SNAPSHOTS OF MY DAUGHTER, TURNING
I was looking at my daughter's back the other day, strong-muscled, well formed, with a cascade of blond hair almost to her waist. Thinking of a bronze -- the way the light would take when it was polished. She turned her head over her shoulder and said something. . .
Time collapsed suddenly, as it is said to do for someone drowning. I saw flashing before me a garland of images, visions of my daughter's back, her head turning to me over her shoulder. Like an album of brilliantly clear still photographs, or short clips from a film that has lasted three decades.
Bonny is 6. In a bend of the Willamette River called Peach Cove, I am struggling with my first novel. I'm hard to coax away from the typewriter, even on a beautiful afternoon. Bon is skipping ahead of me, hand-in-hand with her little brother, down a sun-spattered corridor between rows of holly trees. We are all heading for the river beach.
She is a gloriously sunny child, and when she turns, her face is radiant with innocence and delight, like the blooming of a flower.
"Come on, Daddy! Come on!"
Bonny is 12. We are on the Oregon Coast. Times are hard. My wife, a gourmet cook by nature, is reduced to a single menu: "Oatmeal for breakfast, tomatoes for lunch, and whatever you can catch for dinner."
But the catching is good, after all, for an outlaw family in the Coast Range. David is 15, a superb hunter who brings waterfowl. Duncan is 9, and a skillful fisherman. Bonny gathers wild strawberries from the beach dunes. And all of therm are out in the pre-dawn ocean chill digging clams while old Dad slumbers.
On this particular day I have killed a black bear in a deep canyon. I lash him to my back and fight my way out of the brushy depths, his great, dark head bouncing and rolling on my shoulder. It takes many hours. He weighs more than I, and I wish desperately that our encounter had been somewhere near a road.
I reach our little house on the dunes well after dark. In the kitchen, Bonny and my wife are bent over the counter. Once again it is Bonny's back I see, her sun colored hair flowing down.
The knives for butchering are neatly laid out. On the floor are buckets of cold water for my bloody clothes. Racks for making jerky are ready by the stove, and rolls of paper for wrapping stand at the end of the counter.
When Bonny turns, she is at first terrified by this man- bear, this two-headed creature that stands exhausted and bloody at the door. She catches her breath, but then she gestures to the immaculate preparations with a powerful pride.
"We're ready, Daddy."
Bonny is 15. We are at 5000 feet over the Tualatin Valley in Oregon. This time I see her ahead of me in the front seat of a Supercub. I am flying the aircraft from the rear seat so that she can have an unobstructed view of the stately cumulus towers of summer. It is a time when I am doing a lot of bush-flying in Oregon, but on this rare day we are flying just for the joy of it.
If you force a plane into a climb, then push over the top strongly, you can create a zero-G condition for a few moments. Everything loose in the cockpit floats. It is a kind of super rollercoaster sensation of weightlessness. Today was zero-G day for Bon.
It has always been my private fancy that Bon was destined for a planet less weighty than this one, a place where all weight is lightness, where all bondage is freedom, where the spirit of joy is never impaired by the gravity of matter. I have never mentioned this to her, of course, but on this airborne day her ecstasy in weightlessness confirms my fancy.
Her face is golden with sunlight as we go over the top into zero-G, and her eyes are like living sapphires as she turns back to me.
"Do it again, Daddy! Do it again!"
Bonny is 18. She sits ahead of me in a two-man cruising kayak, and we are in serious trouble. We are in the middle of the Imperial Eagle channel on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We have been three weeks in this boat, exploring the islands of Barkley Sound, and now we are caught far from shore in a sudden, explosive gale that sweeps great rollers in from the North Pacific. Around us the surface of the sea is churned white, crashing and breaking over us.
Bonny's back is bent with effort. She puts every ounce of strength into each stroke. She is weeping, I know, though I cannot see her face. Suddenly a huge wave looms ahead of us, and the kayak's bow plunges into it. Ahead of me, Bonny disappears under the tons of green water that thunder down on us.
Then we rise through it, up through green water into white water into spray and we are finally on the surface again. Bonny turns to me for the first time, her tears mingled with the sea.
"I can do it, Daddy."
Bonny is 20. We are in the tropics, the Lesser Antilles, anchored in a harbor called the Anse Mitan on the island of Martinique. The unthinkable is happening. The family is being destroyed.
We have left the land world, selling everything, leaving everything, to make this 55 foot ketch our only home. And now there is a slow explosion that none of us understands, an explosion that is tearing us apart and wounding us all so deeply that, for the first time, we have lost our faith that the clan will survive anything.
Bon's to-be husband Bruce has already left the boat in anguish. Duncan will soon depart, painfully, on a tiny boat called Odin with two German sailors, to face machine guns and prison and escape in the Dominican Republic. My wife is so ill with tropical fevers it will take her a decade to recover.
On this bright morning Bonny has announced that she is shipping out on the schooner Atlanta as cook. Right now. She takes little or nothing with her. I see her back, again, standing at the rail. The Atlanta is already pulling forward on her anchor nearby.
Bonny dives overboard, cutting the warm, clear Caribbean waters like a spear. Just before she dives, she turns over her shoulder, her golden hair swinging, her face distorted with regret and sorrow.
"Good bye, Daddy."
Bonny is 26. We are on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. Bon is in the middle of seven years of excruciating pain -- unexplained pain that racks her whole body with intolerable agony. All joy is gone from her life, even the joy of her own new daughter.
During pregnancy, the pain disappeared for a while, but now it has returned relentlessly, crushing her spirit, twisting and mutilating her body. Her flesh is rocklike and stiff, and she moves like a woman of 80. Her mind is muddy and unremembering, and terror is always present. She cannot communicate with us; words are only more torture.
Her back is bent with the pain and hopelessness, and as she leaves the little house in Quartermaster Harbor, she turns to speak over her shoulder.
"I'm not making it, Daddy."
Bonny is 31. We are on a film set in Seattle. Over Bonny's back I see the camera, the director. In her lap is a large loose-leaf binder in which she keeps track of every shot, and whether Ben has his right leg crossed or otherwise.
I wrote the script for this film, and Bonny is script supervisor. Her ex-husband Bruce is the director. The clan is together, living near, working together when we can. When she turns back to me this time, her face is neutral, professional.
"In shot Nine Dog Three the actor changed his line. Is that OK, Daddy?"
I guess it's OK, Bonny. God knows, the actors in this world are always changing their lines. There are some lines in our script, my beloved, that I would change if I had the chance to rewrite. Some harsh words I would soften, some misunderstandings to be resolved by the second reel.
I would write your part entirely around the vision of that exquisite, golden child, with her perfect world of exuberance and beauty. Delete pain. Delete anguish. Delete fear.
Something on the order of a fairy princess would be just about right, I think. Living in a magical world of crystalline beauty, where lightness and freedom are everything, and the only measure of a day is the joy it holds.
But then, I suppose that is the way all fathers feel.
Snapshots of my Daughter, Turning
©1995 Don Berry