It’s summertime, and since I’m a schoolteacher (sucking on the public teat whilst lazing away the sunshine months), and since my father-in-law likes to play nice and make up for decades of being a huge jerk to his kids, we board an annual airplane and head out of our high desert homeland toward a variation on a beach-front time-share hotel somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean.
This time it’s the Florida panhandle, the “Redneck Riviera,” near the nexus of Alabama, Georgia and the Sunshine State. As we descend, the window seat (perhaps my favorite part of these trips) reveals humidity in the form of huge towers of cumulus clouds and industrial progress in the form of a checkerboard swath of pine plantations — long straight rows of identically tall slash pines (this whole part of the state owned by the St. Joe paper pulp company) suddenly giving way to a brand-new airport hacked out of the monoculture tree farm like some kind of Amazonian outpost.
My brother-in-law, a packaging engineer from southern Indiana, picks us up and wheels us toward a distant row of monolithic boxes — a dozen miles of towering hotels lined up along the Gulf of Mexico, backed by stucco minimalls and lowbrow tourist trappings galore: shark feedings twice daily, novelty condoms, topless/oyster bars, backwater alligator tours and the like. We pull into our weeklong digs at the “Hidden Dunes Hotel,” where the formerly rolling white sand dunes are, indeed, hidden beneath the 10-story hotel and its parking lots, gift shops and swimming pool(s). A dune buggy roars up and a well-tanned shirtless fellow with a mullet and a huge round belly (a recurring theme) tells us we can’t park there, so we shuffle the car, grab our luggage and head to our top-story condo. We greet our relatives, then don our unused-since-last-August swimsuits and make a beeline down to the beach.
The first few days were blissful. My wife, my daughter and I on the white-sand beach (quartz grains washed down from ancestral Appalachians “hundreds” of years ago, says the brochure, so as not to upset the Creationists among us), lazing and playing together in the surf. Our daughter is amazed by every shell she picks up. She giggles when the fish nibble on her ankles. She giggles even more when bigger fish nibble on the middle-age moles on Daddy’s back. She marvels at the starfish mommy picks up. She screams in delight when Daddy picks up a plate-sized crab and recieves a power pinch strong enough to draw blood. She chases after sandpipers and kicks up sand. She has no interest in the swimming pool and its array of floatie toys, and prefers to be in the ocean, which makes me a proud pagan parent.
It’s blazing hot: 96 degrees and Gulf Coast humid (hot enough for an official “heat warning”), but it’s no problem, since every outdoor moment is spent in pleasantly warm yet cooling ocean waters as our little drama queen narrates in real time:
“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”
Pummeled by waves. Sand in ears. Seaweed in bathing suit. Algae in hair. Tiny seashells in buttcrack. Gasping for air, she turns and faces the sea …
“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”
Pummeled by waves. More sand in ears. More seaweed in bathing suit. More algae in hair. More tiny seashells in buttcrack. A blank look on her face, she gets back on her feet shakes off the sea foam, and turns towards the surf …
“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”
Pummeled by waves. Additional sand in ears. Additional seaweed in bathing suit. Increased algae in hair. A collection of tiny seashells in buttcrack. She recovers, stands, turns again towards the sea, as if to mock Posiedon himself, and tells me “let’s go out a little bit further.”
Again, and again, and again, until, despite the level-50 sunscreen, Mommy and Daddy are sunburned and resort to outright bribery (popsicle) to coax the golden-haired mermaid out of the Gulf of Mexico and up to the frigidly cool condo, where we pluck algae from her locks (there will be no brushing of hair until we return to New Mexico), shake the seaweed from her ballerina swimsuit, and rinse the tiny hermit crabs from her buttcrack. We leave the sand in her ears.
After dinner, we do it all over again, then take moonlit strolls along the low-tide line in search of nocturnal creatures. My wife and I stroll hand in hand, marveling at the swell combination of ocean, parenthood and marriage, a powerful trio enjoyed by the power trio of our stable nuclear family: Mom, Dad, daughter.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
During the blazing afternoons, while my daughter naps and the rest of the relatives shop or watch teevee, I sip beer on the porch and enjoy the bird’s-eye ocean panorama. The basic elements of the scenery — sky, sand and water — stay the same, but exist in constant flux, and every glance offers an entirely new and different view. The ocean surface ripples and undulates, and the color of the water changes throughout the day. Waves build up, crest and crash upon the shore, each one displaying its final hurrah in a similar yet unique fashion. The shore itself is constantly on the move as currents move entire stretches of beach from one place to another in a single afternoon, creating pools and sandbars that come and go every few hours. The tides rise and fall with the changing moon. Schools of fish and accompanying flocks of pelicans arrive and move on. The dolphins parade past and vanish. Beer cans and broken plastic buckets and shovels wash up on the shore, spend a few hours in the sun, and are swept away by the next high tide.
Change at the ocean is perpetual and apparent, and every so often, on every stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, this dynamism is punctuated by the destructive force of a major hurricane — the storm of storms, and a great transformer of huge swaths of terrestrial and even sea-floor landscapes. Indeed, as chance would have it, evidence of one of the greatest changers in the history of the planet exists beneath the sea a few hundred miles south of my high-falluting top-story view: Chicxulub Crater, site of the meteor impact 65 million years ago that knocked the dinosaurs out of existence and extinguished the vast majority of all life in North America. I sip my cheap beer with lime in it and ponder that monster tidal wave of the ages, the ultimate agent of change.
I am fortunate enough to live in a land of expansive views, some of the best in America, I think, but with the exception of the shifting light and the movements of animals, my high-desert/mountain landscape remains essentially static throughout the days. Unless you’ve ingested something psychoactive, the sweep of sagebrush doesn’t undulate. The layers of rock in the canyon walls are always in the same place. Change exists of course, everywhere and always, but actual physical changes to the land where I live occur at a pace so slow as to escape a casual daily glance, and the only major destructive forces consist of forest fires and the occasional small mudslide or flash flood, none of which transforms the landscape in a major way. Mountains, even burned-over mountains, stay where they are. Things in my high-desert homeland are amazingly beautiful but forseeable, and the visible scenery is reliable.
And so it is with our daughter. Like the piñon pines that dot our foothills, she’s always growing, but that growth happens in small increments and cannot be detected from day to day. Like our seasons, our daughter is changing every day, but the changes tend to be gradual and occur according to an established timeline: solid food at six months, crawling at eight months, walking at one year, and on and on until she graduates from high school. When our power trio, the Elsie Clayton Experience, is at home together, our lives follow an enjoyable routine and the days blur together in general harmony. Storms come and go, fires occasionally flare up, but our household remains solid as a mountain, and we are able to build our life upon a bedrock of loving parental control.
But everything changes during a vacation, particularly one involving the extended family, for during these times our daughter is more akin to a fluctuating ocean, and we are forced to watch helplessly as she transforms right before our eyes.
DARK CLOUDS BREWING
In theory, being surrounded by one’s extended family is a good thing. In cultures around the globe, children are raised not just by their nuclear family but by grandparents, inlaws, aunts and uncles. Oftentimes, these relatives are responsible for some aspect of the child’s spiritual well-being, and they will take a child for a month, a season, a year, to teach them a skill or set of stories. We are newcomers to a town where folks tend to have deep roots going back many centuries, and I sometimes find myself envious of coworkers or friends who have a wide support network of family ready to help out with childcare or the last-minute baking of a birthday cake, not to mention big ticket items like births, weddings and funerals, and I often lament the fact that my daughter won’t grow up riding bikes with her cousins or walking over to her grandmother’s house for tea (something I know my mother would enjoy as well).
But, at the same time, such extended families usually exist within a shared homeland that provides a level of comfort and familiarity everyone involved can draw strength from. In addition, cultures — including small-town America — with deep roots and small families tend to have similar backgrounds and (roughly speaking) shared values, morals and heritage that bind the whole thing together and underlie important aspects of the life cycle, such as, say, how best to raise a child. Unfortunately, when you throw an extended family together in a beachfront condominium, none of the above apply, and it doesn’t take long for things to unravel.
It starts small: Grandpa stocks the fridge with dozens of small bottles of artificially orange-colored corn-syrupy “juice beverage,” the cousins drink it, and our daughter wants one too. We give her apple juice instead, but, one day, it’s all gone, so we relent and she drinks the fake kool aid — after all, we tell ourselves, we’re on vacation. During the dog-day afternoons, between bouts at the beach, the kids hunker down in air-conditioned splendor and watch cartoon after cartoon on a mammoth-screen television turned up way too loud. Our daughter wants to partake in this as well — all of her cousins are doing it — so we tell the kids they have to mute the commercials (which the other adults think is absolutely absurd) and hope for the best. A few hours of Sponge Bob, and her eyes glaze over, and, when we try to get her attention to tell her it’s nap time ,she pays absolutely no attention to us,…,just stares at the big screen, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the fact that Mom and Dad are speaking to her. Indeed, by the third day of the trip, with or without the television, we seem to have faded into the background, our voices and commands mere white noise, the verbal equivalent of the cheesy sailboat paintings on the walls, quite easy to ignore.
It grows: after days of niceties, the close quarters reveal decades old cracks in the family foundation. After angrily complaining that we hadn’t said grace in a meaningful way, Grandpa starts picking on a nine-year-old girl for eating too much, tells her she’s getting fat, and my wife, who had to deal with that during her own childhood, brusquely tells her (rather obese) father to leave the girl alone. Our daughter hears that and starts telling me she can’t finish her dinner because she’s fat. Another cousin, a highly strung seven-year-old boy, flips out when he catches a glance of our daughter changing out of her swimming suit and begins screaming “yucky, she’s naked, yucky.” Other adults suggested that I be sure to close the bedroom door next time so the whole family doesn’t have to see that. Our daughter hears this and tells me she can’t be naked anymore, despite the fact that she spends much of her day naked, or half-naked, or changing in and out of different princess oufits in the middle of our living room at home, all without one iota of shame.
Finally, there’s the shitty food. Most of the time, I’m a When-In-Rome kind of guy: a healthy eater who isn’t afraid to occasionally indulge in whatever the rest of my crew of the moment is eating, be it snails, Taco Bell, menudo or Little Debbie bars. Even at the peak of my vegetarian years, when the sound of sizzling meat made me gag, I went to a hockey game with my favorite mountain redneck cousin and somehow managed to wolf down a bratwurst. Likewise, we feed our daughter plenty of organic fruits and veggies, and she’s never yet had a bite of fast food, but we’re not Nazis about it, and now and then she gets a sip of soda pop, or a donut or industrial egg breakfast.
But after a few days with my Midwestern in-laws, my wife and I realized that we simply couldn’t go with the flow, for while Grandpa was kind enough to buy us all plane tickets (the 6 a.m. departure time somewhat mitigating this kind gesture) and spring for the condo, he refused to spend an extra penny on groceries, or let us borrow his car to try to seek out (likely unavailable) healthy options somewhere in town, which meant that the fridge and cupboard was stocked with the cheapest possible foodstuffs, all of it sporting a “GREAT VALUE” logo. The bread was white. The bacon smelled rancid. The coffee was pale AND decaf. The lettuce was iceberg and brown. The hot dogs dyed red. Eventually I hit the simmering hot streets and managed to round up some survival food — Quaker oats, natural peanut butter, apples and oranges, some decent rye bread — but by then my wife and I weren’t feeling so well, and our daughter was both constipated and moody as hell.
In retrospect, the slumber party probably wasn’t the best idea, but Elsie rarely gets to see her cousins, so we relent and let the three girls (aged three, nine and 12) sleep three to a bed in the next room over, where they (probably jacked up on the “juice beverage”) jump on the bed and giggle away the wee hours of the night. The next morning, she’s grumpy and defiant, and wants nothing to do with her parents. She shakes off our hands when we try to walk together down to the beach, then, due to the fact that her girly girl cousins don’t like the muck and sand of the ocean, decides that the ocean isn’t any fun and tells us she wants to go to the swimming pool, where she demands water wings and proceeds to swim and play games with everyone in the family except us … “No, not you Daddy, I want to swim to my Grandpa.” By day five, she’s traipsing down to the pool with her uncles, checking out the gift shops with her aunts and chewing her first-ever bubble gum, courtesy of a cousin, and we don’t see her for hours at a time.
As parents, our child’s growing independence is a mixed blessing. When she finally weans herself from the boob, her momma breaks out in tears of sadness, even as she welcomes the return of her body. When she’s fully potty trained, daddy gets wistful over the fact that he’ll never change another shitty diaper, even though he couldn’t wait for the day to arrive. Every milestone is celebrated and lamented, for each of them embodies, for the parents, a degree of helplessness in the form of “letting go” and accepting the fact that their child is marching toward adulthood and, ultimately, a complete separation from Mom and Dad. “They grow up so fast” is the ultimate cliche, and every parent will hear it (and say it) a billion times, but they’ll concur with the sentiment: the magical moments slip away, and every one of your child’s celebrated steps toward independence feels like a knife in the heart.
Those painful feelings are hard enough when our daughter’s evolving along on the preordained milestone path I mentioned above. They’re extra painful when the budding independence is thrown in your face in the form of a horribly hateful tantrum that erupts when you’re calmly and lovingly trying to sing her to sleep. Seems she had a different vision of how the night should unfold: another slumber party. So when things didn’t transpire like she planned, all hell broke loose, and I was treated to an amazing display of my daughter’s budding vocabulary, as well as level of furious, if temporary, hate-filled diatribe directed right at me …
Unadulterated anger: “YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER ANYMORE. YOU’RE NOT MY FRIEND.”
Blatant untruths: “YOU’RE MEAN TO MY FRIENDS AND YOU BREAK ALL THEIR TOYS.”
Sheer drama, while pounding on the walls and door: “I WANT A HAMMER TO BREAK DOWN THIS DOOR!”
Hitting, kicking, screaming and, finally, as loud as her pure little almost-four-year-old lungs could yell, the ultimate twist of the knife: “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE!”
Ouch. But I must maintain my composure. Don’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Don’t cry at the jab. Most of all, remain calm and don’t match her anger with anger of my own — let my heart break a little bit, take a deep breath, then pick her up in my arms and hold her securely in my lap, chest to chest. This increases the fury momentarily, but I continue to breathe deeply and encourage her to do the same. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves crashing on the beach, a visual she can relate to. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves.
The fists stop flying. The screams subside. The wrathful Kraken of a few moments ago sobs a few more times, puts her head on my shoulder, and soon falls asleep in my arms.
On the last day of the trip, while the rest of the family drove to an outlet mall, the three of us took a ferry to a nearby undeveloped island and did some exploring. It was a small taste of wild Florida, a glimpse of what this part of the world must have been like a couple hundred years ago: long, empty beaches devoid of umbrellas, jet skis and the smell of cologne; tall white sand dunes anchored in place by native oats and grasses, and groves of native longleaf pines shading sawgrassy bogs. We strolled down the beach, picking shells and chasing the crabs, grateful for this last day together. A gap in the dunes appeared. We passed through it and into another world: a huge wiregrass meadow, surrounded by palmetto palms and tall pines, and echoing with the croaking of frogs and the songs of thousands of birds. We sat and listened. No roar of air conditioning. No family dramas. Not even the sound of crashing waves. Nothing but us and the frogs and the birds. A small bird landed in a nearby shrub and sang its trilling song. “Redwinged blackbird,” my daughter said.
It was the highlight of my trip.
It would be nice to just end it there and pretend like everything was healed by our family foray on the island, but it wasn’t. For weeks, our daughter, not yet even four years old, continued to tell us she was fat, and that she shouldn’t be naked. On the plane ride home, she blamed a boy on the plane for stealing her toy and trying to hit her, something a cousin had (falsely) accused her of doing numerous times in the condo. And it took quite awhile for her to start eating veggies again.
This trip was a taste of what’s to come: LOSING CONTROL AND LETTING GO. Try as we may, Mom and Dad will never be able to shield our daughter from the tsunami of outside influences. Friends, teachers, relatives, movies, music, books … all of these things will shape her in ways we cannot even imagine, and, before we know it, she’ll be making ALL of her own decisions based upon what she thinks is right, and we certainly won’t always agree or even understand where she’s coming from. Today, it’s Grandpa making her cognizant of the fact that “fat” is bad, or a cousin teaching her that lying is acceptable. Tomorrow, it’s a minister telling her that her natural urges are sinful, or a girlfriend offering up that first cigarette.
But that’s the way it goes. We can provide her with a stable and healthy home. We can support her interests and encourage her to follow her heart. We can do our best to model good behavior in our own lives and actions. We can try to steer her toward positive influences. But nothing we do can keep her from the fact that suffering and confusion are facts of life, and in the end, all we can do is love her and hope for the best.