My Austrian husband and I, an Australian, were living in France when our daughter was born. She was a preemie and when she came home she'd lie on her father's tummy, belly-to-belly, like a little frog. She was so small and he was so big. He'd carry her in a sling against his chest and pat her rhythmically to send her to sleep.
I think that's what led to a special bond between them. She was four months old when she had her first taste of Roquefort cheese, a crumb she sucked from his finger while we were wine tasting with our French friends. Maybe that's why French has remained their own special language. Or was it because of her dictation test at school when she showed him all her mistakes, and he said, ˝Try me," and then he made more mistakes than she had?
She used to embarrass him, or at least tried to when she was a terrible teen. I'll never forgot that time in the checkout line at the supermarket when he didn´t bat an eyelid as the cashier checked through a box of condoms. Her school class at the Lycée was giving a presentation on AIDS. She had to know, it was fine with him.
And the disco duty. Four girlfriends slept over and he dropped them at the disco by the bowling alley in the next village. I could see that he didn´t approve of the way some of them were dolled up, and I didn't either. (I think she wore more makeup at fifteen than at any other time in her life.) "Be out at 4:00," he said. "And don´t leave before then or do anything silly." How would he know, she must have thought, as indeed I did, and then he added: "My friends at the bowling alley will tell me if ..." I'm sure that he used to read her mind. Sometimes it was downright spooky.
He knew that telling her off would never work. It was our example she'd been following without her, or us, even realizing it. When he lost his job and he and I switched roles, he'd do the shopping and washing, he'd pick her up from school, play chauffeur and so, in his own way, showed her that anything was possible. And at graduation, the photos prove how he just couldn´t hide his pride. He´d say to her: "Find your way, be happy, but don´t suffer fools." He taught her to turn on her auto radar and trust her gut feelings. And he taught her to listen to her heart, the way he taught me. At the end of the day, he´d say, that she needed more than just what was in her purse.
And the time he cried. The first time was when she was seven and we were watching The Sound of Music. I can´t remember if it was because of the uniforms or if the mountains reminded him of his own country, Austria; but she saw him cry then. It was a bit of a shock for her to see her father, such a big man, cry. "It got to me," was all he said. She wasn't around the second time he cried, but I told her about it several years later. "It was just the first boy in my life, Mum," she said. I guess, already then, he was starting to learn to let go.
It´s been a while since they´ve hung out together as father and daughter. Life gets in the way, hers in Australia and ours now in Austria. But she's written to say she'll be arriving special delivery, wrapped in a pink ribbon, shocking pink, so the whole street would know, ending with the words: "Bisous, mon Papa." His face creased into grins as he read her letter. "Our daughter's coming," he said. "My girl's coming home."
Causes Sylvia Petter Supports
International PEN (Sydney)
Indigenous Literacy Project (Australia)