y daughter Maria told her mother something the other night--I still don't know what it was--but something important enough that they had to leave the room and whisper.
"Why didn't she tell me?" I asked Renita, after our daughter's bedtime ritual was complete and we had slumped down in bed to mark the end of another day. "Have I got cooties?"
My wife's voice turned soft, solemn, and her eyes met mine directly. These, I have learned, are signals that Renita is about to tell me something important.
"Maria won't come to you like she used to," she answered. "That's all changed. It's up to you now, to go to her."
Maria is only ten, not so old at all, except girls are maturing much faster these days, both physically and mentally. Blame high-protein diets for the rapid physical maturation; and high-trash media diets for any psychological confusion.
It was only a few short months ago that my daughter was in my face, literally, pulling the newspaper out of my hands, forcing herself like an overactive puppy directly into my field of vision. "Me, dad, me." Now she is more likely to shoot me a look that loosely translates into "dumb dad" and run up the steps with her girlfriends. More and more of her life is becoming none of my business.
I look at Maria now, and worry that her coming of age is the end of a road, the beginning of some unhappy inevitable slide, until I am that prototypical father sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper and glowering at the adolescent daughter with orange hair, navel rings, and an attitude of "Why don't you just die so I can be happy?"
An exaggerated fear, perhaps, but I have been reading Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and the storm surge of similar books forecasting sharp drops in self-esteem and lifelong neuroses for everyone's daughter. These are difficult times to grow up, the books all claim. Our culture is girl poisoning, designed in every way to suck the joy and enthusiasm out of vibrant, hopeful young females. The die is cast. Fathers exist only to do some damage.
Maria and I found ourselves sitting side by side on the family's big stuffed green sofa the other day. School was cancelled, and we were bored. She wore blue shorts and a t-shirt depicting a plump penguin waddling across the ice--an apt metaphor for how clumsy I sometimes feel around my daughter.
"So what's it like being a girl?" I asked, looking for some clever entré into her thinking.
"I don't know," Maria said. She gave me an odd look.
"Is it different than being a boy, do you imagine?"
"Boys are disgusting," she fired back.
"Are girls that different from boys?" I asked.
"I don't know."
I've driven into dead ends before, and know how to recognize one. So I quickly shifted into reverse. "Are there things you talk to your mom about, Maria, that maybe you don't talk to your dad about?"
Maria wasn't holding still for a moment of this conversation. Instead, she was half-hanging off the arm of the sofa--her legs on the sofa cushion where she should be sitting, her back on the sofa arm, her head and shoulders hanging down off the side toward the floor. This was something I have told her two thousand times not to do, but that she can't seem to stop herself from doing anyway. The arm is bent now, the stuffing pressed down, and her torso is a perfect fit.
Hanging off the sofa arm was only a portion of her activity. She was also looking at the ceiling with apparent astonishment. Perhaps she had never really looked up there before? And at the same time she was bouncing and swirling a little metal bead in a coffee can she gripped tightly between her two hands. The bead made a constant grinding noise.
I was convinced that Maria wasn't listening, couldn't be listening while she was doing so much else, when suddenly she turned to me and said, "Some of these are really hard questions."
"Yes," I answered, "I know, but I'm curious what you think."
I could see that she wanted to help me in some way, maybe just out of pity, so I pressed her on my last question, the one about stuff she can talk to her mom about.
She thought a minute.
"I don't know."
I waited a while, figuring the longer pause might elicit more of an answer.
"Well," she finally said, brightening. "There is some stuff I don't tell either of you."
She grinned, flipped around on the sofa arm. "Want to watch a bead go round and round?" she asked suddenly, thrusting the coffee can to within an inch of my nose.
Before I could react she whirled around again, head back over the sofa arm, hair brushing the floor, and bare feet in my face. "Wanna smell my toes?"
Being a parent isn't always easy. You have to be clever, diligent, and flexible. And the kids win anyway, because no matter what their other flaws or virtues, they are endlessly tenacious.
I can be stubborn too, though, and later that same afternoon, I get a sudden idea.
Maria has amassed a collection of Beanie Babies, those little animals packed with plastic beans that some marketing genius has made indispensable to kids who in most cases already have closets crammed full with unused stuffed critters. Renita has been telling me for months now that the Beanies have begun doing the talking for Maria. Most of us are probably familiar with this idea as used by child psychologists--"Tell me, Lisa, how does your little bear feel about the fact that Daddy moved to Japan and left you and mommy alone?"--but in this case there is no canny adult behind the scenes. Maria has come up with it for herself.
"Zip is afraid of sleeping," she told her mom one night, after she herself had been tossing and turning for two hours, unable to sleep.
"He is afraid of bad dreams ... "
Zip has also told us about her fear of lightning, her fear of making mistakes, her fear of death. Renita, it has begun to seem, gets more information on Maria's true fears and feelings from talking to the Beanies than by talking to Maria.
So I return thirty minutes or so later to the same bent-out-of-shape sofa, where Maria has the Beanies all lined up in a long row, playing some elaborate game.
Zip is a black-and-white cat, the leader of Maria's band of bean-stuffed critters. In most Beanie games, Zip is boss, dictator, empress, natural ruler of all mammalia.
I ask Zip, as silly as it seems and as foolish as it makes me feel, whether she thinks girls and boys are different. I'm still trying to get to the heart of why Maria won't talk to me, and my reading of Ophelia suggests it is all about gender.
"Yes, definitely," Zip answers.
Maria does a squeaky baby voice for Zip, and for that matter, for all the Beanies. She has about six different squeaky baby voices down, and keeps track of them, as well as of each Beanie Baby's personality. For this conversation she is not twirling the coffee can or squirming on the sofa, because her hands are too busy making a puppet of Zip. The cat's little paws move around when she speaks, her feline head cocks to the right or left when she thinks.
"How are they different?"
"Girls are much better than boys," Zip clarifies.
"Because we have manners." Zip, as you can see, is much more clear and to the point than her human counterpart.
"Any other reason?"
"We are smarter. Maybe not at math, but at other stuff. Much smarter at other stuff."
"Do you worry about being pretty?"
She angles her head. "It depends. I should be pretty."
"Because I am pretty." Zip is a cocky confident cat, the apparent reflection of the cocky confident side of my kid that the experts say is about to get squashed.
"Is it harder being a boy or a girl?" I ask the cat.
"You have to live with Pumpkin."
Pumpkin is a boy, a stuffed, orange fox, and in Maria's Beanie play world, the bane of Zip's existence. Like the boys in Maria's fourth grade class, he is abrupt, tactless, and half-witted.
"So what's wrong with living with Pumpkin?"
"Have you met him?" Zip asks me in her squeakiest voice. "He's perfectly awful. He wants to kiss me."
I sit up, alert. Maybe I am about to get somewhere with my silly ruse. I have found my opening, my glimpse into the gender gap that separates male from female, father from daughter. Feminist psychologists may claim that there is no way in for a mere man, but maybe, just maybe, I am more clever than they figured a father could be.
"And why is that so awful?" I ask, thrilled by my progress. "Why is it so bad when Pumpkin wants to kiss you?"
Zip cocks her head, as if thinking.
"Easy," the cat says. "I don't like fox spit."
Copyright © 1998 Dinty Moore.