Me and My Daughters


Me and My Daughters

There is a special quality to the life of anyone who is the father of a girl. Pity the man who is deprived of daughters, who has never known the flanneled arms and the warm, wet kiss of a little girl’s goodnight or a tiny daughter’s fervent hug of one of daddy’s knees. To go through life without ever holding the coat or opening the door for daddy-daughter night at the church is to miss some of life’s keenest pleasures.

But to have eight daughters coming and going, running in and out of the house and through one’s life, is an interesting multiplication of the particular blessing and charge of fatherhood.

“Eight daughters!” people say, “and no sons?”

“No. No boys. Just me and Chip, the dog.”

“But how do you manage with eight girls in the house?”

As my wife would say, “Oh, he’s spoiled.” Certainly, if there is a problem, it is in trying to maintain a proper evaluation of one’s worth under the spotlight of all that feminine attention. Still, being the only male in the house makes for some interesting situations: The place where I shave is called “the boys’ bathroom,” and when anyone running between bedrooms shouts “shut your eyes,” the warning applies to me alone.

Life with eight daughters has its difficulties and complications of course: We have our share of “Everybody-else-is-doing-it” and “I-don’t-see-why-you-don’t-trust-me,” and more than once someone has stomped up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door. But in spite of these cold, hard, heart-wrenching moments, there are also precious moments of reconciliation. After talking again about the glorious promises the grandfather patriarch had pronounced, and after talking again about the eternal significance of these teenage decisions, the heart begins to open, and dad and daughter sit on the bedside holding hands and wiping their eyes, knowing that for all the pain of the last few hours, we are closer to each other and to the Lord.

And such moments penetrate our daily world of borrowing blouses and lending scarfs, a world of curlers, pinafores and hairspray, a world where womanhood is manifest in myriad forms from the diminutive four year old who skips into the study, innocent as an angel, without a stitch on, to have her pigtails pinned up before her bath, and then squeaks in embarrassment when dad opens the shower door to turn on the water—to the splendidly gorgeous teenager who comes down the stairs to meet her date looking for all the world like a dream come to life: happy, sparkling, beautiful, leaving the dad breathless and amazed at the transformation that has taken place (even though it took two hours to complete).

But our life isn’t all flounces and bows, paper dolls and tea parties. We have our share of kick-balls, bicycles, and skate boards. Our basement even holds a supply of backpacking equipment that the girls like to carry off into the hills when they go camping with their dad. When we take our hikes, each carries her own gear, although the smaller packs may not contain much more than a teddy bear and sleeping bag. The girls can chase frogs, play in the campfire, or catch fish along with anyone their size.

Nor is demure a word we always use to describe our daughters. The seven year old, for instance, always comes in with a crashing of doors. “Hey dad, gueth what we’re gonna do tomorrow?” she pants out, wide-eyed, as she lisps through the vacant spaces of her front teeth. And then before you can inhale for your reply, “Our - school - is - going - on - a - field - trip - to - a - real - restaurant - and - I - need - seventy - five - cents - for - the - pizza - and - we’re - going - to - have - root - beer - OK? - Huh, - OK?” In her hand is a clutch of school papers showing that, in her mind at least, the letter d can face either direction, but also showing enough 100%’s to make both her and her dad proud. There may be a large Band-aid on one knee where she skinned it on the asphalt playing kick-ball with the boys at recess, and her shoes are back on the wrong feet, which you point out, but she just passes one foot over the other and stands teetering, crosslegged, smiling her toothless grin, and saying, “No, they’re not! See!”

Certainly, the daily routine at our house has its peculiarities as one might expect. Their mother is an excellent musician, so the girls have come into a fine musical tradition, and the day often begins with an abrupt announcement of that fact: soon after six one of the pianos comes noisily to life with Hanon exercises or “The Happy Miller,” depending on whose turn it is to practice. A few minutes later the other piano explodes with the thunder of a modern étude composed by someone whose name only the pianist herself can pronounce. In one of the downstairs bedrooms the nasal sawing of open strings identifies the nine year old, who is just starting out on the violin, and upstairs the concertmistress of the high school orchestra runs through the dramatic arpeggios of the Bruch violin concerto. Dad seldom sleeps in.

Downstairs the youngest may be crying because her sister has her slip on and the dog has carried off one of her shoes and so she can’t get dressed and if she isn’t dressed by the time we ring the bell for prayer there won’t be any breakfast. … In the kitchen another bathrobed girl with one eye still shut and the other showing only slight signs of awareness is dragging the dust mop around the middle of the floor in an ineffectual imitation of cleaning. Another girl, slightly smaller but no less sleepy, is setting the table with the knives and spoons on the wrong side of the plate for the seventh consecutive day (after seven consecutive lessons on how to set the table—but, “patience!” we say to ourselves. Next week she does garbage cans).

By this time it is almost seven, and with everyone more or less awake, and the level of activity and noise approaching bedlam, the bell sounds, and one by one, in various costumes and various stages of “readiness” the girls file into the front room and kneel down around the couch. Some hair is still in curlers, other heads are wrapped in a towel, still dripping from the shower. With the “Amen,” the eight girls troop into the kitchen, crowd around the breakfast table, and mom begins to dish up the cereal while the girls drink their juice and dad opens the Book of Mormon and begins to read. For a few more minutes order and quiet rule the house, then when dad lays the scriptures aside the activities of living continue:

“I don’t want any breakfast this morning, mom. I’m going on a diet,” says the one who already looks like a TV star and is four inches thinner and ten pounds lighter than any of her teenage sisters.

“Me too!” says the seven-year old who knows a diet only as something big girls do.

“I can’t eat either. I have to go early for seminary council meeting. I“ll just drink my juice.”

“Please pass the milk.”

“Can I take the blue car to school today? I have to practice Karen’s concerto with her and we’ll need a ride back home …”

“Please pass the milk.”

“… and is it all right if I go with James to lay sod Saturday morning? We’ll be through by noon.”

“Please pass the milk!”

“Mom, can you go with me after school to pick out my material?”

“Dad, I need lunch money by the end of this week.”

“Will somebody please pass the milk!”

“Who does bathrooms this week?”

“Lara! Everybody else is almost through and you haven’t even put any milk on your cereal yet!”

(Tears.)

“Sue! Your ride is here.”

“Val! Christen is here!”

And so it goes, the door bell ringing with friends coming to call for whomever, a rush up and down stairs, grabbing books and sweaters and music and permission slips and lunch money and purses and homework, and searching for the misplaced library book. After an hour or so of this, there comes a last minute flurry of face-washing, a quick hunt for a matching ribbon to tie in the diminutive, honey-colored ponytail, the door slams and the last trio of sisters trots off through the backyard gate to join the neighborhood stream of children flowing down the street to school. Watching the ponytail of his youngest daughter swing back and forth to the rhythm of the short-legged trot beside the older sisters until they all disappear around the corner fence, dad picks up his briefcase and heads out for his own day’s work, conscious again of the optimism and innocence with which each day begins for those around him.

That evening the beginning is played over again: A viola sighing its mellow scales from the bedroom, both pianos going full blast, and a stream of girls passing through on their way both to and from:

“Did anybody call for me?”

“Whoever fixes dinner tonight don’t use the casserole in the freezer! That’s for dinner tomorrow night!”

“Can somebody drop Christy off for her lesson?”

“Val! You have a dermatologist appointment tomorrow at 4:30!”

“Was it a boy or a girl that called? A boy!”

“Did James call? Did he say he would call back?”

“Liz? Can you tend for Stewarts tonight? Val? Can you tend? ANYBODY WANT A BABYSITTING JOB?”

And the evening plays itself out, with phone calls, car pools, supper, homework, until all the goings end up as comings and bit by bit and one by one they are all back under one roof.

There was a time not many months ago when, in the late night hours of the weekend, after hearing the report of the last returning daughter, I could step quietly into each of the four bedrooms where the pairs of sisters were now breathing deeply in their midnight sleep and think that my world was as nearly perfect as any mortal had any right to expect. To have been able to hold each one as a wiggling infant in the circle of the priesthood and give her her own name and my blessing; leading them one by one, timid, nervous, and trusting into the warm waters of the baptismal font; feeling in my hands the Holy Ghost manifest itself in confirmation of their unquestioning faith; hearing their testimonies to Church members in sacrament meeting and to nonmembers in our New Haven apartment—all these experiences are made fresh again by the simple fact of their sleeping presence under this roof, and I wish that this time could be preserved forever, that their lives and mine would never have to change, that this moment could be my eternity.

But as our oldest has come home more and more often with James, I have seen in their companionship a new dimension of happiness that no father can provide. And I realize that just as other parents were willing to let go of their daughter for me, so I must be willing to help my daughters appreciate the fulness of joy that can come only in a righteous home of their own.

Now, as we turn out the last light, it is with a sense of accelerating years, and we know we must get ready for another part of our lives. And as I close the bedroom doors tonight I think more and more of the other fathers who may be looking in on their sleeping sons, and as I get back to the bed, I kneel down to pray again, “Father in Heaven, help us, as fathers on earth, to do our job well.”

Neal E. Lambert, a professor of American Studies and English at Brigham Young University and father of eight daughters, serves as a counselor in the Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake presidency.