In the den, with the shag crème carpet, and under the dim lights, using the furniture that was a blend of mom’s free-spirit hippiedom and dad’s high-tech modernism, Pops and I traveled to the moon, won horse races, hid from bad guys, and built magic castles for a beautiful princess (who, of course, was always me).
Every evening around 5:30—about the same time Vee, the neighbor across the street would take her 2 Pekinese dogs for a walk, I’d hear the car door of his blue Oldsmobile Cutlass shut; and I’d skip to the front door. He’d walk in, usually sporting a plaid suit, a tie that he had loosened on his drive home, an enviable afro, and a huge dimple on his right cheek that he had passed down to me.
He’d always bend down on his knees, so that we were eye-level, and ask, “So, where should we go today, Peanut,” his breath heavy with Kool Super Lights and orange Tic-Tacs?
Wherever I chose: Mars, a ranch, a place with dinosaurs, Pops would say, “That’s a great idea, Peanut,” take his coat and tie off (leaving them right there on the floor in the front hallway much to mom’s chagrin) and allow me to lead him on our adventure for the day.
We would pretend until Mom would lean her head in and beckon, “dinnertime you two.”
Sometimes, Pops would continue with the make believe through dinner and stay in character. “Princess Mickey, would you care for a spot of milk, your Highness, as he poured milk into my favorite Looney Tunes glass. I’d giggle, put out my pinkie and take a sip. “Oh Charles, I’d say in my best British accent, “this milk is absolutely divine.”
In reality, he wasn’t my butler; he was my Prince Charming: always making me feel beautiful; always making life seem magical. I worried when I got older, along with my mother if I had enough room in my heart to love another man since mine was so full for love of my daddy, but then I met Howard my sophomore year in Music Appreciation Class at Hampton University.
3 years later, when Howard asked my father for my hand in marriage, Howard said that my father leaned back in his brown corduroy lazy boy, crossed his legs at the ankles, lit up a cigarette and started smoking with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He didn’t say a word and left Howard standing there with streams of sweat rolling from his pits, settling by his waist, creating 2 pair shaped wet spots on either side of his stomach.
“Sir?” Howard’s voice croaked.
“Okay,” my dad croaked, without looking at Howard. Then he closed his eyes and continued to smoke his cigarette.
But on that windy day in May, at the church where he married my mother, his large, hand calloused from years of working his side weekend job as a mechanic, so that my parents could buy their first home, firmly held mine, causing the butterflies that were flitting around in my stomach to land on my shoulders and help me to float down the aisle.
When Reverend James asked, “Who gives this woman to this man” Pops looked at Howard directly, and proclaimed, “Her mother and I do.” Then he smiled (a genuine smile because the dimple on his right cheek took most of the real estate on the right side of his face), hugged Howard with his free arm, and then guided my hand to Howard’s.
He wore the same genuine smile when he ushered me to the middle of the purple-hazed ballroom at the Marriott for the Father – Daughter dance. He looked at me and said, “So where should we go today, Peanut?”
“Rio. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”
And he started gliding me, his hand wrapped around mine, my head on his chest, around the shellacked wooded floor, just as he had done many times across the shag crème carpet in our home on Tillen Street.
Now, many years later, I’m driving too slowly down Tillen, chewing cinnamon Dentyne too fast to try to dampen my cotton mouth- and passing homes that I trick-or-treated at, Sophia’s home where I had my first kiss, and the tree I crashed into when I first learned how to ride a bike (but not how to stop). Though making this same trip every Tuesday and Thursday, from my office downtown, for the last 3 years, has become a part of my weekly routine; it never feels routine. That 6th sense that tells you when something is out of order goes into overdrive now whenever I am in that house—causing me to feel constantly anxious in a place that used to be my center of calm.
The shag carpet had been replaced with hardwood floors long ago; Mom and Pops now sleep in the Den since Pops couldn’t maneuver the stairs after his stoke. No longer was I immediately greeted by the cornucopia of smells coming from my mom’s cooking; rather a smell of of rubbing alcohol overwhelmed the place making it seem constantly a bit too cold. Immediately, my jaws would tighten and my arms would want to wrap themselves tightly around myself when I walked in; but I worked hard not to show them my discomfort.
“Hiya doing Folks,” I cheerfully greet my parents as soon as I walk into their new pseudo-bedroom. Pops is sitting up in his bed, small islands of gray hair flanking each side of his mostly bald head, watching Judge Judy on the television set I bought them for Christmas. Mom, who used to wear lipstick even when she was home, still has on her housecoat and slippers, is sitting in a chair, bent over working on a Sodoku puzzle in one of the books I had bought for them last week.
‘This Sodoku is something else,” she says skipping a greeting. They say that it’s supposed to keep your mind sharp though, so I try to do two puzzles a day.
Pops looks at me, “Hi”, he smiles displaying his dimple. Daily, he greets his day nurse, all the Meals on Wheels deliverers, and friends, family and neighbors the same way.
My mom puts down her puzzle, grabs the remote and points it at the television to turn down the volume. “That’s your daughter, Frank. She’s here to visit you, she announces.
“Fraaaaaaaaaannk, you hear me? That’s your daughter, Mickey,” she repeats.
It seems that hearing the word “daughter” alerts him that he needs to pretend that he knows me. “Of course, I know that’s my daughter,” he slurs as he looks at me with a mixture of confusion and fear. “Come give me a hug, Darling,” he commands as he holds up his opened arms.
I had been his “Peanut” for 54 years—only “Peanut”.
The little muscles in my face threaten to collapse, but I will my smile to match his. I don’t want him to see his condition in my eyes. So, I smile, plod over and place my head on his chest. He limply wraps his now much smaller arms around me. Though the hug is surely different; I am still comforted by the lullaby of his heartbeat. I know I will lay here for awhile–me and my Prince Charming, me and my Pops together…still playing make believe.
The power of imagination makes us infinite. John Muir