Her Mother and Father’s Daughter
Mother drums her left palm against the beach chair. Her toes wiggle in paper-white sand.
“It’s a bit overcast, but still catchin’ rays. As long as I look like I’m from Florida visiting San Fran, I’m good,” she says.
Her mouth suspends open, but no further words usher forth. A lack of response from the other line deadens conservational enthusiasm.
“Well, I’ll let you go. Enjoy the day—tell Paxton Grandma says hi!” Father flaps his right hand, obtruding Mother’s view of the Gulf of Mexico. “Grandpa says hi, too. Love you. Love you…bye.”
Peeking brown eyes stray from the pages of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Climatic prose pauses in mid-sentence. Daughter sniffs sibling gossip and looks to her silver-haired mother for the buzz.
Mother reveals a plastic bag. She searches for the color orange, within snacks glowing colors of the rainbow. A carrot, pencil-thin, pokes pursed lips. The carrot slowly dissipates into pockets of her cheeks, dangling but steady. Mother’s gaze remains constant on building waves of water in front of her.
“Mom, what did Carol say?”
Mother reluctantly addresses her youngest, Charlotte. The carrot has been swallowed.
“Lonely but hanging in there. Clay’s taking Paxton on a trip next week—not telling her where—so…there’s that.”
Charlotte manically smiles. “Clay’s got balls, that’s for sure.” Ever since Carol, her eldest sister, told this unattached lover she was pregnant, her life has been one unceasing battle for custody.
Mother delicately sips from an eight-ounce plastic bottle. Her daughter’s bluntness taints the taste of filtered water. “Just pray she meets someone. She needs stability.”
Charlotte’s eyes quickly switch from Mother back to Hosseini’s streets in Afghanistan. Mother’s accustomed conversational authority is uprooted. All it took was one verb—pray—to drain Charlotte’s interest.
Suddenly, unanticipated cheers spout from the left of Mother and Charlotte, as Father’s hands and mouth smack. An echo reverberates. Mother joins in, following her husband’s lead. Father and Mother’s actions only cocoon Charlotte in sparked sentiments.
“Why are you clapping?”
“Don’t you see the three men walking by on the shoreline? They’re holding flags.” Even if she wanted to look, Charlotte can’t stop staring at Father: calloused, cracked—worn. His right hand covers his left bosom. She can hear him humming, My country tis of Thee, sweet land of Liberty…
“So?” Daughter asks.
“They’re veterans, Charlie.” Mother’s snap remark disturbs her daughter’s cocoon of resentment. A strand of youthful confidence unravels.
“Are you sure? How can we—”
“They served our country. Show some respect. What are you—a socialist?!”
Those hands. Leaving his cotton tee for his daughter’s umbrella, Father’s fingers inch closer. Like a snake they coil, encircling the umbrella’s stem, wounding its flower: the canopy. Rays of sunshine penetrate Charlotte’s forehead.
“What’s wrong with you?” she yells, shielding her face from the sun.
“Dan…” Mother’s pleas are useless. His fingers only coil tighter, forcing beams of light to soak petite freckled shoulders. Father’s tongue lashes.
“Can’t you show any patriotism, or is that too liberal for you?”
“I’m not liberal. I don’t stand with either side. I’m—"
“Independent. I’m aware. Your lack of opinions reek of opinions,” Father says.
Charlotte doesn’t agree. Unmerited judgment weaves another strand onto her cocoon. Father, Mother? They don’t understand.
“What’s wrong with that man?” she says, indirectly tossing the question.
Father pretends not to hear Charlotte’s slight. Mother shrugs. “I don’t know. We’ve been married thirty-four years, and I still don’t know what makes him do or say the things he does.”
Father’s all too familiar with Mother’s game of playing the intercessor. He once admired her ability to sympathize. Years of marriage have now revealed its strategic tactics, used to pawn him against co-workers, neighbors, and now his own children.
“I’m fine!” he barks, “Stop asking me if I’m okay!”
“See, he always says he’s fine.” Father swats his hands at Mother’s two-sense.
“But he’s right, Charlie.” Mother’s unexpected defense raises Father’s eyebrows. “Don’t lose your patriotism over new-age philosophy,” she continues.
“I’m not—what—how am I suddenly a liberal, anti-American Semitist? Excuse me for not being a red-party heartthrob,” Charlotte shouts. Mother presses her index finger against her tight lips: an attempt to lower the level of Charlotte’s charged emotions.
“Maybe you should’ve stayed in-state for college. You’ve only been out of homeschooling for two years.”
Mother stands, dislodging a wedgy from her bikini. “I’m going to cool down in the water,” she says and walks to the shore.
Typically, Father welcomes solitude. Raising five children has gifted him the appreciation for white noise. A nonsensical commercial? Soothing. But someone’s emotions beg attention; so, he dials focus back on his youngest.
“I’m not some bigot, and I’m not racist, despite what you think.”
Daughter tries her best to look him in the eyes—her eyes.
“I don’t think that.”
Father nods twice. “Yes, you do. You don’t know me to think those things.”
“Everyone has their biases, Dad. That’s all I was trying to make clear last night. I left the living room because I can’t stand political commentators. I don’t care what partisan side they stand on.”
“But does everything have to be a challenge—a correction? Like somehow, you’re above me? Your comment yesterday that I live in a Southern-Baptist bubble is not only absurd but demeaning. I’m your father—not a peer. And, I don’t think your intolerance for political parties is the only reason you stomped out last night.”
Daughter tosses A Thousand Splendid Suns in her backpack, perched behind her chair. She’s tempted to shove the book in his face. Here, read this, she’d say, This is what your partisan party refuses to act upon: mercy.
“I’m nineteen. If I think that transgenders should be accepted or that minorities are actually marginalized, I’m entitled to that opinion.”
“I shouldn’t be forced to intake bullshit I don’t believe just to ‘spend quality T.V. family time.’ If my professors heard your—”
“Charlie! Listen, goddamnit.” Charlotte’s acuity sharpens. The last time she’d heard Father swear was when Chelsea, one of her elder sisters, was suspended from college. That was ten years ago.
“I teach transgender students,” Father forcefully whispers. “They tell me their preferred name, or pronoun, and I go along. You think I say ‘no’ and exorcise demons out of them?”
Daughter rolls her eyes. “That doesn’t mean you—”
“Question number two: Anthony is one of my closest friends. What ethnicity is he? What is he, Charlie?”
This domineering voice demands an account. “Jamaican.”
“That’s right.” Father’s thin-striped lips flatten wider in a shy grin. He thinks he’s won through her admittance. Charlotte’s cocoon barely frays at the edges.
“Just because I feel sandwiched by a minority agenda does not mean I’m choking on hate-speech—”
“Shut up, Dad. You’re a white, middle-class, male American. You’ve never experienced real loss or had to worry about survival—"
“I disagree.” Father’s nose points directly forward with poise. “Everyone, even white males, struggle. My parents were absolute, pathetic alcoholics…”
Water dampens father’s eyes. They swim in salt. “Dad and Mom were fifty-eight when they passed. Both of them are buried in unmarked graves somewhere over the Skyway bridge. My parents left my brothers and I nothing. Not even each other.”
Charlotte’s mouth shape words, but thoughts won’t take flight.
Father collects his composure. “I was thirty-six when I finally got my bachelor’s. Molly couldn’t work full-time with five kids at home all under ten. So, what did I have to do? Get out there, shut my mouth, and work. Times were tough. One night…”
“Dad, please stop…I can’t take this—"
Father’s eyes remain fixated on waves. Just as they continue to roll, Father’s thoughts tumble onto the sands of dictation. “One night I took the Ford Escort, bought a six-pack with one prerogative. But no matter how much I drank, Molly’s face kept reappearing.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the side of a highway—a flashlight soaked my face. I was standing before the throne of glory, and the cop’s final judgment was a DUI. I had failed…Molly.”
Charlotte feels empathy tugging, nagging for her cocoon to peel. Sympathy attempts to leak, but she stuffs cotton in her ears by counting freckles on her shoulders.
“I may have my doctorate now, a couple of beers on Saturday nights, and watch Wheel of Fortune, but don’t you think I’ve earned it?”
Father doesn’t need to see his daughter’s face to calculate her thoughts—her heart. “No, I suppose not. No rest for Dan Walker. I’m just a white supremacist glued to colonialism, right?
Be thankful for what you have, Charlie. At least you’ve got a family that loves you.”
Charlotte’s almost at fifty, but rekindled anger disturbs the count. “You’re my parents. Isn’t that your responsibility? This is a bunch of shi—B.S.—I shouldn’t have come home,” she says firmly, repositioning her chair out of the sun—away from Father.
“Yeah, and spend winter break on campus by yourself? Need I remind you I took off of work to drive out there, waited in rush hour traffic, and helped you move into another dorm—”
“I had to change rooms. You sound like Mom, putting me on a guilt-trip.”
Father doesn’t even shake his head. It can’t move from shock. “See…you just don’t get it. You don’t want to get it. You’re the entitled one, Charlie. Your generation: Millennials, Gen Z—whatever you want to call it—you’re the entitled ones.”
“What the fuck does this have to do with anything? I don’t watch a stupid show and all hell raises!” Charlotte blasts her voice above the holiday crowd, above the waves, and above her better judgment.
A calloused hand strikes Charlotte’s right cheek. Her skin tone finally reflects the wrath of the sun. Redness seeps.
“Watch your mouth. There was a time you were afraid to even use euphemisms. That was less than a year ago.”
Father’s words light a match, igniting discarded perceptions.
She’s sixteen, at the dinner table after track practice, and tears stream down her face, making Mother’s mashed potatoes a bit creamier. “They kept calling me Jesus Freak!”
“The kids, Mom! Who else? They know I’m home schooled, so they do whatever they can to…to…to…” Sniffles and sobs clog words.
“Take your time,” Father says. He takes a hand, rubbing her back—not too forceful, not too tender. Palpitations calm.
“They kept betting with each other who could get me to curse first.” Charlotte looks up at her parents. “I couldn’t do it. Even when they tripped me on the asphalt, I didn’t say shit.”
She’s back being nineteen, sand cakes her feet, but with the remembrance of these memories, bitter strands attempt to unravel. Charlotte’s cocoon is challenged.
“I don’t care—” Father begins.
“Yes, you do—”
“Let me finish! I’m proud you have your own ideas—that you’re passionate. Just don’t shoot
us in the foot. Everything Mom and I did and continue to do is because we want to give you a better chance. We had to make our own way.”
“So, let me make my own way too…” she whispers, “I need to find myself…just like you and Mom did. You settled on religion. I may…” Charlotte hesitates as Father’s eyes finally encircle back on hers. He knows what’s to come. “I may not, I may—but I’m still your daughter.”
Father bows his head, as if praying for his daughter’s soul. “We do everything out of love, Charlie. Everything….” Like clockwork he raises his temple and straightens his back, regaining posture. “I’m sorry you mistook our love for white supremacy.”
Once again, sympathy nags at strands, but only annoyance flutters Charlotte’s eyelashes.
Petite toes flirt. Charlotte looks up. Mother smiles as droplets from her body drip onto Charlotte’s knees. Satisfied with gaining her youngest’s attention, Mother plops in her chair.
“Temperature’s perfect. Felt like bath water.”
“That sounds terrible.”
It’s Mother’s turn to swat at Father’s two-sense. “Oh, be quiet, Mr. Umbrella Man.”
Father scratches his neck and rises. Irritation has emptied his gas tank. He slips in imprinted flip-flops.
Mother’s eyes remain closed, but years of attending babies has attuned her ears to the slightest sound. “And where are you going?”
Father’s lips spit a response. “I’m going to get a beer. Just one. Want me to use cash?” A twitch dances.
“You know I don’t like that. See, already got that funny look on your face.”
“Just one, Molly. That’s it. Then I’m done.”
“Forget what I think. It’s your health. Go.” Father looks stricken, like a school-boy. He exits towards the snack-shack. Flop-flop-flop.
“There’s not a man out there that isn’t stubborn, Charlie. Mark my words. Don’t let his smoothness seduce you.
“Well, that man is angry with me.”
“Your father’s always angry. That’s why I tell him to stop reading the newspaper—just gets him riled up. But then, nothing makes that man content.” Mother’s dip in the water didn’t wash away her inclination for pawning others against her husband.
“No. It’s me. I shouldn’t have come home. I’m just causing problems.”
Mother pats Charlotte’s arm.
“I know it’s tough having older parents, Charlie. Dad romanticizes about months he spent living with Grandparents, but that’s not reality. We old folks can’t hear things, and we aren’t apt to change. That’s the hardest part. For you and us.”
“You’re not getting it—I want to be with you. I just want you to respect who I am—give some space.”
“Charlie, it goes both ways. Don’t ruin the holidays by arguing.”
“I’ll just sit here in silence.”
“You want to make an impact? Have a voice for change? Start with generational acceptance. The day I can walk into a café and not be judged because I want meat on my sandwich, then maybe we can get tattoos together. But you’re paying.”
“Mom, I don’t want a tattoo.”
“Nothing surprises me. Had Chelsea try on her bridal dress only to measure her tattoo! Now all I see in wedding pictures is ink down her sternum.”
“It’s not funny, we paid big money for those pics—"
For the first time that afternoon the sun’s light on Charlotte’s body doesn’t hurt. Granted, the peak of the day is passing; but still…rays tickle not sting. Strands in her cocoon feel less restrained.
“So you’ll love me no matter what, right? Like even if I go on a Buddhist pilgrimage?” Charlotte asks, a coy smile peeping out.
“Are you…” Mother’s shoulders slump deeper, stressing her frailty.
“Not everything’s a joke.”
“Can anything be a joke?”
“Things are easier when your kids are happy with chicken nuggets.”
Charlotte rises, stretches her torso, and reaches for Mother’s hands. “Want to grab some ice cream?”
“I thought ice cream was artificial crap. Our stomachs don’t naturally digest cow’s milk.”
“Kids don’t study ingredients. I can pretend to be one.”
Boyfriend reapplies another dose of SPF 100 sunscreen. A Giants ball cap protects his red head, but elastic Dumbo ears are left bare. They display their disdain for the sun through pink hues.
“You doin’ okay, hun?” Charlotte asks, rubbing his arm. Boyfriend winces.
“I need a drink.” He’s already sweated through two Pina Colada’s. He’s found Florida’s humidity provides one benefit: an excuse to drink.
Father, sitting to the left of Boyfriend, senses his agitation. “Molly, I’ll go with Brad.”
This time, Mother simply hands Father the credit card. She expects the drill. “Just one, Dan.”
“What—no—Dan, don’t worry about it. I’ll cover the bill,” Brad pleads.
Peeking brown eyes stray from Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Really, Brad? Charlotte wonders if congeniality camouflages annoyance.
“Dad sit down. Brad and I will go get your drink,” Charlotte says, tossing her book aside. She looks to Mother, sitting to her right. “That’ll leave one of us to check up on these men with insatiable thirst.” Mother was right. Five years with Brad has taught her well: men only say ‘yes’ to women for something in return.
Brad shrugs his shoulders. He directs his attention towards Father. “Any IPA good?” A calloused up-turned thumb appears from under the umbrella. Brad and Charlotte turn, walking towards the snack-shack.
More than sand shifts between the couple. The sun tickles her; it penetrates him. With each passing year, nudging her towards thirty, Charlotte has felt strands of her cocoon tear away with each disappointment, rejection, and sneer from the outside world. Life hasn’t turned out as expected. She’d thought that liberality would conceive anticipated acceptance, but each success came with its share of critics. Consistently and constantly, editors make it known her content’s too pious. “Let your character’s rebel some more,” they taunt, or “Why do your stories always beg for hope?” they condemn. No matter how often she votes Democratic or attends mindfulness meditations, her schematic upbringing haunts her. Attempts to be someone she’s not only frustrates her cocoon, loosening its threads, as it cries for peace.
It’s been four years. Four years of living with Brad in San Francisco, and the sterile chill is becoming unbearable. Frigid, she wakes each morning with Brad’s blubber around her, whispering flirtatious coos. His actions merely perpetuate rising goosebumps. She outwardly smiles and inwardly prays for one beam of light to pat her face. Then, the fog rolls in.
The final excuse was: “Time to meet the parents.” It took a pregnancy scare to get Brad a ticket to the South. “I’m not going back to Florida, after seven years, only to say I’m pregnant from a man they’ve never met. Either you’re coming or you’re leaving. My novel paid for this apartment; so, technically it’s mine.” A shrug of the shoulders later, he was on a flight to the Sunshine State. Until he had his seatbelt on, compromise dangled. “You told your boss you’re taking off next week, right? That you’re going to visit my parents? I mean it’s Christmas, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal? Right…Brad? Right?”
He’d nod and say, “Yeah.”
As soon as Charlotte saw the Skyway Bridge from the plane, sunlight poured in. Charlotte glowed; Brad gloomed. He put down the window, as she looked for her house, a game her Father played. “What? It’s too bright,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
The snack-shack stands now just ahead. Thirst and hunger echo the line. Before Charlotte identifies the end, a hand grabs her. It sizzles. Brad calls her name.
“We need to talk.”
Surprise doesn’t hit. “Yeah. I thought so.”
“Does your dad really expect me to propose? He’s hinting he wants me to ask for his blessing—is this your mom talking? I mean, before we moved in together, we set expectations.” Brad removes his sunglasses. “We didn’t think marriage would—ow, Jesus Christ!”
Chunky fingers clasp a raw cheek. A handprint accentuates his sun-charred face. Charlotte lowers her palm.
“You don’t believe in marriage,” she says, crossing her arms.
Brad’s lips pucker. “What—what the hell? The goddamn sun comes out and you act like everything you stood by means nothing. Who—who the fuck are you?”
Charlotte bites her lip. Several phrases have potential to but can’t formulate. She settles with, “I’ve been thinking.”
Brad plunges his sunglasses back on. Another strike will hurt his perpetrator more. “Babe I love you, but what the hell has gotten into you? Your parents are whack. Your mom thinks she’s always right, and your dad’s a passive goat.”
Slap. Brad’s sunglasses snap, piercing his cheekbone, splitting skin. Blood peeps. Charlotte’s hand cries in agony, but her emotions scream louder, deafening the pain.
“You don’t know the slightest thing about my parents. Don’t for a second think you chose not to be a part of this family.”
His lips don’t pucker larger than a quarter. “This family? Go to hell,” Brad coarsely whispers. “My friends, the critics, they’re all right about you—you’re a closet fundamentalist, confined by your upbringing. And I thought you’d let that shit go.”
Charlotte’s lip quivers. Fog which had tightly wrapped strands of her cocoon together now rupture, pressured to unfold under heat. “You’re right…I haven’t.”
Despite everything, Charlotte is her mother and father’s daughter.