upwards, but he fought it. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t want to be in a good mood right now.
“Me? Make fun? How could you accuse me of such a thing?” Tracy’s mouth dropped, and she clasped her hand to her heart.
“Oh, I have no idea. You’re so sweet and innocent, you’d never do a thing like that.”
“And don’t you forget it!” Tracy nodded firmly. They reached the curb and stepped up onto the sidewalk. “So, what does the hand meaning stop have to do with Melody?”
“Well… do you remember the time when Melody was – oh, I don’t know… she must’ve been about two. We were on our way to Carlton’s. It was one of our Fridays. Anyway, we were waiting here at the crosswalk, and Melody noticed the hand shape of the signal. She pointed up to it and called it “Hand” – do you remember the time I’m talking about?”
“Ummm… maybe vaguely…” the her forehead furrowed as she thought. “Keep going.”
“I told her that soon the light would change. It would be a little person, and we’d go.”
“Oh, yeah. There were those kids behind us, and they crossed before the light changed. Melody got confused and thought it was time to go.” She paused for a moment and smiled. “I’d forgotten about that. That was so cute!”
He looked over at Tracy and then down again. “I was not amused.”
“You know, I don’t know why, but I seem to remember that, too. You didn’t say anything, but you seemed pretty irritated.”
“I was! I wanted to yell at them! I mean, they heard us talking to Melody.” Mark paused. “We were trying to teach her something about safety, about life. Maybe it was a little thing, but surely they could have stood there for a just couple of extra minutes. They probably didn’t even think about it, though; they just plunged ahead – and messed up the whole thing.” Tracy said nothing, so Mark continued. “You know, I still remember bringing Melody home from the hospital. I could hold her in two hands.” He held his free hand out in front of him. Had his daughter ever really been that small? “We’ve spent eighteen years of our lives loving this little person, teaching her, trying to help prepare her for life. Getting to know her. Now… she’s not little anymore… and it’s time for her to go out and begin to live on her own. I can’t help but be afraid – that we messed up, that we didn’t teach her enough… that some group of impatient people are going to go walking off when they shouldn’t, and she’ll follow…” His voice trailed off, and when he spoke again, his voice was quieter. “That she’ll change somehow, and I’ll lose the friend I’ve found in her.” He gave Tracy a little smile. “Worry wart, right?”
“Of course. Always.” Her head was down, but Mark saw that her smile almost matched his. “I understand, though. I’m not ready for her to be gone, either.” She paused. “I remember college. It was hard for me to distinguish what I really thought from what everybody else constantly said.” The two reached the café, and she fell silent. Mark let go of her hand so he could open the door, and held it for her to go through. They walked to counter and ordered their ice cream – for him two scoops of double chocolate chip, for her one scoop of caramel crunch and one of the day’s special, chocolate cherry cordial. Finally, holding their ice cream, they turned back and sat down at one of the empty tables. Mark watched Tracy settle into her chair.
She sighed. “I think we’ve done our best, though.”
“What?” Mark looked over his ice cream at her, puzzled.
“In raising Melody. It’ll be easy for her to fall in with the crowd – it always is – but we’ve tried to give her the tools she’ll need to pay attention, to discern. And though it’s always hard to keep in mind, we’ve seen her use them many times already.”
“Oh – you’re continuing the conversation from before.”
“Yes.” She gave a little laugh. “Sorry. I know we’ve established before – “
“That while your mind can follow a topic through a darkened maze, I need to be reminded of what we’re talking about.” Mark tried not to smile, but he was sure she could tell that inside, he was laughing.
“Yes, yes. I know. I said I was sorry,” Tracy replied, but he saw laughter in her eyes, too. “Now, back to the serious conversation – ”
“Oh, yeah,” he jabbed, “change the subject.”
“I’m changing it back!” she countered.
He gave an exaggerated nod, but remained silent.
“As I was saying, I think we have done the best we can to help Melody prepare for all this – college, growing up, leaving home. I mean, that’s been our goal all along. I know I wonder sometimes – there are always so many mistakes, so many things we could have done better. But we knew this day would come. We’ve been preparing for it. We’ve been praying for it.”
“Oh, yeah, throw that one in my face!” He reached over and nudged her elbow where it rested on the table. “Yes, we have been praying for it. And we’ve been praying for her.”
Tracy nodded “We’ve seen her grow up into a young woman who, despite all our worries, we love, trust, and are proud of. And now… it’s… well, our relationship to her is something new.” She licked at a drip of ice cream, then looked back up at him.
Mark nodded. “I know. Not that knowing makes it easy. After all, I also know that we’ve committed her to God, and she’s committed herself to God, and in the end, she’s in His hands. And they’re far better hands than mine. It’s easy to know, so easy to say… and harder than anything to actually live.” Mark looked off into nothing, then back at his wife. “Why is that?”
“Because,” Tracy sighed, “we want to be in control.”
“And we need to let it go.” Mark smiled half a smile, and the two lapsed into silence. They sat for a few moments, each in their own thoughts. Mark contemplated his half-eaten ice-cream cone for a minute, then looked across the table at Tracy, who was licking away diligently at hers. Eventually Tracy spoke up again. They chatted about the coming week and month as they finished their ice cream. Finally they rose. Together they walked out of the café and into the twilight that had gathered in their absence. As they made their way back down the sidewalk toward home, Mark reached one hand out to grab Tracy’s. The other hand he let fall to his side, palm open and slightly upraised.
This story was written for a creative writing class my freshman year in college. It was in part inspired by reflections on what it might be like for parents (like my own) to watch their child head into the semi-adulthood of college for the first time. It was also inspired by a scenario very much like the scene at the crosswalk… which I must confess I saw through the eyes of one of the girls crossing against signal, only to look back and realize the misunderstanding it had caused to a child in a stroller.
I did change one element of the story when placing it in this post: Tracy and Melody’s names were originally Abigail and Emily. I decided I liked the idea of this being another chapter in the lives of the family from “Making,” even though this was written first, and they were not originally the same.