We are fast approaching the holiday season, that time of the year when we are all a little kinder and a little more generous, as long as that kindness and generosity doesn’t involve sacrificing a parking space within sight of the shopping mall. It’s that moment on the calendar when we want to be particularly good parents and role models, and teach our children – as Dr. Seuss taught us – that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. It comes from a web site.
I mention this not because Hanukkah and Christmas are nearing (though they are), but because tomorrow, November 18, is another big day for my family. Tomorrow my wife’s and my daughter, Grace Experience, turns 20.
Readers have asked me why Grace appears less often in this column than she did in the past. The Friday before last, for example, a reader stopped me on Church Street and guessed that my daughter must be in high school by now.
Nope. Grace is a junior in college and lives in Manhattan.
She appears less frequently in this column because she is an adult and her life is her own. Also, it was more difficult for her to veto a column 18 years ago when she was a toddler. It was easier for me to exploit her – her diapers, her Barbies, her preschool, her friends – when she couldn’t read.
But I am quite serious about the reality that we all have boundaries and as a columnist I try to respect them. Still, of all the roles in my life, there is none that I have cherished as much as being a dad – and being Grace’s dad. Grace is an only child and our family unit was perfect as a small world of three. My wife and I have always been proud of who Grace is as a person and the decisions she makes with her life.
Now, 20 does not come with new privileges the way that 16, 18, and 21 do. Grace’s world will not be appreciably different tomorrow than it is today. But depending upon how you parse your decades, it is arguably the end of her adolescence or the start of her adulthood. (I’m not sure whether that sentence was more terrifying for me to write or it will be for Grace to read.)
Will Rogers once said that “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” The thing about turning 20 is that suddenly there is a lot less tolerance for bad judgment. We are less forgiving of moronic decisions. We are less understanding of human frailties. And that is precisely how it should be. It’s why we grant greater freedom and additional rights to people as they get older.
But here is why my wife and I have always been so impressed with our daughter: She has a far more exact (and exacting) moral compass than I have and much better judgment. Good Lord, she was putting herself in her time-out chair when she was three.
Consequently, the only rule we have for Grace is this: She needs to text us when she is safely in for the night – even when “night” is a pretty loose term that stretches into the small hours of the morning. We are always happy to be awakened by a text at two in morning with the single word, “Home.”
Will we insist on those texts in a year? In two years?
At some point, my wife and I will need to accept the fact that the only parenting left to us is filling the refrigerator before Grace returns to Vermont for a visit. When that time comes, I will try to take comfort in two things. First, I will remember a quote from Sherman Alexie: “All of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.” Second, I will delude myself into believing that my remarkable daughter is more the result of nurture than nature. I will pat my wife on the back and I will pat myself on the back.
In the meantime? I will simply wish Grace Experience a happy twentieth birthday. Thank you for being the greatest gift in your mother’s and my lives.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)