So Wild and So Beautiful, We Have to Laugh

Earl S. Braggs

     
   

Sometimes it’s the sound of the garbage truck rolling past our house that reminds me to take out the trash. Sometimes it’s finding Wednesday’s wash still in the dryer on Saturday morning that reminds me that clothes don’t really need to be folded. Besides, I never learned to fold fitted sheets. Sometimes it’s the early morning dancing of my daughter’s footsteps that reminds me that alarm clocks sometime forget to ring. Sometimes it’s when my daughter says, “Daddy, the sky is crying,” that reminds me that when I was her age, my grandmamma and I lived in a house with a tin roof. The rain, in laundry-day sheets, would come pounding during hurricane season. We were never afraid. We were rainy night people, I guess.

 

Anyway, tonight the sky is crying again, and the moon is hiding behind a big ol’ coat. My daughter and I are sitting here in the back room of the world, facing a picture window, wondering if the stars know it’s raining, wondering if the moon is afraid, wondering if tomorrow will be a sunny day. She’s four years old. She wants to ride her new bike. We, my daughter and I, live in this house, mostly alone, while Mommy is away pursuing the dream of one day being a doctor. Her grandmother was a doctor in Soviet Russia; that seed was planted many crescent red moons ago. It’s a funny thing how dreams position themselves in our everyday lives, becoming truer and truer as we run from day to day, trying to figure out the ones we only slightly remember. So while Mommy is away in another city, six hours away, studying histology, anatomy, pharmacology, and pathophysiology, we sit here in another time zone studying the science of skeletons and their relationship to Halloween candy and dream catchers. We are Cherokee Indians without the laughter of defeat. We practice the art of the rain dance when she helps me put wax on my truck and sun-dance when we sell lemonade from a stand in the sun. We have no shade tree in our front yard, but our lemonade life is good. I am a single father in its purest form. We make stubborn ends meet by stretching our cartoon life until it, sometimes, resembles the characters portrayed. I’m always Tom the Cat; she’s always Jerry the Mouse. There are many crashes and booms, and there’s always a chase. My daughter always wins. “Now, Mommy,” she jokingly says, “you be Jerry.” But according to Confucius and the calendar at the Chinese restaurant, I was born in the wrong year to be a rat. “No, Baby,” I easily say, “let me be the cat.” And once upon a time again, Tom is outwitted by Jerry.

 

Sometimes it’s the anything but soft and sweet sound of Zelda, our real, live-action, outside cat, banging non-stop on the door that reminds me that I need to feed her, feed the hamster, and water the inside plants. Watering plants is not my forte; I’m a cacti man. Mommy’s different; she loves the sound of water. She even talks to potted plants, I don’t say a thing. They all seem to be jealous of me because I pay them little attention. I’m a good father, I have fun. Still, I leave dishes in the sink overnight. Cock roaches, if we had any, would worship me. According to the Book of Cleaning Bathrooms, I never learned how, and I don’t always make the bed first thing in the morning like my grandmother famously said every day of my childhood. So I give myself a B in this sociology course they call single fatherhood. I know I’m not speaking in the classic sense; my wife is a beautiful and wonderful mother. She has ways with our daughter that I’m sure I will never understand. Easily, she can be Tom or Jerry. Chinese calendars don’t define her at all.

 

It’s hard to describe non-classic definitions without using classic terms. So suffice it to say, day- to-day responsibility goes unaware of classic notions. When we, my daughter and I, are in the moment, I’m as single as any single parent in America. Don’t get me wrong, I know that there is an unforgivable psychological difference between my situation and situations that abound in true single parenthood, a difference so profoundly different that I applaud, as never before, the women and men in this country who raise children alone. I know that my life now is just a taste of a much larger, bittersweet cake, yet a moment in the morning, trying to tie my daughter’s shoes while she’s jumping to the rhythm of a Tigger cartoon knows no difference between classic and non-classic variation on the same theme.

 

Sometimes I ask my daughter to do something and she responds with “OK, Mommy,” followed by a salute. “So we are in the Army now,” I say, all the while thinking that I’ve become a kind of metaphor, a figure of speech in which the term (Mommy) is transferred or transformed into something it does not literally mean. It’s like the word hurricane is a metaphor for our house, though it can be quiet at the center. The eye of velocity can be kind. Sometimes it’s the kind and forgiving center stage light that reminds me of the assigned parts each of us is forced to play. Does “OK, Mommy,” mean I have no choice, does it mean that children need their mothers more than they need their fathers and that I have to become a “mother” when Mommy is away if I am to survive the day-to-day sociology that defines the notion “ single parenthood?” I believe so. Now ponder this: if I become a mother, then my daughter is without a father. If the sun comes out tomorrow, who’s going to teach her to ride her new bike for the first time without training wheels? They say the soul is bisexual. We’ll see. I guess it has no need or great urgency to be otherwise. Circumstance is the determining factor. The fact is when Mommy is away, the honesty of nature transforms me into a metaphor, into a being more in line with the way our society defines the ways of a woman. We men become softer, more caring, more attentive to illness, more rounded, more light-hearted in our approach to the day-to-day ¬†responsibility of holding life together. Before my wife left for medical school, I don’t recall sleeping lightly enough to hear my daughter cough at night, turn over and lose her covers at night, talk in her sleep. Now I hear sound before they, the sounds, make up their minds that they want to be heard. Metamorphosis is beyond the mirror.

 

As certainly as times have changed, so has the role of men in parenthood; no argument here. We commonly see men carrying newborns in tummy sacks, we see men taking the lead when pushing strollers up and down riverwalks and sidewalks, through and around playgrounds and parks, and we see men at malls carrying babies and diaper bags, no mothers in sight. Men’s rooms in countless places have Koala Bear Care baby changing stations that have been well used. In fact, it is now uncommon for the father not to be in the delivery room. Certainly times have changed dramatically, but when you live mostly alone with a small child, as any single parent can attest to, responsibility spans out far beyond taking the baby to the mall, a stroller pushed through the park, a changing station in the men’s room at WalMart. By no means do I intend to be condescending here: my intent is honesty, honest as a stove clock that blinks 12 o’clock for weeks at a time because the power failed some time ago or a thunder storm turned out the lights and I forgot that daylight is trying to save time. Sometimes my reminders take the day off, and I awake late, asking myself why aren’t those stupid birds not singing in the rain this morning. Late, late, late but never too late to jumpstart the heart and step solidly in the middle of chaos disguised as routine. Every morning I make breakfast for my daughter, even on those mornings when I am defeated by the smallest of things, mornings when the cereal box just leaps from the top of the refrigerator, spilling Honey Nut Cheerios onto the kitchen floor. Crunch, crunch, crunch, my daughter’s bare feet step much quicker than Tony the Tiger or Tigger. Mornings, I believe, are always a little bit upset because we cram so much of everything into so small a time frame. I would be upset too if every preschooler in America just didn’t like the sound of me. I, for one, can’t blame the alarm clock. I love mornings the way all children love the sun. For most children sunshine equals playtime; for me mornings are the only time I can write. Most days my mornings start out fast like this: “Do a good job brushing your teeth.” “That shirt doesn’t match.” “You can’t wear the same shorts every day.” “That’s good, fine job.” “Be still, I can’t do your hair while you are moving around.” “Are you finished with your breakfast?” “You didn’t drink your juice.” “Go turn off the porch light for me.” “Please, baby, get in the car.” “Have a good day at school today.” Then the morning slows down. Gradually, I take out my pencil and pack of safety pins and pin down the corners of my life.

 

Each weekday afternoon I pickup my daughter from pre-school, wave good bye to her playground teacher, her playground playmates, and drive away from one play world into another. Some evenings we go out, and some evenings I cook dinner at home. Sometimes I forget to wash the dishes. I blame my reminders for not paying attention. You would too, after one of my routine days. Each night at sleepytime, I read to her from a treasury of stories, The Berenstein Bears, The Day of the Dinosaur, Pinocchio, The Cat in the Hat (I hate Dr. Seuss), Green Eggs and Ham, and Good Night Moon. The end of storytime frowns at sleepytime. Like most kids, my daughter is never ready for bed. Sometimes it takes three tries, sometimes it takes four, sometimes she wants me to play Mommy’s yoga music. Most nights I have to lie down with her until she drifts off into the folds of the last song on the CD.

 

When Mommy is in town for an extended weekend or for holidays, quickly she assumes her role as if she never left, but my role is slow to change. It takes concentrated effort for me to re-become Dad, to figure out how to drive a nail without hitting my finger. When Mommy steps in, I stumble out into a strange emptiness, a momentary lapse of reason for being. This lapse leaves me tired not because I am programmed to be reminded, not because I am programmed to forget, not because I feel like a “soccer mom” when I climb behind the wheel of my SUV, not because of my job as a professor and writer. I am tired, I believe, because it takes all of me to transform me. It’s too hard for me not to see two nails going into the same hole. Strange as it may seem, “changing back into” is much more difficult than “changing into.” This doesn’t mean that I am not happy when my wife arrives; I am beyond happy. And it doesn’t mean that I am not sad when she leaves; I am very sad, but it’s the sweet sadness of caring, caring if we have enough milk in the fridge to spill just enough and still have enough for cereal tomorrow morning. So what happens during transformations? I’m not really sure. No, I don’t get dressed up in Yves Saint Laurent or Oscar de la Renta run-away runway dresses. I don’t drown myself in the smell of L’Oreal of Paris or Madrid. I don’t put on high voltage red lip gloss made by Revlon, although at times, I think a little mascara and a little eyeliner would get and keep my daughter’s attention at least for a minute or two. Then again, as I think about it, she would probably ask, “Daddy, when is Halloween?” I guess this transformation thing is a bit like Halloween. I put on a persona and scare myself into being whatever I need to be except a dishwasher.

 

Sometimes my daughter and I go to the video store to rent Winnie the Pooh or some other Tigger-jumping movie. Often I scan the racks, looking for a movie that I can enjoy alone. I remember I used to head straight for the “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” section, looking for Bogart or Brando, looking for a classic like Casablanca or Streetcar. Now, I find that the horizontal has incorporated the vertical and my preference has grown taller and, at the same time, wider. My preference is no longer compartmentalized, no longer only accessible on a limited basis, no longer entirely dependent on the angle from which the request comes. I’ve come to understand that it’s who we are at the moment that decides what it is that we prefer at that very same moment. The truth doesn’t lie, but lies tell the truth all the time. I remember the straightness in my own mother’s face when she told me that if I didn’t drop out of high school, she would buy a car for me. I finished high school. I never did see the car. She knew, and I knew that that was her way of saying, “Don’t be a fool, stay in school.” But beyond all of that, I have come to realize that perhaps this role as a part-time single father comes easier for me because I was raised by my grandmother, the daughter of a full Cherokee who kept the winds from blowing us away. She lived to keep my brothers and me alive. Everyday she said, “Things are going to be all right,” but they were never all right; they were OK and we, as I remember, were always happy. My grandmother was the one who told me, “Little Boy Blue come blow your horn, sheep’s in the meadow, cow’s in the corn.” She was the one who tucked me into the warmest bed I can remember. When I was a kid, I must’ve thought that she filled the roles of mother and father. Only years later did I understand that any role she filled was her own role. Sometimes now I remember her as rain on the roof of our tin roof house, other times I see her going off to work the gardens and fields of my youth. I see her picking Mr. Johnny’s butterbeans, Mr. Howard’s tomatoes or Miss Laura Kate’s blueberries. I see my grandmother, and she is always wearing a man’s shirt except on Sundays. Did my grandmother know that she was stepping across some kind of gender line in her imaginary effort to be in synch with the accords of her small world? Did she realize, as I do now, that we are never what we are as much as we are what we become? Still, I am yet to see or understand how twenty-five cents for picking a flat of blueberries can add up to anything my grandmother came to be.

 

Sometimes when I look into my daughter’s eyes, I see my grandmother, but mostly I see the defiance of a four-year-old half-Russian, half-African American who takes full advantage of Daddy when Mommy is away. I see the joke in her smile when she calls me “Mommy.” She’s still a baby in many ways, but she’s growing up. Sometimes she helps with the dishes, and yes I’m the one standing beside the refrigerator with mop in hand. We do yard work together, plant flowers, pull weeds, trim hedges, and haul away brush. We go for walks, and sometimes we race back home. “The last one is a rotten egg.” I limp across the finish line.

 

Sometimes it’s the argument itself that appears to win when we talk about things that appear so silly on the surface like texture and hue and what works best within the context of cartoons, within the context of our lives out on this balance beam. “The last one is a rotten egg.”

 

More and more, in her face I see the determination of her mother, her mother’s mother, and my grandmother. Strong bloodlines run silently aware of the course they ultimately pursue. “My Mommy is going to be a doctor,” she says, “and I’m going to be her nurse.” “Daddy what do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks, then pulses, “No, no, no, don’t tell me, a writer,” she says. “Yes, dear heart,” I say, “and you know what else, Baby Girl? It’s time for sleepy time.” “But it’s not dark yet,” she protests. Daylight Saving Time has saved too much time for me to explain away how tired I am.

 

Next day morning, as she calls it, will come calling quite early if my reminders don’t oversleep. I’ll stumble in from the security of dreams taped together by the emptiness of pillows and cases. Out into my easy uneasiness, I will stroll to the beat of Tiggers and tigers and breakfast at the zoo of morning cartoon characters. Next day afternoon, if the sun decides to shine, perhaps we’ll go for a bike ride without training wheels. I’m sure we will fall. We always do.

 

Some days are up, some days are down, the nights are mostly even, and the tone of my voice remains mostly in the same standard mode: “No dessert until you eat your vegetables.” “ Turn that crazy Chinese music down.” “Those socks are too small.” “Don’t splash in that puddle.” “Stop kicking the cat.” “ I just folded those clothes.” ‘You’re too close to the TV.” “Don’t leave the refrigerator door open.” “Be careful with those scissors.” “Don’t throw the paper on the floor.” “We don’t eat candy for breakfast.” “Don’t play with the lights.” “We don’t play soccer in the house.” “Turn that fan off, Baby.” “That T-shirt is on backwards.” She says, “But Daddy, I like it this way.” Yeah, some days are crazier than others, but it’s nights like this when we sit, adding color to the black and white pages of a coloring book, that I remind myself to remember nights like this, so wild and beautiful, we have to laugh.

 

     
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Earl Sherman Braggs is a Herman H. Battle and UC Foundation Professor of English at the University of TN at Chattanooga. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Hat Dancer Blue (winner of the Anhinga Poetry Prize), Younger Than Neil and In Which Language Do I Keep Silent: New and Selected. Other prizes include The Jack Kerouac International Literary Prize. His latest collections of poetry are Syntactical Arrangements of a Twisted Wind and Oliver’s Breakfast in America (a book length poetry novella).