Each night, after supper, and after their baths, I’d lay on the rug in the living room and they’d jump all over me. I’d roll this way and that and growl like a bear and they’d laugh until they couldn’t catch their breath. They smelled of baby shampoo and talcum powder.
Later, I’d sit on the couch and the four of them would sit on my lap. I’d smell their clean hair and read to them from Danny and the Dinosaur and Sammy the Seal, both by Syd Hoff, and perhaps the best books ever written for little kids. I’d change the stories a bit each night and they’d shout to correct me. “No, no, no! That’s not the way it goes.” And I’d tell them that those are the words in the book and that I wasn’t changing a thing, and in this way, the four of them wanted to learn how to read. To keep me honest.
I traveled to New York for the manufacturer’s rep in those days and when I came home late and they wondered what happened I would ask them if they hadn’t seen it on the news. “What, Daddy?”
“You know that big tennis stadium that we pass in Brooklyn when we drive sometimes? The one that glows like a big balloon because they puff it up with air?” They all nodded. “We’ll there’s a plumbing supply house right next door to that place, and today one of the men drove his forklift into the big balloon. It was an accident, of course, but the balloon took off into the air and flew all over the sky. It landed across the highway and that’s why the traffic was backed up. And that’s why I’m late.”
“Were the people still inside the balloon, Daddy?”
“Yes, and they were all wearing white shorts.”
They looked at me and at each other, and one would say, “That’s not true!” and I would look hurt. Another would ask, “Is it true?”
“Of course it is. Don’t you watch the news on the TV?” And in this way, they became interested in current events. Can’t be too careful with those big tennis balloons.
They grew and they all went to school together and I would drive them there whenever I could. One day in early spring I had them look at the buds on the trees as we drove and I told them that it’s important for them to pay close attention to those buds because Lime Day was coming. I just cast it back there into the minivan and waited for one of them to bite.
“What’s Lime Day, Daddy?”
“What’s Lime Day? Are you serious?”
They looked at each other, each not wanting to be the only one not knowing, and once they agreed that it was safe to continue, one said. “We don’t know what that is?”
So I laughed and explained to them that Lime Day is a National holiday. It comes around once a year on the day when all the buds on all the trees are that absolutely perfect shade of lime. “It helps if it’s misting a bit on that day because a bit of mist makes lime even prettier.”
“What day is Lime Day, Daddy?”
“That’s the best part,” I explained. “Every kid gets to call Lime Day. You have to watch the trees very carefully, and you have to decide for yourself that it would be impossible for the leaves to be any more limey than they are right now. Then you call it and that’s it. Lime Day. The next day, the leaves are just boring green and they’ll stay that way all summer long.”
“But what if you call Lime Day and the next day is limier?”
“Well, then your sister wins and that makes you a loser,” I explained.
They looked at each other and said, “There’s no such day.”
“Of course there is,” I said, and as spring crept closer and closer to us that year, I convinced them that Lime Day was as real as the Fourth of July.
Now here comes the best part: As the weeks went by, they each went to their classes and told the other kids about Lime Day. The other kids told my kids that they were full of crap, of course, but in their hearts, those other kids wanted there to be such a day because it’s just the best thing going, so they went home and asked their parents. The kids explained Lime Day and those magnificent parents all lied right along with me. Wouldn’t you?
They came to see the beauty of nature in the paved-over, suburban world of Long Island and they carried it with them. In all the many years that have gone by since then, each of my daughters calls in Lime Day each spring, no matter where she is in the world. I live for those calls.
There’s a small amusement park nearby called Adventureland. It’s filled with kiddy rides, video games and cotton candy. During the summers of their childhood, I would grab one of the girls when her sisters weren’t looking and tell her that I wanted to take her to a special place, but she couldn’t tell anyone, not even Mom (who already knew). I would explain to the other girls, who were happily playing, that I had to take (fill in the blank) with me to the hardware store to look at nails, or some other such horrible task. The other sisters would roll their eyes and go about their business. Then, the chosen sister and I would go off to Adventureland and party like it was 1999.
“Why did you take me and not them, Daddy?”
“It’s because I love you the best, but you can never tell them because they’ll cry.”
“Okay, Daddy. It’s our secret forever!”
And I did this summer after summer as they grew, and as the years went by, they’d each give me this secret look and grin when the others weren’t watching and it was the best thing in the world.
One summer, an industry group hired me to speak to its members at a resort in Ocean City, Maryland. The girls were all home from college so we brought them along. One night, the four of them went out together and one of them happened to mention Adventureland, and how I loved her the best. I believe there may have been some beer involved.
Later, I woke up to the four of them at the foot of my bed, hands on hips and scowling. “You got some explaining to do.” I ran. We still laugh about that whenever we all manage to get together.
They all grew to be fine, strong women and they traveled the world and always brought back stories. They’ve made a difference in the lives of the people they’ve met along the way and they’ve all remembered and abided by this brief conversation we had so many times as they grew.
“I don’t know what to be when I grow up, Daddy.”
“First, think about what you would do for nothing, something you really love,” I told each of them. “Then figure out how to get paid for that. And know that the second part is the easy part.”
Last December, two weeks before Christmas, my eldest daughter, Kelly, gave birth to a son. They gave him the first name of Sullivan, so that he would grow up as “Sully,” which I think is a very cool name. And they gave him the middle name of Daniel, which made me feel as if I had done okay with all of this.
Marianne and I flew to their home in Louisville and my little girl placed her son in my arms for the first time. I felt young again. Sully and I looked at each other for a while, and when he was able to keep his eyes open for more than a few seconds, I picked up a book about Santa and read him a story. I changed the words, of course.
I’m not quite sure yet what to do with a little boy, but I sure am willing to give it a try.
Hug your kids.