When a man marries and his wife bears him his first daughter, there begins a novel relationship completely different, completely overwhelming, completely unpredictable. He’ll never forget the first time he held the almost weightless package to whom he has given a name to replace “the baby”. In every gurgle and spastic gesture he’ll interpret a message that says, “I recognize you. You’re my daddy. I love you.” He’ll be a bit jealous of mom, who gets to stay at home, because she’ll be the one to mark the firsts. She’ll be the one to see his daughter roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, hold the rattle, the bottle, and the spoon. Most likely, mom will hear her first identifiable sounds and meaningful verbal communication.
But dad will have his share of walking the floor with his colicky daughter, changing her soiled diapers, coaxing her to sleep, and trying to get the spoon and the food into her moving mouth. He’ll have his time just holding her in a chair, on his bed, or going for a walk. Every minute is a joy. Every minute seals a relationship that is like no other.
The milestones offer new opportunities for father and daughter to bond. She can now walk to him and with him. She can ride a tricycle. She can go to day-care or pre-school and he is part of each new plateau. Oh, she has her trying days. She’s been through the “no” stage and has her temper tantrums. He tends to spoil her much to mom’s dismay. But she’s always his bundle of love.
The school years pass quickly. He’s watched her in the class talent show. He’s coached her softball team. He’s seen her talk to boys. “BOYS! Oh, my God! Don’t panic! What do I do? What do I say? I know about boys. I was one not long ago and I didn’t get friendly with girls to exchange cake recipes.” But no matter what, she’s his little girl and she knows it. He’s not always been “Father Knows Best” but he loves her.
That’s a fair if brief picture of a normal relationship between a father and a daughter…or four daughters. But not all such relationships begin in the maternity ward.
Adriana is my daughter. I’ve known her since she was four and she was a pre-school student in my English class. She was a little doll among other little dolls, both male and female, whose laugh or a gesture would melt the hardest of hearts. Her smiles and post-class hugs may have been no different from those of some of her classmates, but there was something special about her that I can’t put into words. If I could pick a daughter, it would be Adrianita.
I didn’t know her mom well. She was just another mom at first. Pretty, graceful, always smiling. I knew she was as poor as any mother in El Refugio and, if she didn’t have a man, she’d probably be just as anxious to catch an American as any other mother with no legal husband. But that was not like Margarita. All the mothers worked hard. Walked long distances to and from school with their kids. Did what they had to do for their children. In time I got to know many of them enough to know when I might be suckered into some kind of dependent relationship because of my relationship with their student child. But not Margarita.
I needed a new woman to wash my laundry and offered her the job. She dropped the kids off at school and would come once a week to do my wash before going back to pick them up again. When I wasn’t teaching and her work was done, we’d talk. No flirting. We just talked about our lives. I told her of my dreams for the kids in El Refugio. She talked about her dreams for her kids. She never pled hardship. She never suggested I could help her financially. She never asked me for anything. That made me respect her. Her patience with my Spanish made her my friend. In time, and with some help from God, we realized that we loved each other. We talked about marriage. We talked about her four kids and their respective fathers. The older three had at least some relationship with theirs. Adriana’s had left without knowing Margarita was pregnant with his child. She’d never had a father.
I grew up with the same two parents. I’d known kids who had little or no relationships with their dads, but it wasn’t my experience and I couldn’t imagine what it might be like just having a mother. A brother twelve years your senior may be the “man” of the family but he’s not your dad. He may have shared some of the experiences I noted in my first paragraphs, but psychologically and sociologically it’s not the same. I realized that although most of my pre-school kids enjoyed loving bear hugs at the beginning or end of class, when they came on campus, or when we’d meet on the street, I couldn’t expect Adriana to respond to her mother’s new husband as “daddy” even though I’d been her teacher for two years.
It’s been a slow process that’s far from complete, these past two years. She has been so incredibly attached to Margarita and the female teachers she’s had that for months, getting her just to sit next to me was extremely rare if her mother were there. At first, she had to learn that I wasn’t going to take an ounce of her mother’s love and attention from her. Once she felt comfortable with her relationship with Margarita, she very slowly opened up to conversation and play. It was somewhat painful for me since I remembered how affectionate were my four girls and three boys at her age. But I knew I had to be patient.
When we walked to school, Adriana would never walk between Margarita and me. She’d always place her mother in the middle. It was the same in church. She’d always be on the other side of her mom. Adri would monopolize the conversation leaving no space for my comments. She was the princess and I wasn’t going to usurp her rank.
Even at mealtimes, when I’d be at the head of the table with Margarita to my right, Adriana would sit on the other side of her mother.
Bed time used to be a bitter-sweet moment. She’d tell me “Pase buena noche.” and run to her room. Luís, her two-years older brother, would give and accept a hug and a kiss from me.
I don’t watch TV much. Certainly not children’s programs in Spanish. Nickelodeon and Disney programs are mental mush. I wouldn’t recommend their silly premises and ridiculous characters to English-speaking parents who should know better. So try to imagine how they must come across in Spanish to kids growing up in poverty. But I must have been looking for something appealing to my taste one night when she asked me to put on “iCarly” on Nickelodeon. I did and she climbed upon my lap. I know I cried. Pavlov would have been proud of her. The thought of my little girl and I watching TV together was my salivation and salvation. She has gotten comfortable with me and by now she knows she doesn’t have to bribe me with a tease of love to get to watch her shows.
She’s learned to walk with me to the corner store. We’ve gone shopping in nearby Chalchuapa and had fun doing it. We spend more time together playing on the computer, engaged in horseplay, or just talking about what interests her. She surprises me by doing the kinds of little but loving things her mother does. She’ll sweep and mop my room while I’m working at the computer and even make me sandwiches or quesadillas. If she sees I’m watching an interesting video or power point, she’ll climb on my lap and we’ll watch together. I love explaining things to her and listening to her as she imitates my English words.
Last week, I reminded her that her mother’s birthday was coming up on the following Wednesday. Her eyes lit up as she described the cake I should buy. I told her I wanted her to help me shop for a gift as well as the cake. We could go Monday afternoon. She was obviously excited. So was I. It would be a two-bus trip to Santa Ana. Our first opportunity to spend so much time together, just the two of us.
On Monday, we had a minor crisis. She wanted her mother to come along. Margarita can be like a little girl when it comes to going places like the mall in Santa Ana. It’s basically a different world for her. Here’s where cultural understanding came in to save the day. First, I had to explain that a birthday present should be a surprise saved for the party. Therefore, the honoree shouldn’t come shopping and be with us while we look and choose. I thought that would be the hard part. But when I saw the disappointment on Margarita’s face, I knew I’d fallen short of my understanding.
I thought for a moment, then asked my wife if she’d ever gone anywhere special with her own dad. No siblings. Not to cut coffee together. But to do something fun, just the two of them. She silently shook her head. I told her that Adriana and I need this time together to build our relationship. If she came, it would be just like it always is. Adriana would be talking with her and I’d be walking two steps behind. Thank God she understood.
So, Adriana and I walked to the microbus and rode it to the highway bus stop. There we got waited in the sun for the bus to Santa Ana. We chatted about people and what we saw out the window. I bought her a gelatina and we both enjoyed the ride. She insisted on holding my sombrero when I wanted to put it on the overhead rack with my backpack. She remembered how it blew out of the bus to Ahuachapán a few weeks earlier. The driver stopped the bus and his fare collector must have run 1/4 of a mile to retrieve it. She was doing what her mother would do.
We had to walk several blocks to the mall and she held my hand every step of the way. She decided which windows we’d look in. She wanted to buy her mother a skirt. I’d already had a watch in mind. I’d been promising her a good one for two years. We looked at some until I asked her if she knew her mother’s size. She didn’t. I suggested it might be better if we took her to a store and let her pick out one she’d like and could try on. She agreed.
We went to the best store in the mall and we chose a watch. Adriana approved of the color and the style. Then we went to the kitchen section and bought some new frying pans and a griddle to replace my original frying pans from which Margarita and María had scrubbed the teflon not knowing what it was. Another cultural gaffe. Finally, I bought myself a new pair of shorts. My daughter held my sombrero while I tried them on in the fitting room.
We had fun walking up and down the escalator, which was paralyzed by the workman making some repairs. She ate some popcorn (something we don’t have in El Refugio) while I had a small sundae from the McDonald’s stand. We rode the elevator twice. We looked at books that she’d like and which she’ll get on her eighth birthday in a few weeks.
We bussed back to Chalchuapa and ordered the cake. She made all the choices for the kind, the icing, the decoration, and the fruit. We had to go to the post office and I bought her some sliced mango covered with hot chile sauce. We came home tired but happy. She had so much to tell her mother and it was a joy for me to just listen to all the things that were important to her. Little by little she’s been becoming my daughter.
Recently, she drew a family chart in her Sunday school class. Our names appeared in hearts. The heart with the title papá and my name as they pronounce it here, Royer, appeared in the center between Margarita and my mother-in-law. The four kids were on the corners. That made me feel good.
Whereas before she’d hardly let me touch her or even acknowledge my when we took the kids to school, now I can give her a quick public hug or kiss the top of her head. It’s all good.
Tomorrow Margarita will call the official in Ahuachapán to see if the adoption papers I’ve filed have come back from San Salvador. We are all anxious to complete the process to make me her legal father. When this is done, she’ll have my name. She already has my love.