This story begins in late October 1999. If it were a movie, the opening scene would be me driving a really shitty car, running countless red lights and stop signs, with a screaming 18-year-old woman (my daughter) sticking her bare right foot out of the passenger side window as everyone in the car is yelling at me and telling me to go faster. My daughter that night used more expletives than I even thought she knew, and I remember being pretty damn impressed, as I would tell her later, that she was so precisely accurate in her grammar, cadence, and diction while calling me every fucking name in the book.
We lived about 40 minutes away from the ‘big city,’ and even though it was the first of what would be her three children, we let her contractions go on for a while until they got close enough together that it was worth heading to the hospital. Once we got inside the city limits, however, the contractions were getting pretty intense. The chaos began in earnest inside the car as we scrambled to get her to the hospital so she could scream and swear at somebody else for a while and give us a break.
My then-wife went into the delivery room with her, and my son and I curled up in the waiting room for what would be a number of hours. The next thing I knew, the waiting room was filled with family, and we were woken up and told a new baby girl had come into the world.
She would scold me if I mentioned her name, maybe blush a little bit and probably dismiss some of what I will say about her here. Because I will ultimately share the link to this Essay with her, I will leave names out of it but suffice it to say, more generally, that there is no greater gift in life than to see someone you have known and unconditionally loved since the day of their birth, grow up to become such an inspiration in your own life, and someone you would come to respect and admire more than most of the people you have ever known.
Living only in the moment, when you are spending time with a growing and developing child, just trying to survive and educate, inspire, and protect them through adolescence and into puberty and adulthood, you don’t give much thought -at any given moment – about this or that thing you say or do and to what extent it will inform, inspire, or shape the person they will become. And if we are being sincere, parenting doesn’t come with a handbook or an instruction manual leaving our poor babies to trust us to do the right things by and for them. Nor do you have to look very hard to see that some parents have done far better than others at this job nature thrusts upon us, expecting us to perform with perfection.
We couldn’t have known on the day this little bundle of joy came into the world that I would be hired for a job that would force us to relocate 2000 miles away in Texas, and we would have laughed at anyone that would have suggested this little angel would be sitting in first class on an airplane leading us toward an entirely unexpected and unforeseen life at the tender young age of 6 weeks, but as the saying goes… “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
A whole book could be written about our transition from the Northeast to the central Southwest, and, in fact, one is being considered for some future release, but the inspiration behind this essay picks up when our Baby Girl was around two-and-a-half to three years old. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that despite her now being well into her twenties, I continue to call her “Baby Girl,” and has been the name that shows up on my phone whenever she calls ever since she got her first cell phone.)
We had recently moved to what would be our final place of residence before the older kids started growing up and moving out to pursue their own lives. We had set up a small horse ranch where the house was set on 1 acre and an adjacent 6 Acres with a pond where the horses grazed and drank. Though an electrical engineer by trade, I developed skills in auto repair, plumbing, electrical, and carpentry/ construction over the years and had set about a number of improvement projects around the properties in order to sustain a moderate horse ranch lifestyle.
Early on, there was an obvious need for fencing, food, and grain storage, and fairly soon into the process, I began building an oval 100′ by 50′ riding ring that would eventually be wired to provide light for nighttime training. For the record, horse training in the middle of the day in the Northeast is a simple enough concept, but Texas, on the other hand, is a great deal more unforgiving in matters of hard labor in the middle of the day during the months between April and September.
Once the basic horse infrastructure was built, I decided it was time to spread out a little and spend some time enhancing personal comfort and convenience in other areas of the property. It was at this point that my Baby Girl decided to take it upon herself to start making requests of her own. She had decided that we needed a chicken coop because she wanted to have chickens and assured me she would feed them and water them and fetch their eggs and help me take care of them. Me being me, a sucker for toe head blonde blue-eyed three-year-olds, I never had a fighting chance; that chicken coop was a life-or-death imperative to her and, by God, the world must stop until construction was complete, although I did tell her – with no possible way at the time of knowing the wheels this moment in our life together would start turning in her precious little head – that I would only build it for her on one condition. As you might expect, she accepted before she even knew the condition, but I told her I would only do it if she helped me do it and that whenever I was working on it, she had to be working on it too.
The modern American family is not constrained by Bloodlines and genealogy like it might have been a century ago, and ours is no different. Chronologically, my Baby Girl is my granddaughter, and her dad has never really been in her life, although she established communications with him a few years ago. Because she has been with me since birth and because she lived with me until her mother met and married someone who would become her stepdad, I was more or less the Father Figure in her life until she was -give or take – 7 or 8 years old. When her mother got married, I quietly transitioned from Dad to Grandad (or “Djiadji [pronounced jojjy] as all my grandkids call me, and the two of us never skipped a beat, but I consider myself the luckiest man alive to have served this child as not only her father but then, as she has grown and developed, her adoring grandfather and number one fan.
The bargain we had struck with each other that day regarding the chicken coop, as adorable and uncomplicated as it might have seemed at the time, turned out to be a seed planted in her heart and mind that would become an inspiration and the beginnings of a lifelong dream for her. We built that chicken coop and filled it with a rooster and 4 hens Who provided us ample egg production for years. We moved on from the chicken coop project to the construction of what we all lovingly referred to as the “playhouse,” which was really just a shabby 12′ x 12′ building that was used as a sewing room which we brought with us from our previous house and placed in our backyard of the new property. After the chicken coop and before the Hay and Tack Barn was built, I dismantled that shed, and Baby Girl and I did all of the site prep and much of the construction that went into converting it into effectively a backyard Bar and Rural drinking establishment for close friends, neighbors, and family.
As you might imagine by now, the two of us spent countless hours together over many years, during which we talked about everything from how much she hated Brownies and Girl Scouts to how much I wished I had a better-paying job to how each of us would spend our money if we hit the lottery jackpot. And in between all of that, we were busy, me hammering nails or cutting Lumber while she fetched this or that tool or held something in place while I nailed or screwed things together, and over all those hours together, she was quietly taking in everything I was doing, asking along the way why this board went here, and that plank went there and how I was going to get water and electricity into the building.
I was so busy ‘being in the moment ‘as they say, that I didn’t ask her to explain why she wanted to know something about what I was doing or why I was doing it the way I was, or why I had to do it in that particular order… I just answered her questions, gave her the details about what I just did or what I needed to do next, and stayed focused on the tasks at hand. In other words, I wasn’t teaching her in the literal sense, but she sure as hell was learning about everything I was doing and developing a love for the work I had no idea she felt until, nearing graduation from high school, when she told me she wanted to be an Architectural Engineer, and the work we did together (and her love for and fascination with that work) was the reason why.
All these years later, bachelor’s degree in hand and newly hired on with an architectural engineering company, my Baby Girl has grown up and taught me a number of things about myself, the life I have chosen to live, and the things I should have paid closer attention to then I actually did in my own stretch of childhood during those same impressionable developmental years.
For starters, she has taught me that sometimes the most fruitful trees are those not planted by design. She has taught me, as well, that some of the best lessons in life are learned while we’re busy doing something else. She taught me that the deepest passions we hold closest to our hearts, no matter how long we keep them to ourselves or convince ourselves we shouldn’t pursue them, inevitably escape our dreams and force themselves to become our realities… More on that in a minute. Perhaps most importantly, she has reminded me that the only times in life that we ever really lose are those times when we decide to give up the fight.
It was after my third stroke when they told me I couldn’t live alone unsupervised or that I would never drive or work again, that she said to me, “Fuck that, Djiadji, do it anyway.” And there it is; living alone in my own apartment, two books later, this essay ultimately becoming an entry in the third book currently in development, the teacher has officially become the taught, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.