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Daughters: Becoming Family

by Bert Stern
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It must have been 40 years ago when my 10-year-old daughter Erika and I were caught in a violent thunderstorm in Beloit, Wisconsin. The family, including my wife and our seven-year-old son, Peter, had been headed north for a lakeside vacation when our car blew its engine. For an extra 100 bucks, the mechanic who’d agreed to replace the engine in a week had driven us up to the lakeside camp/motel. Now Erika, who had volunteered to keep me company, and I were on our way down to retrieve the car.

When we got to Beloit we couldn’t find the mechanic, and at 10 p.m. we were caught in a terrific thunderstorm next to a pay phone on the main drag of the town. Everything was closed but one bar, whose glittering lights ought to have spelled "refuge." We certainly needed one, standing there in the entryway of a long-closed hardware store while thunder rattled windows and lightning crackled all around us. To this day I can’t explain why we didn’t go into the bar. I guess some part of me felt that I needed to protect Erika from the sight of grown people a little drunk and having a good time—as if she’d never seen that at faculty parties.

I’d never before seen Erika in real danger. Being with her in that flashing, roaring night in a strange town made
me see her in a new way. We talked and joked and waited for the storm to end, and she was perfectly at ease. I knew then that she’d be all right in this life, and that she already understood how not to make things worse than they are. On the drive back, while Erika slept, I glowed over this successful adventure that had knitted us closer together.

I’VE CLUNG FOR A LONG TIME to that moment when my daughter’s courage and balance lifted my own. Erika had been born only a few months after her sister, Rachel, died a cruel and prolonged death by leukemia. The treatments in those days could be medieval, brutal. I won’t try to describe them. Rachel started hemorrhaging weeks into a failed treatment. The same chemicals (poisons, really) that had given other children months or even years of borrowed time had killed my daughter faster than the disease could have.

Just a few weeks before that my wife and I had started camping on the leukemia ward of Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. In this ward, children suffered and died routinely, yet I can hardly remember a single show of humanity from doctors or nurses toward the stricken parents. It was as if we were lepers, cursed by God and potentially contagious. The lone exception was an intern who’d talk to us over coffee in the wee hours, deep shadows under his eyes. I even remember his name, Schaeffer, because, though exhausted, he remained human.

It used to be part of the tribal wisdom that after the death of a child, the likelihood of the parents divorcing is very high, but current figures range between 11 percent and 16 percent. Nonetheless, a deep wound can enter a marriage when spouses can’t comfort one another. It was that way for my wife and me. Rachel’s
illness and death helped begin the prolonged collapse of our marriage.

Now, almost 50 years later, our hearts still remember those long nights on the ward, seated separately on benches in the hall or sleeping on separate hospital carts, hardly speaking because there
was nothing to say.

I’d made friends on the ward with another father in the same boat as me.

We had almost nothing in common but our dying children, but we stood together in the fierce vision of truth that an experience of suffering can open to. We told ourselves more than once that after all this was over we’d never settle for the ready-made visions that politics and advertising and religion and our own laziness weave. We knew that in the company of our dying children we had been terribly reborn. Yet when I visited my friend a year after our desperate companionship ended with the deaths of our children, we had little to say to one another. We had both returned to our "normal" realms, where suffering, once again, was held at bay.

I TELL THE STORY NOW because during Erika’s early years the shadow of the dead child hung over her living sister.

To my wife, though she loved Erika, Erika was also a kind of compensation for our loss, though Erika’s birth couldn’t plug the hole death had bored through her spirit. Through all that, Erika needed a fierce independence to make a place for herself, so as not to fall into the pit of her parents’ frayed spirits and the anger that sometimes flashed forth.

She won that independent courage at great cost, but it has served her well.

But Erika’s story only begins here.

On her own she decided she wanted an Ivy League education, and she got it by winning a scholarship to Brown. Then, while waitressing fulltime, she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and became an architect. After graduating, she also found a way to nourish her loving heart, as I see every time I visit her and her husband, a man I admire, and, of course, my grandson, Owen all just an hour from us on the South Shore. Erika set out on her own life trek during the time when her mother and I divorced, and she got little guidance from either of us. Yet she went on to create for herself the loving family she hadn’t had when she was a kid. And I feel very lucky to be part of that family.

IN THINKING ABOUT MY CHILDREN today, when I’m old, I see that my parenting couldn’t have been quite as selfish and bad as I sometimes imagine it. I know that is true when I look at my children, a son and two daughters who get rocked by life as we all do but who know how to get up and dust off the seats of their pants. And, remarkably, they treat me with love. Remarkable, since I grew up wondering whether
I could know love, giving or getting.

In my growing up there wasn’t much chance to learn it.

There’s another story I want to tell about Erika. She called me one evening. My present wife and I were wintering in a summerhouse in the Adirondacks, and shopping around for the place where we’d settle. Now, late into the winter, the wind drove snow and dead leaves through cracks under doors and around window frames. That’s where Erika called to say that she and her husband had decided to have a baby. Then she added, in an offer I couldn’t refuse, that she didn’t want her child to have absentee grandparents as she’d had. At this time, Erika and I had already begun to come out of a long, bad history that started at the time of my divorce. But now she was asking me to move closer to her rather than farther away. So my wife and I did, by making a home in Somerville, Massachusetts, just an hour from Erika’s home. Pretty soon, she gave me my grandson, Owen. He and I play pretty well with one another, though we can get a little violent in our pillow fights.

I COULD TELL LOTS OF STORIES about my second daughter, Anna, now 28, who lives, alas, half a continent away.

But again I find myself going back to beginnings.

When Anna was five, and I remarried, I took a job teaching at Peking University in Beijing. I’d been fascinated with China since I first heard stories of the Cultural Revolution from my student Rujie Wang ’83 (now a professor at the College of Wooster). Rujie had lived through those insane years, and he remembered sitting with a circle of Red Guards, all screaming obscenities and abuse against his father. Rujie’s parents were the first people we visited in Beijing. There they were, emblematic of the fate of intellectuals who had lived through Mao—still marked by their ordeal, still wanting nothing more than to think and learn and pass
on their learning.

I can still see Anna at their dinner table, seated on thick Chinese tomes, looking around her with a kind of
wonder at the odd, smiling people dressed in Mao blues and at the rough cement room we ate in.

That year in Beijing, Anna went through still more jarring experiences. We enrolled her in the model kindergarten that held 500 students, and took turns riding her back and forth on the luggage racks of our bicycles. Once, on the way to school in a snowstorm, a truck driver ran us into a snowbank.

I was frightened for Anna, and furious, but Anna took it in stride. Everything was so strange anyway—one more strangeness hardly surprised her.

Anna was the only non-Chinese child in her school, let alone her classroom. Anna took part in many group activities. She had little trouble coloring between the lines of the ditto sheets the children were given. She learned to sing their songs and dance their dances. She loved a game in which two rows of children fall like dominoes and then one child crawls through the tunnel. But for a long time she shared no
language with anyone but her excellent teacher. During that tough period, Anna, having no words, got into pushing and hitting other kids, as her teacher reported to us. Bad behavior was a novelty back then, when China was still in a tight lock step.

But in our sixth or seventh month in Beijing, Anna began to speak, and when she did, she was speaking more or less fluently the language of her fellow kindergartners. I have no way of understanding the silent period when, probably without intention, she took the language in. But take it in she did, to such a degree that when her mother and I tried to speak Chinese in the street, one or the other of us would feel a tug from below, and look down at Anna’s disapproving and slightly embarrassed face.

Anna’s isolation was just a notch up from our own. Outside the university compound we knew only one person, and within it only a few. The sour aftertaste of the Cultural Revolution was still in the air.

Anna and I held onto one another for dear life that year. One of my precious memories is of her walking on a high stone wall under a flowering mimosa tree, I walking along down below. We took that walk every chance we got.

At home, too, Anna and I discovered lots of ways to amuse ourselves. Anna had brought from home her favored cloth and plastic dolls, and bit by bit we turned them into characters in an ever-developing drama. At first the dolls were one-line characters, like Zemayanga, who was sassy and hip, or Sugar, who’d lost one leg and all but the thumb of one hand but had adjusted wonderfully to her handicap and now, sensible and kind, ruled as wise and gentle queen of the dolls, though she was still accident-prone.

Anna and I would adlib as our stories went along, but we had a framework. The dolls were either on a quest or gossiping about the one just finished. These were scientific quests, and once the dolls had all gone to the moon in a balloon.

Our doll’s tales had a couple of subsidiaries. One of these was a comic book, a kind of authorized version of the doll’s adventures. Anna and I had already learned to work as cooperative artists by means of a game in which one of us doodled a figure, usually a fantastic beast, and the other provided a caption. (I have to admit that this was the highpoint of my career as a visual artist.)

One thing love means to me is enjoying one another’s company, and Anna and I got off to a very good start.

I’M NOT HERE TO ADD ALL THIS UP. I have to say again that I didn’t grow up in a warm family, and it took me far too long to create one, despite the best efforts of my present wife. But now, after all these years, I’m here, a paterfamilias who, with a little help from his dear ones, doesn’t take himself too seriously. When my wife and I drive down to visit Erika and her guys, Erika treats me like a king. She prepares great meals and gives me books she’ll knows I’ll enjoy, including my favorite page-turner writer, Elmore Leonard. Most of all, we bask together in the way she made us all one family.

But the real story lives in images.

For years I’ve been a closet harmonica player. My son-in-law is a good musician, among his many
talents, and my grandson, at seven, has become (indulge me) a remarkable drummer.

The other night there we were, the three of us, jamming together—my first time. I kept a low profile, but there were a few moments when I felt what it’s like for people to make music together, my son-in-law offering me melodic leads, and Owen just keeping his eye on me, like any good band leader.

Anna, far away, calls home when she’s having moments of trouble. She also calls home weekly, even when everything’s fine. Certainly, in my eyes, she is fine—choosing, as all my family has learned to do, exactly the days she is given.

Milligan Professor Emeritus of English Bert Stern is a poet, editor, and writer who taught for 40 years at Wabash, continues to teach in the Changing Lives Through Literature program, and is co-founder and co-editor, along with wife Tam Lin Neville, of Off the Grid Press.

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