• Family,  Fatherhood

    Shirts Off My Back

    A few weeks ago, my daughter brought a friend home for the weekend. They’re both 14, the age when friends – and what they think of you – are more important than anything else in the world.

    I don’t get to see my daughter and son enough: every other weekend, a few weeks scattered across traditional vacation times, including summer, Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring holidays. We’ve been divorced for nearly five years now. At first, I saw my kids on Wednesday nights, at school plays, soccer games, midweek birthdays and the like. But when their mother remarried and moved to Charlotte about the time I published my first issue of Atlanta 30306, our paths parted more than we had expected. Had these newspapers not taken off so quickly, I might have taken off for Charlotte myself, to be nearer to them. But life had a different script.

    When Sally called to say she wanted to bring a friend from Charlotte, I was conflicted. It meant I wouldn’t spend as much time alone with her, but when I did see her, she wouldn’t be pining away to be somewhere else, such as with a friend. As it turned out, we had fun driving around to the “cool” parts of Atlanta, trying to rent the cool videos, watching the cool TV shows and listening to the cool radio songs. Cool is the driving factor with kids that age and what exactly is cool is constantly up for redefinition, based on a set of ever-shifting criteria. What is cool one weekend my not be in the least two weeks later.

    I’m like a lot of guys in that I usually hate shopping, but I’ve learned to enjoy it with Sally. It gives me a chance to share in a project with her and I get a little peek into her 14-year-old lifestyle. That age was not a great one for me. I remember adolescence as full of awkwardness, rebellion and feeling distant from everything and everyone except my closest friends. I was so happy to emerge from that valley when I turned 17. And I worry about Sally as she faces the same sorts of demons. Today’s school hallways are more intense, the battle between good and evil much more apparent. So shopping is a neutral ground, a place where we talk about gathering resources to face the demons.

    Sally’s friend had lost her own father to death at an early age. She seemed to appreciate my presence in Sally’s life. Somewhere on the road between the retro T shirt racks in Little Five Points, Virginia-Highland and Buckhead, Sally and her friend asked if I had any old T shirts from previous decades. I told them I had an old box of shirts up in my attic that I hadn’t seen for years. When we got home, they asked that I get down the box.

    The top few shirts were from running events or various newspaper promotions from the 1980s. Some of these shirts made it into the girls’ take-home pile. Others went back into the box. A few layers down, they uncovered a 1983 shirt promoting the child development center she attended when she was a baby. That shirt was given a top grade. So was one with a running baked potato. Shirts promoting football or basketball teams went back in the box.

    Here they were looking for fashion finds, and I found was reminiscing about landmark events in my life. History as told by T shirts. Digging deeper, she found a 1975 beach T shirt given to me by her mother when we first started dating in college. It was pink and it was deemed cool.

    At the bottom of the box were two striped shirts from 1970, screen printed with the name of Georgetown Prep, tbe boarding school I attended when I was 14. Immediately I was flooded with memories of those years. How I felt so displaced in a cold dorm room in the faceless suburbs of Washington, D.C. As Sally looked over the shirts with a skeptical eye, her friend encouraged her to take those shirts to school. They made it into Sally’s suitcase.

    Now, when I think about Sally wandering the hills and valleys of her own adolescense – and my own frustration at being two states away from her – I take some comfort in knowing that a piece of me is snuggled tight against her, acting as a shield of sorts against the threats to life I can only imagine.