Life is a huge pie, each slice a different flavor. Childhood is definitely lemon. Yet–youth cannot wholly contain it because it pops up still, a half century later. Not as often. And maybe not as strong. But during an exceptionally joyful time of love or discovery or triumph, I whiff it.
Remembering comes easier with the years, an exercise that transports me back to when. The farther back the recall, the less effort required. Amazing. An old song does the trick, tripping my memory into automatic, instant replay. Sentimental Journey plunges me into syrupy-sweet melancholy that, click, plops me on the floor of our mill hill house, in front of a four-feet high cabinet radio, my ear pressed to its grill-covered speaker. I am four. Mama’s lying across the bed, weeping softly because World War Two took Daddy away. I don’t know where Germany is except that its far away and Daddy’s there. I forget sometimes, when the mill whistle blows for shift-changes, and I run to the front doorsteps and sit, peering anxiously for Daddy to crest the hill and grin when he sees me. I don’t like to forget–it makes Mama cry more. Then, we go to stay at PaPa and Two-Mama’s house for a few days. Going there makes me squeal and leap with rapture.
Click. I catapult to nighttime at my grandparents’ house. Baby brother Jimmy and I are lying in the bed we share with Mama. From an open fireplace, crackling flames warm and wash the dim, cozy chamber golden. Mama, seated in the big oak rocking chair, writes on a tablet in her lap–her nightly letter to Daddy–pausing only to dip her pen’s tip in an ink bottle perched on the chair-arm. A soft knock on the cottage’s front door does not deter her reverent communiqué. Nor does her father’s quiet words to the late visitor. Not until he calls to her, “Irene–it’s James.”
Daddy? I jackknife upright in bed as Mama springs up, bare feet already moving her swiftly from the room. Startled, I gaze at tablet, pen, and ink bottle crashing to the floor in the wake of her hummingbird’s departure. I quickly scoot from the covers to pad to the doorway and spy the exuberant reunion. Resplendent in Army uniform, my handsome Daddy sweeps Mama into his arms and lifts her from the floor, swinging her round and round as they kiss. Excitement hums out my fingers and toes as he finally lowers her to her feet and turns to look at me. He stares at me for a long time, his mouth slowly curling up at the corners as his blue-gray eyes form glimmering half-moons of joy. Then suddenly, I’m in his arms and he’s nuzzling my neck and covering my cheeks with kisses.
Daddy’s home! I’m so happy I want to shriek and twirl and leap up and touch a big piece of sky. But I’m too overcome with awe and shyness and instead, wrap my small arms around his neck and squeeze as tight as I can, inhaling his spicy scent, one that will forever represent manhood to me.
Later, Mama scoots over to make room for me on his lap. There, with his minty breath ruffling my cotton-top hair, he tells a story: “Overseas, I thought about my little Susie every day.” His dulcet baritone scatters goosebumps over me. “You used to play on the screened-in back porch, entertaining yourself with the most simple things. And always with this wide grin on your face.” He chuckled and kissed the top of my head. “You especially liked piling up little pebbles and rocks and then dropping them one by one into an empty milk bottle.” He sighs. “We–Mama and I–were potty training you along about that time. You were doing pretty good and I was so proud of you. Then one day I walked out on the back porch where you’d been playing earlier.” His arm tightens around me and I snuggle closer.
“That’s when I saw it–it seemed you’d had an accident. Right there on the floor.” His fingers move slowly to my small hand. He closes it inside his and squeezes it gently. “Without thinking, I rushed back inside and called to you.” He stops and I hear him swallow. “I here, Daddy,” you called back. I found you playing in your room, this time with buttons and bottle tops, doing your little thing with them in a basket. Without a word, I yanked you up and spanked you. I went to get the small fireplace shovel and went back to the porch to clean up your–”
His sigh sounds torn from him. “When I bent to scoop it up, it turned out to be your little pile of pebbles. And then I remembered how bewildered you’d looked when I snatched you from your play to spank you– your smile dissolving.” His voice is now deep and guttural. “I felt like crawling into a hole and never coming out.”
Mama kisses his cheek and murmurs, “It’s okay, hon.” I cut my gaze upward but he holds me so firmly, I cannot see his face. Anyway, I don’t want to move from this coziness, so I just ride the momentum of his heaving chest.
Long moments go by before he speaks hoarsely again. “I was in France when the memory of it really hit me. It was Christmas Day and cold–snow covered everything. I missed my family. Most of all, I thought of Susie. And her smile. And how I’d spanked her so unjustly. I cried and moped until one of my buddies sent the company chaplain in to me.”
“What did he say?” Mama asks, gently fingering his coat’s brass buttons.
“He told me to forgive myself. That my little girl had already forgotten it and wouldn’t want her Daddy to feel bad.”
Now, he loosens his hold until I can look up and see him. He gazes at me through tears.
“Don’t cry, Daddy,” I say through wobbly lips.
“I’m so sorry, Susie.” His words come out choked. His face looks like it hurts.
I wipe tears from my cheeks. “What for, Daddy?”
Something flickers in his eyes. Then they light up. “For being such a dope.”
A grin slowly breaks over Daddy’s face–and he hugs me to him again, along with Mama, and the three of us inhale each other for long moments before breaking into giggles and belly laughs.
Daddy–home. Today, I sigh with contentment as the picture fades, because I still feel the honey-warm comfort his strong arms provided and the serenity gleaned from hearing his deep, rich voice rumbling anything intelligible. I still experience velvety, cocoon-wrapped security just knowing, beyond a morsel of doubt, that Mama and Daddy loved each other.
Yet–the sweetest realization of all is knowing Daddy cared.
Emily Sue Harvey originally wrote this post for Chicken Soup for the Soul. Happy Valentine’s Day!