Were I allowed to chose one and only one moment to relive, over and over, for all the rest of time—the happiest, most perfect moment of my life—I know exactly which I would chose. It came on Christmas Eve, 1995, at my folks’ place. My dad had another year and half to live, Mom had just over eight, and a couple of months earlier, Annie had turned six, the ideal age for Christmas. Before six, I suspect kids still aren’t sure what’s happening. It must be like going to the circus for them, only their parents are the clowns. After six, it’s one illusion after another peeled away, year by year.
But age six is right on the money. They’re old enough to know the words to all those great songs—Frosty, Rudolf, the “Santa Claus is Coming” tune—yet not old enough to expect all their gifts to require batteries. At six, they have developed no immunity to the Christmas magic bug. They’re crawling with symptoms—the laughter, the anticipation, the delight of being surrounded by so much family—and no matter how hard we resist, we can’t help but catch it from them.
As perfect as my girl’s age was, the present I got her was even better. A puppy. For five years previous, I had sublimated the craving to get her a puppy. I bought her other things instead, soft-edged toys and learning tools and pop-up books and crayons, all of which she out-grew in slightly more time than it took her to unwrap them. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly little kids move from one thing to the next, you see. One week, they’re playing happily for hours with simple wooden block letters, spelling out “C-A-T” and “A-N-N-A,” dressed like a fairy princess in one of those other-worldly dresses Grandma finds in stores you never dreamed existed. And the next, they’re ready for toy dinosaurs (the names of which they’ve already learned to spell) and can’t even get that princess dress over their expanding heads anymore.
Yes, I was new to this. Having waited until I was forty-two to produce my first offspring, I was at least two decades behind the avant-guard of my generation in the child-spawning experience. Truth be told, no one expected me to ever produce offspring, anyway. Once, as I spooned some strained vegetable into my daughter’s mouth, my mother once looked me in the eye and asked, “Bill, did you ever expect you would have a baby? Seriously?”
I’m not sure what she was implying, but I knew what she meant.
At my wife’s fortieth birthday party, someone gave her a sweatshirt that read “I’d Rather Be 40 Than Pregnant,” and nine months later, to the day, Annie was born. She came as a surprise to everyone, but I dare say, the shock registered greatest on my system. Mom was right. I had never once, in forty-two years, pictured myself as a father.
Still, I knew a few things about children (having been one myself once), I knew something about puppies (having had several over the years), and I knew you could hardly go wrong by combining the two. From the moment Annie came into the world, I’d looked forward to getting her two gifts I knew she would never forget: her first bicycle, and her first puppy. By Christmas Eve, 1995, the bicycle was a done deal—the defining moment from the previous year’s memories. The puppy was coming.
* * *
A week before Christmas, I went to the humane shelter and found Molly—not much over a month old, as wriggly as only happy puppies or dying worms can be, and eager to be taken home. (I lied and told my daughter the dog pound had given Molly her name and that, by law, we had to stick with it. I should have let her name her own dog, of course, but I was terrified she’d come up with something only a six-year old could think was a good dog’s name. And in another decade, I didn’t want to be out calling for “Starbright” or “Goo-dly Oot-sie” to come inside for the night with the whole neighborhood listening.)
My dad took care of Molly in the days before Christmas Eve. He didn’t mind. He’d had dogs all of his life. Besides, four years earlier, he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he needed anything he could get to keep his mind off the reality that all the treatment he was getting was doing little good. Taking care of Molly gave him something to find pleasure in, and he was looking forward as much as I to the presentation.
I lined up a big box—big enough that Annie might think she was being given her first 19-inch television upon first sight—pre-wrapped it so the lid would come off easily, and arranged ahead of time for Molly to be hidden when we arrived for Christmas Eve. Under normal, more sedate circumstance, Annie would have heard a yip or two coming from the basement. But with the entire family gathered, with Mom’s carols playing in the background, with the clatter of Christmas food and glasses clinking and eight different conversations taking place at once, the yips went unnoticed. As the family started to distribute the booty from under the tree, I slipped out. Downstairs, I put Molly in the box. When I got back, Annie was on her knees in the center of the room, glowing like a crystalline angel fallen freshly off the tree. My wife had cleared a space in front of her without being too obvious, and my kid had no idea what was coming.
It was the biggest box Annie got that year, and she was excited merely by the size of it. I put it in front of her and as soon as she ripped into the wrapping, Molly went to wriggling. The box wriggled with her. Annie froze, drawn back with a bow in her hand and a hint of terror on her face. A moment passed and I thought my heart might explode. Dad laughed. It was such a good thing to hear him laugh again. That’s when Molly jumped up and pushed the lid off with her head. Tongue out and ready to lick, in that way puppies have, she grinned directly into Annie’s eyes and let out a yip.
That’s the moment I want to relive until the end of time, should it turn out that the afterlife works in such a way. To have made my daughter weep for pure joy may turn out to be the highest thing I have ever accomplished. And the joy she’s given in return is certainly the highest thing I will ever experience.
* * *
Early that same year, I had started writing opinions for the Boise Weekly, an alternative paper that at the time was struggling to survive. For my inspiration to even undertake such an endeavor, I must thank Newt Gingrich. From the election of 1994, Mr. Gingrich and the conservative Right were guiding America down what I—as an unabashed liberal—felt was a drastically wrong path. My first opinions were written as much for personal therapy as a serious attempt to become a regular columnist.
But a regular columnist, I did become—even if it was as a free-lancer for a single, struggling paper. I soon learned that I could not, week after week, maintain the same level of vitriol and sarcasm against the conservative tides of America without occasionally breaking it up with stories and anecdotes from my life. Who says a columnist can’t be both Molly Ivins and Erma Bombeck? I thought and commenced to test my premise on Boise Weekly’s pages. Hence, readers heard about everything from my views on evolution and controlling guns to what happened when my family went camping or spent an evening at the state fair.
My daughter started to play a significant role in this body of work as soon as I learned I could get away with it with my readers, and over the ensuing years, I relied heavily on her for subject matter. Last fall, as I was writing a column to commemorate her eighteenth birthday, I realized that she had grown up in print. It was as though I had taken a snapshot of her at regular intervals, and by flipping through the pictures, she would turn from six-years old into a young woman.
That’s what this book is intended to be: a flip through 14 years of our life. I say “our” life because it is less about her, specifically, or me, specifically, as about our relationship and how that dynamic has changed over a dozen years. In the earlier—and I must admit, rambling, essays—you will find that, generally, I used her to introduce some broader issue. Later on, I found I didn’t need a broader issue to invoke her. She was enough of an issue, all by herself.
You will also find that the separate chapters settle into a predictable size and shape. During my first years as their columnist, the paper was not so demanding in terms of a set word count as it would eventually become. In fact, I was often encouraged to ramble on—and sometimes on and on—in hopes I could fill a hole left open by other writers who hadn’t met their deadlines as expected. As the paper gained its feet, later editors were able to say, “This is your space, Bill. Make sure it’s full … but take care not to over fill.”
Also, many of the references I make throughout the book are specific to events and people in this immediate geography, be it the Boise Valley or Idaho, and will be meaningless to readers unacquainted with the area or its history. That’s not important. The real geography I mean to cover here is that terrain inhabited by one father—me—and one daughter—Annie. If you recognize certain landmarks as you read, or can feel familiarity with some of the landscapes that Annie and I have passed through, then it matters little whether you know the particulars or even whether you and I share the same politics or philosophies. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in these years, it has to be that being liberal or conservative, religious or not, has very little to do with being a mother or father. On that subject, we share virtually everything, the mistakes as well as the splendors. And I suspect that virtually every parent, if allowed to chose one and only one moment to relive, over and over, for all the rest of time, would chose that one instant when they were closest and happiest with their sons and daughters.
October 5, 2008