When I woke this morning I was thinking of my daughter. Perhaps I’d been dreaming about her, but I never remember dreams, and what I remembered actually happened. I was driving her to school, and there was a song I disliked on the radio: “War, what is it good for?” I think it was called. This was in 1970 when Maeve was twelve.
The lyrics were banal, I told Maeve, defining the word for her. The Hut 2, 3, 4 in the song’s background was a kind of theft from the young soldiers then risking their lives in Vietnam. My indignation on their behalf, as I did not say, but my daughter would assume, was related to my own military service.
I was a major in the Army Reserves at the time, spent two weeks every summer on active duty. I’ve never been in battle. I’ve always felt some discomfort with that. Foolish, really, because I could have been; you go where you’re sent. I never discussed it with Maeve and she may have been under the impression I was a combat veteran.
The song’s premise, that war is good for “absolutely nothing” was ludicrous, at odds with most of recorded history. I suppose if I’d been honest with myself I would admit I disliked the arrogance I believed I heard in the voices of the young Black men singing the song, was uncomfortable with what may have been genuine feeling on their part. Instead I cited S.I. Hayakawa view that Black English, as it was called then, perpetuated racial stereotypes. This was the form my interactions with Maeve usually took; I gave instruction; she accepted it.
I’ve always been that way. He doesn’t tolerate fools gladly, it said in the high school yearbook under my name. My daughter was used to this, to me expressing opinions, bolstering them with education and experience she couldn’t hope to match. I flattered myself, thinking our talks were bracing, an antidote to what she got at school, an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills.
“Oh,” she said sadly, in response to my critique. “I liked it.”
Defeated, I thought this morning when I revisited that time. Notice she’d said she’d liked that song, meaning she no longer did.
“Honey,” I should have said, “you can like whatever you like. What does an old coot like me know about music anyway?”
I had not. This morning I felt the same cold triumph I’d felt then.
“Typical,” I’d said when I stopped the car in front of the school, because I was still angry with her. She walked slowly, tentatively, I noticed, unsure of her welcome. She’d have to do something about her posture, I told her that night when I came home. She was becoming round-shouldered from holding her head down.
I didn’t pick that myself, about not suffering fools gladly. The yearbook staff chose the saying for each member of the senior class, something with a bit of a bite. Is it a crime to be beautiful? for the prom queen or God’s gift to women, for a fellow who was successful with girls. I hadn’t minded at the time but now I think it was too pointed, may have caused hurt. Why, I wonder, hadn’t Miss Chubb, the yearbook advisor, put a stop to it?
It was different when I was a boy. We said Sir and Ma’am, stood when called upon to recite in class. Young Black men perform songs critical of the government on the radio. Such anger as we felt about the imbalance of power between children and adults we expressed in underhanded ways and, because of her unfortunate name and full figure, Miss Chubb came in for her fair share of crude cartoons slid under the classroom door, and students, just out of view, reciting “Fatty, fatty, two by four,” etc., when she walked down the hall.
My approach was subtler. “So round, so firm, so fully packed,” I’d whisper softly when her back was turned.
“If la Chubb doesn’t like it,” I told my friends, “she can always lose a few.”
She’d be a hundred if she were alive today and I don’t know why I still mind her letting a little jab at me into the yearbook. Nothing, really, in comparison to the way Maeve turned on me the next year when she was thirteen. The little girl who was willing to be guided by me in matters of taste and morality disappeared. In her place was a slutty little hellcat who turned everything I’d ever said or done against me.
Norma said I was too hard on her, Norma being a featherbed Maeve could fall back onto without encountering any unpalatable home truths.
I may have been gruff, I said, but Maeve wasn’t fooled. She was smart enough to recognize the love underneath. A bedrock, a firm foundation. Maeve could count on me to tell her the truth.
What did it matter? My daughter no longer valued my opinion but, repulsed by the filth spewing out of her mouth, I continued to give it. What else did I have to offer?
Men want to lead and for the women to accede gratefully to that leadership, I told my daughter, because what sort of life would she have if she couldn’t attract a successful man.
Boys, I said, may laugh when a girl says something dirty but they’re really embarrassed. I told her how offensive I’d found the part in “The Carpetbaggers” where Elizabeth Ashley’s husband asked her what she wanted to see on her honeymoon.
“‘Lots of lovely ceilings, darling,’” she’d said, and it got a big laugh. I’ve never cared for Elizabeth Ashley, I told my daughter. I found that knowing attitude, such as a prostitute might assume, offensive.
It seems quaint now.
Norma probably thought I should have taken Jim Anderson, Robert Young, on “Father Knows Best”, sitting with that chunky little girl on his knee, for my model. Made me think of what Graham Greene called Shirley Temple: A totsy. A fancy little piece.
Robert Young was a drunk; Kitten would have smelt alcohol on his breath.
No man, no grown man, could have stood listening to Maeve prate on about wanting to buy the world a Coke, feeling close to God when she sees a beautiful sunset, etc. You wouldn’t be doing her a favor, letting her think she was pretty. What did she have except her sexual virtue? I didn’t believe a woman had any other kind of morality and I did not want to see my daughter squander hers.
Norma told me I was making things worse. It was for show, she said, when we learned Maeve would take her brassiere off in the bathroom when she got to school, stuff if it into her shoulder bag. “She’s doing it to get back at you. She’s a little girl. She hasn’t done anything. She hasn’t had the chance.”
Norma was right about that. Maeve, as I’d told her, was not destined to be a popular girl. “So she’s a liar as well.”
“You keep calling her names, you’ll push her into doing something to prove you right.”
I’m sorry for it now, some of it, but, God, she provoked me.
I told myself it was a father’s right when I slapped her. She was supposed to have gone to the shopping center, the mall, with her friends, came home two hours after it closed, her half unbuttoned blouse falling down her thin shoulders, the garish makeup, candy pink for her lips, sky blue around her eyes, smeared over her face.
She wouldn’t tell us where she’d been, “Why should I? You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
Cunning, I thought, like an animal.
I intended, thinking of the sharp sound my palm would make against her cheekbone, to hit the side of her face, but what I felt was soft. She may have turned when she saw me draw back my hand.
I won’t deny it was satisfying to me, though Maeve didn’t fall back and whimper, gave me a look that made me want to slap her again. I didn’t, not wanting to look as if I’d loss control.
Norma said I’d hit her as hard as you’d hit a grown man. It’s hard to imagine now, how strong I was.
There was a bruise on the left side of Maeve’s face the next morning, large, stretching from the cheekbone half way up the eye socket. It was gray and the color so uniform I would have suspected artifice, but her face was swollen, lumpy. Only on the left side so it wasn’t from crying.
She came to breakfast in her pajamas because, she said, looking pleased, there’d be no school for her today. “Probably not all week.”
“Put some make-up on it.” This was two years before the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was enacted by the federal government but the idea of child abuse itself was much in the news and I wasn’t naïve enough to think the school would ignore Maeve’s bruise.
“Maybe in a day or two,” Norma said. “It’s too dark now and the swelling has to go down.”
“You could ice it, surely.”
Maeve had started looking for excuses to miss school at the beginning of seventh grade and I sometimes suggested to her this was because she was disappointed the boys at school didn’t like her more.
Norma didn’t minded Maeve staying home from school, enjoyed her company. She’d take a cool drink to Maeve’s room mid-morning, watch soap operas with her when Maeve got up in the afternoon.
This was at our old house on Fourth. We had a breakfast nook off the kitchen, a nice little room, got the soft early morning sun, and I liked sitting in there, eating Norma’s good breakfasts. I remember looking at the table, the tablecloth of coarse linen printed with brightly colored chickens and roosters, the orange juice in the thin clear glasses, the cream pitcher in the shape of a cow, all of it so cheery and prosperous.
I had to go to work, leave them in possession of that pleasant place.
Sometimes, as now, when I’m missing Norma, I think of calling our daughter. She has caller ID and I’ve never known her to answer the phone herself when I call, she must recognize my number.
I could wait till evening when her son and husband are home. If one of them answers, her son perhaps, we’ll exchange pleasantries.
He’s sixteen, my grandson Kyle, a nice enough kid, self-assured in a way Maeve was not.
Going out for track this season, I might ask him.
“No,” he’d probably say. “I’m pretty busy.”
Not with school work, you may be sure.
“I was a long distance runner,” I’d tell him. “The 3,000 meter. I could outrun all those flashy guys who were so good in the short-term, couldn’t keep it up for the longer distance events. They called us the “cinder fellas” because that’s what we ran on back then, a cinder track. Easier on the knees than the tracks they’ve got now but it wore you out faster.”
“I’ll bet you’d like to talk to Mom.”
She won’t ask him to lie for her, pretend she isn’t home.
“I was thinking of you today,” I could say to Maeve. “I was remembering that song on the radio when you were in Junior High, ‘War, what is it good for?’ I think you took it seriously, thought it had some deep message, and I told you it was a stupid song and you shouldn’t like it. I guess I hurt your feelings.”
But I don’t call Maeve because I know what she’d say, can already hear her creamy voice. “That’s something else I don’t remember.”