I

We will go to the post office.My two girls and I will walk.It is close, so close, in fact, that the old stone building where it’s housed would be visible from our third floor apartment window if not for the still older stone buildings blocking the view.I open the window, thinking what a quick and agreeable walk this will be as the November morning air blows into the room bracing, but the sun over it shines.Maybe winter won’t be as grim-reaper gray as last year.Maybe we can spend one last day in the park.This will be an unfettered, uncomplicated day off.We have no plans.We can simply enjoy what could be, by certain measure, the last day before my daughters need to go back to school, before they start calling friends, before they couldn’t care less, before they leave the house without first checking the temperature or listening to anyone who cares enough to have checked it for them.This day, before all these others, remains open and my call.We need only to go this short distance from our door to the post office to send a medium-sized package.

This should be fun.

 

II

Louise cries, face to the floor.The shoes are no good. I insist, while trying to convey empathy for the fashion frustration surrounding footwear that doesn’t match the dress.Julie stands over her little sister basking in her own current state of non-tantrumness.I insist to Louise again and urge her to think about the sun in the sky.I insist, mentioning that I’ll let her put on the stamps at the post office.

At this, Louise rises and shuffles toward the door, releasing a stuttered sigh past wet cheeks.It probably will be okay.We can do better than this.Though, Julie is concerned now because she wanted to be the one to put on the stamps.I’m concerned that we’re taking the three flights down our steep, spiral wooden staircase too fast.I remind everyone how we’re not in any kind of hurry.

Outside, I try not to notice the dark bank of clouds that have shown up overhead.But none of it is important now, because the vigilance required in the street has superseded weather as we approach the first crosswalk.I take care that Julie, who no longer holds my hand, stops at the curb and that Louise, who still does, doesn’t slip out of my grasp and into the road crushed with city buses, delivery trucks, sedans late for work and dingbats on scooters.

We come upon the city’s central square where we must swing wide of the irritable pit bulls belonging to the more irritable owners camped out days and nights here.We eye the fellow pedestrians dangling lit cigarettes at Louise’s eye level.We avoid getting clotheslined by unstoppable mothers pushing strollers, in determined tandem, across the sidewalk.We ignore the discarded piece of pastry on the ground that pigeons have been pecking at which one of the girls might get the idea to retrieve and finish, ingesting a host of new and merciless germs.We skirt the minefields of poo, pit bull and other varietals.

The girls know the way.They practice at careful.But at the corner, where we make a left, they gallop ahead, turning out of my sight.I speed up during these seconds spent imagining they’re being nabbed by someone, beady-eyed and cackling.

I’m now being paranoid or helicopter parenting, I can’t remember which one.I meet them around the corner where they are alive and breathing onto the glass of a clothing store.They sketch pictures in their fog.Louise has taken to touching her mouth directly. I nudge them on.The wind picks up bringing flecks of rain with it.

“You know, Daddy,” Louise announces, “I like my shoes now.”

“You see, I told you they were beautiful.”

“I just saw a thing terrible,” Julie changes the subject.“They closed the post office.”

III

This was not the jaunty walk I signed up for.Nor is childhood meant to be teeming with this much everyday calamity.From my recollection, mine certainly wasn’t in any way, whatsoever.But now envisioning what could possibly go wrong has become my full-time job.It’s the poster Mike Pemulis has in his room in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, “Yes, I’m paranoid – but I am paranoid enough?”Is it further worrisome that I apply to parenting an axiom of a drug-dealing fictional character penned by a suicidal novelist?

Still, none of it changes the fact, that indeed the post office is closed.I failed to remember the renovations that have halted services for the morning. The girls ask what we’re doing now, to which I respond in an Up-With-People enthusiasm, “Going back home to unload this enormous box I’m carrying!”

The rain arrives, as punctual as a blind date.My positive outlook also never included umbrellas.The sense of danger remains, but by now I’ve instructed by myself to settle down.So when Julie jumps from the top step of the entrance of the post office as we turn away from the closed door, I only offer a half-hearted “Easy!”Julie then slips, manages to clear all five cement steps and crashes her hands and knees on the pavement below.

She holds the position for a moment like she’s kneeling before saints.I hold my breath over a rosy vision of her shaking it off.Instead, she breaks her silence to emit shrieks of pain that could level city blocks.She raises her hands to the heavens, scraped and bleeding.

I hoist Julie’s growing, injured self in one arm with the package still in the other.On the way back, she rests her head on my shoulder howling at my ear.Icewater falls harder in droplets and soaks us.Louise looks for puddles to jump into.I hurry back to the apartment like a grunt carrying the war-wounded to the medevac chopper.

On the way, Louise could take candy from a stranger.  Julie contracts airborne ebola.The oceans rise.Santa Claus comes by to say he’s not real and also Al-Qaeda.A child protection agency sends out an APB on “Some jackass who can’t even get to the post office.”My wife calls in from work with a bad premonition.The kitchen is on fire.My girls will want to put up Katy Perry posters.Or, worse, the Mike Pemulis one.

But there’s actually no smoke.At the bottom of our building staircase, I put Julie down as she dries her own tears.Okay, things are all right.Let me just wring out my pants.You’re a real trooper.Julie nods over her valor in action.

It’s then she notices she has a rip in the knee of her tights.The tears return.

IV

With lunch giving us a new perspective on life, we agree to try this again.This was funny.This remains a simple errand.

We head back to the post office.Julie has a pair of fresh Hello Kitty bandaids across her palms and holds them in the air in a permanent gesture of surrender.I’ve suited them both up in the raincoats and rainboots this time, which Louise is fine with as long as she can also carry an umbrella.We return outdoors to find the rain has stopped, though Louise continues through the streets with the umbrella open, shielding herself from the sky.

The post office has reopened for the afternoon.The girls take turns putting on stamps on the still soggy package.We hand it to the unappreciative postal clerk.I congratulate our whole group and remark on the working together. Julie and Louise skip gracefully back down the formerly-tragic steps and out into the world of sharper edges.

Now our day can begin.

V

Later,I hear the mighty breathing of their sleep from the hallway.We’ll wait and see what peril comes tomorrow and hereafter, far beyond steps at a post office.We’ll see what else of my disquiet thoughts I can share in the words written beside the last light left on in the house.But the girls, I imagine, will be ready for whatever waits to dash us upon the rocks while I will, eventually, learn to share the faith they have in me to ferry them past it.Until then I stay up later, marveling at how I could have ever regarded these moments as small.

 

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

24 responses to “And Then, We Go for a Walk”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Oh Nathaniel,

    What a good Daddy you are!
    This sort of thing will happen every day,
    because that’s just how it is.
    Keep watching them,
    they grow before your eyes.
    Remember it.
    Take pictures.
    Write it down.
    They are everything to you,
    they, and your wife,
    and you are everything to them.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    You can’t slow it down, Nathaniel,
    but you can remember it.
    That’s the best you can do.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Good Lord!
    It is perilous out there!
    I loved the way you told this -a simple visit to the post office is now a great quest, a dangerous adventure, a tale of love and protection, and most importantly – it has a happy ending!
    You have such beautiful phrasing, Nathaniel -the pictures you paint with your words are lovely ones. I especially liked the bit where ebola strikes and your daughter accepts candy from a stranger! Poignant and funny -two of my favourite things.
    And yes – Hello Kitty band aids fix everything.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    It always puzzles me; that brief fork in the road where you’re unsure whether a child will recover from a fall with a brisk up-by-the-bootstraps effort, or burst into caterwauling.

    I would have cried too.

    Until I got to put the stamps on.

    • Yes, you never know how that ball is going to drop when a child gets a bump or scrape. Much of it seems to hinge on whether the adults around them looked panicked. I’m working on this.

      Your comment is great because it includes the word “caterwauling” which I think we can all get behind.

      • dwoz says:

        I’ve found that it’s pretty simple, really.

        When the child’s “hurt event” occurs, you simply begin counting. The longer the pause between the insult and the exhalation, the worse the indignity to flesh and feelings. If you reach a ten-count…beware!

        this is wonderful. It really brings me back a few years to when my triplets were toddling…how every moment was spent inventorying the risk, spent putting yourself in a position to be able to keep all three in view.

        Taking child inventory. Exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

        • Yes, taking a constant inventory of the risk is what makes it exhausting, and then the exhilaration comes in when you’ve managed to successfully avoid it. But triplets sound like another league altogether.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    Ah, but this sounds so, so familiar. I hate that feeling, when they’re walking ahead of you and you can’t see them, or are too far away to help them, should they wander into the path of a fast-moving car (which almost happened to my son during one of our first walks to school…I grabbed a fistful of jacket and yanked, or he would have been struck by the ocean-liner-sized SUV barrel-assing down the road, oblivious of the crossing guard stepping ton the crosswalk…but that’s New Jersey for you).

    I’m glad you got to send your package. And I love the name Louise.

    Great post, Nat.

    • They always want to run ahead, don’t they? I’ve had more moments than I’d like to admit where one of my girls darts into the road for a near miss. Plus, French sidewalks are hopelessly narrow, about the width of the running board on your average SUV.

      But good luck on those Jersey roads. As a consolation, at least you guys don’t have to pump your own gas.

      Thanks, Greg, as always for the comment.

  6. I know this walk so well, Nat. Almost a daily event, the tears, the bland encouragements, the sudden fear of too great a distance opening up. The Curious George band-aid is the one that works here in Seattle. Nicely captured.

    • Thanks, Sean. A personal goal of mine is to achieve the Zen-like calm in the face of disaster of The Man in the Yellow Hat.

    • Gloria says:

      Band Aids solve everything. EVERYTHING – even when there’s no blood. We are never without Band Aids in this house. Ours are just regular because the cartoon ones are so much more expensive and also somehow disappear so much quicker. Personally, I think cartoon Band Aids increase the incidences of accidents.

  7. Matt says:

    I love it when the mundane becomes an adventure. Well, told, sir!

    This story reminded me of a time when I was about six or so, and my family set off on a brief walk to the local post office. Somehow I got ahead of everyone else, and turned the wrong corner at the end of the street, and then turned again, and proceeded to wander aimlessly through the neighborhood by myself for half an hour or so before I happened to make a correct turn and ended up back on our street. My family was just starting to load into the car to go look for me.

    And yeah, as Simon points out, that second or so after a kid has an accident is like waiting to see if a dropped grenade will blow or if it’s just a dud. My then two-year old cousin once completely face-planted himself on the concrete while running around the patio during a family gathering; the little ham looked up to make sure everyone was looking at him, and then started screaming. He’s now an actor. Figures.

    • Thanks, Matt. Aimless wandering is a great thing for the wanderer. I had several moments like yours of getting separated from the folks when I wasn’t supposed to be. Which maybe causes me to focus on the potential hazards even more now, since I was oblivious for so long.

      And yes, I think most kids are hams. I’m fairly certain my daughters will sweep the 2030 Oscars.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Nat-

    The single-guy-with-no-kids in me enjoyed this view into the minds of non-single-guys-with-no-kids. You capture the wide-eyed wonderment and sincerity of the children so well, and I dig how easily you roll with it all. Clearly the affection and familiarity you all share with each other’s instincts and routines makes it easy to transform the everyday errand into a trip into the Temple of Doom.

    Fun stuff!

    • I hope I roll with it, though somedays it might be more accurately described as stumbling along blindly. Anyway, I’m glad the affection and familiarity came through. Appreciate your thoughtful comment, as always.

  9. Doug Bruns says:

    N ~ I came years ago, when my children were small, to understand that the messy quotidian of life was the stuff of memory and art and possibly even love. I was so pleasantly reminded of that–that and my own child-rearing memories (thank you!)–reading your wonderful essay. Aside from demonstrating your epic patience and abiding “fatherlyness,” you artfully entertain–a great combination of talents, indeed. Thanks for sharing and the wonderful rendering of life as a walk to the post office.
    D

    • Thank you, Doug, for this very kind comment, it means quite a bit. Hopefully, the rendering helps to organize, or at least give needed perspective to the mess, just as the mess in turn feeds the rendering. Either way, it’s nice to hear from people such as yourself who’ve passed through it.

  10. Richard Cox says:

    Interesting slice of life through the eyes of a caring dad. My niece and nephews were in town this week and we went exploring in my neighborhood, and everything seemed new looking at the world through their eyes.

    I’m not a father, but reading your post makes it easier to understand what it’s like. Thanks.

    • My occupational hazard is that I’m slowly beginning to see the world through their eyes all the time, to the point that soon I won’t be able to have an adult conversation unless it involves unicorns or princesses. Though I suppose there are worse things to get wrapped up in. Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed this slice of life.

  11. Gloria says:

    Oh, man. I’m so relieved your girls eat food off the ground, too. I mean, not relieved that they do it, so much as relieved that other kids – any other kids – do this. (My kids aren’t freaks! Woo!!)

    The jumping/bleeding scene – so well written. That moment of hope that they’ll just shake it off – – ha ha ha haha haha ha! **sob**

    Santa Claus comes by to say he’s not real and also Al-Qaeda. Also funny.

    Way to get that packaged mailed, Nathaniel! Kudos to your (not so) small victory!

    • Oh yes, they love food off the ground. They might be getting better, but when my youngest was a toddler, on more than one occasion, she picked up a cigarette butt and started chewing on it (and they say the tobacco companies don’t market to children!)

      Anyway, thanks for this comment, Gloria, and kudos to you, too, and all the small/large victories.

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