Sunday, October 18:
There’s a circular patch 55 yards from our driveway that measures 2 feet by 3 feet. Many years ago, before the town I reside in discovered asphalt, the patch used to be a pothole so deep it once swallowed the South Hunterdon Bicycle Club. Well, that’s the rumor I heard. My car and I shared a deep connection with that pothole. No matter how many times I drove up my street reminding myself, “Now don’t forget the pothole, don’t forget the pothole,” I would – you guessed it – forget the pothole. Perhaps sometimes I just lose my focus and forget to turn away from trouble.
Eventually the Public Works Department dumped black asphalt into the hole and smoothed it into the gray ribbon of road fronting my house. Although I could see where the hole once existed, I quickly forgot it.
That changed recently, thanks to Penelope. One day on a family walk, Penelope froze in front of the asphalt and started making the “Ah! Ah! Ah!” noise that tells us she’s afraid. She pointed to the black asphalt, and refused step on it. Our efforts to persuade her otherwise failed, and she walked around the patch. This happened for several days, and despite our efforts to allay her fears, she avoided that patch.
Then, one afternoon, the pattern broke. Penelope walked to the asphalt, pointed at it, tapped her right toe on it and giggled. Bernadette and I cheered her. I was truly happy because I don’t want my daughter growing up afraid. I always tell Bern I want Penelope to learn some ancient mystical Chinese form of whoop ass, figuring only a fool will mess with an Asian girl who can break bricks with her head while munching on a corn dog.
The next day, her confidence brimming, Penelope jumps onto the patch, pumps her legs up and down, and waves her arms in the air. Bern and I again cheer. Then Penelope points at me and the patch as if to say “Hey Pappa, it’s your turn!”
I look around suspecting to catch a glimpse of the neighbors snickering from behind drawn curtains. Then I hop onto the circle and perform an over-exaggerated version of an Irish jig. Bern took a turn on the dancing spot next. I think it was a sober version of a polka. And since no one who polkas is ever sober when they polka, well, it was interesting to say the least. After a second round of dancing, we continue our walk.
The dancing spot has now become a daily ritual on our family walks. (The dogs, of course, are exempt.)
One morning after the September clouds bathed the neighborhood, Penelope and I wander the rain-swept streets, now decorated with fallen branches, leaves and puddles the size of the kiddie pools in Guangzhou. Penelope marches right through a puddle while I detour around it and complain about the weekend weather. Penelope is giggling and waving her arms above her head. I pause. When I was a crumb snatcher, my mother would watch from the kitchen window as, when I headed off to school in my best clothes, I would splash through the bathtub-sized puddle in our driveway. I was quickly disabused of this practice. But on this day, I spin around and jump feet first into the puddle. Penelope laughs and cheers. Sorry, Mom.
Bern, Penelope and I drove to Rockland County, New York, recently for an apple-picking event sponsored by Homeland Adoption Services, the wonderful non-profit agency that helped bring Penelope into our lives. After the 90-minute drive to the event, my throat felt raw. Apparently the family in-the-car production of the late-great Broadway musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” had taken its toll. For those of you familiar with the play, my efforts to imitate the flaky chorine Kitty wracked my voice box.
I have learned that children can make adults children again. At first, it cascades from you in bashful, self-conscious waves when you decide it’s OK to shed your adult skin and embrace the essence of childhood. In some ways, I almost can’t believe it ever left me. I try not to think about myself as a small boy on my parents’ back porch with a Daredevil comic book and a sketch pad, furrowing my brows and desperately trying to draw the way my Pop and brother did. My best efforts were always something resembling epileptic stick figures and somewhere deep in my heart I knew I lacked their artistic skills. And that was my first taste of adulthood, my first taste of the bitter truth. And once you get that first taste, you slurp up adulthood in big heaping spoonfuls like prisoners hunkered over an evening stew.
Then an impish two-year-old comes along, smiles, and knocks your adult world off its axis. Before you know it, your feet are soaking wet and you’re dancing in the middle of the street.
And there’s nothing in the world that could ever make you happier.