As Tom Matlack's 16-year-old daughter waited for her date to arrive, she warned her father, "Dad, if you screw this up, I'll kill you."
"You have a pseudo-beard, a necklace with a snake, and you're huge," my 16-year-old daughter, Kerry, said in a pleading voice.
"What are you saying?" I asked, with just a hint of a grin.
"He's totally scared of you. Dad, if you screw this up, I'll kill you."
"As the assistant man of the house," Seamus, my 14-year-old son, chirped, sensing an opening, "I think I deserve one question."
"Yeah, right," Kerry sneered sarcastically.
"And as assistant man of the house in training, Cole deserves a question, too," Seamus continued, referring to his five-year-old brother.
"What could you possibly ask?" Kerry asked, now staring at Cole.
"You know, Cole could ask the kid's favorite land animal," Seamus deadpanned. "I want to know what farm animal he'd like to have sex with."
For my daughter's sake, I tried not to laugh. This Saturday afternoon was a big deal in her life -- and mine. But I had to look away; Seamus' humor hit that funny bone that gets tickled at exactly the wrong moment -- the one that makes you laugh at funerals when everyone else is crying.
What brought me back was thinking about my little girl, of what she was like as a baby and toddler and teenager. How mighty the struggle had been to get to this moment.
County Kerry (Ciarraí in Gaelic) in Ireland is known for mixed blood born of Spanish occupation, which produced dark complexions and wild temperaments. A "Kerry Girl" is a free spirit. My Kerry may have blonde hair and blue eyes, but she is a Kerry Girl for sure.
As a baby she never slept, but I tried to comfort her, spending the wee hours of the morning listening to Van Morrison and rocking her, in a futile attempt to quiet her screams. Not long afterward, her mom and I separated. Kerry would come visit me in my rental apartment on Friday nights, and we'd grab a pizza in the Federal Hill section of Providence and settle in for a night of pillow fights.
Given an opening in any public space, the girl would run. She was fast. For a time her mom lived on Cape Cod, and when I visited, I'd take Kerry to Nausett Beach, a huge expanse of sand and booming waves, and set her down. She'd be off chasing sandpipers through the surf. I would jog behind, making sure she didn't dive in over her head.
Once, I made the mistake of trying to take Kerry, then three, and her baby brother Seamus in a snowstorm to see my parents in D.C. The direct flight from Boston was canceled, but we were able to get out on a connection through Newark. Once there, all the airports shut down, and for several hours I chased Kerry from one terminal to the next with Seamus in my arms. When we ultimately made it to National Airport, Kerry ran so far ahead that I momentarily lost sight of her. By the time I made it to baggage claim, she was standing proudly and holding my mom's hand. She found her way with no help from me.
As Kerry grew into a teenager, her wild side found a place on the stage. I approached her junior-high and high-school performances with great trepidation, but soon I realized that here, too, her fearlessness left me with nothing to fret about. In packed house after packed house, she performed so effortlessly -- clearly enjoying herself on stage -- that I concluded: if she wasn't nervous, then I shouldn't be nervous, either.
What continued to trouble me was what I heard from Kerry, and saw in our culture, about how sexuality is currently practiced among high-school kids.
Kerry and I had many long discussions about why only three girls in her class of 125 had boyfriends, and why the rest had to put up with guys who only wanted "friends with benefits." I was angered by what she told me, but I was helpless to do anything about it. I could only admire her courage and strength in continuing to articulate what she wanted, and challenging the prevailing terms of engagement with boys.
By the time the doorbell rang, I stopped laughing. The runs on the beach, the scene at National Airport, even a trip to see Gwen Stefani for Kerry's birthday circled around in my head. Yes, Kerry had gone to the prom. She had, I feel sure, kissed a boy or two. I had often found her video-chatting up a mixed group of friends on her laptop, while simultaneously doing "homework."
But this was different. She described the boy in question as an actor and a member of the varsity rowing team, but she refused to divulge any other details.
Seamus and Cole had conveniently made their way out back to play soccer. Kerry's stepmom, Elena, her protector and confidante in matters of the heart, went to the front door first. I lagged behind, not really sure what to do. I wanted both Kerry and her date to feel secure in my approval, and I wanted Kerry to feel loved -- without making her more nervous than she already was.
In our front hallway, I saw a sweet-looking 17-year-old boy who had taken the subway from Wellesley to take my daughter out for a romantic dinner. He extended a shaky hand, nervous but firm. He looked down. I did, too.
I asked where they were going and when they would be home. He said they were going to a restaurant in Boston's North End, that they'd be back by 9:30. I was impressed; the kid seemed more responsible and mature than I was at his age.
Then they were gone.
Despite her fearlessness and wild streak, Kerry has grown into a graceful and composed young woman. Once again, she has shown me that I needn't be nervous. I can trust her to do the right thing, even when she knows I'm not looking.
Elena and I had dinner plans, and we kept them. But under the table I sent Kerry a text. "Big thumbs up. Quite a gentleman. Love, Dad."
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