We’re in the sporting goods store to buy softball cleats. I survey the selection of shoes, turning them over to study the cleat patterns.
I ask the salesman, “Is it better to have the cleats in the middle, like this one, or just around the edge?”
My daughter is embarrassed. She doesn’t roll her eyes or let out a sharp breath, but I can feel it, as if the air suddenly became five degrees cooler. It’s a change in the wind.
“And which is better, rubber or plastic cleats?”
She moves a few feet away from me and starts examining the baseball socks, as if that small bit of space between us can fool everyone into thinking that she’s not with me — that at eleven years old she is here on her own, buying long, blue baseball socks.
Although she’s done nothing, I get exasperated. My comment is directed toward the salesman, but is meant for my daughter: “I’ve never bought cleats before!”
“It’s okay,” he reassures me and suggests a certain model, as if I was really talking to him.
Lately, it doesn’t take much for me to embarrass her. I work at her school, in the library. When she’s around her friends, she is silly, happy. I don’t intrude on her there. I try not to talk to her any more than I do any other student. When she’s at the lunch table with her friends, I don’t go over and say “hi.” Sometimes when we’re going to the car, she walks a little too fast in front of me, like we’re not together. I try not to take it personally, but these little rejections sometimes sting, even though I know that it’s normal for her age.
One day, she racewalked into the library. She had an assignment that she had forgotten about: to interview a person whose advice had been good.
“Will you answer my questions?” she asked.
“So my advice is good?” I pressed.
“It’s due in an hour! Will you answer my questions?”
I could have made her work for it, but I didn’t. I believe that even though she’d never admit it, she does think I have good advice, that she knows she can trust me. She asked me what quotation I found inspiring and I told her one by Louisa May Alcott: “I am not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.”
The quote came to mind because I got it in a fortune cookie once and taped it to my computer monitor. Also, it’s true. I don’t know how to mother an adolescent daughter, to give her the space she craves and still be there when she needs me. But I’m learning because I have to captain a steady ship for her. I don’t know what waves she will face, but I know that waves can be rough.
Now she’s trying on the shoes. I told the salesman that she wears a five, maybe a five and a half, but she’s struggling to get the five and a half onto her foot. She’s writhing around with a desperate look on her face. “It’s too small!”
“How can that be?” I ask. “Your other shoes are a five. Where is it too small?”
I mouth to the salesman, “A six?”
“No problem,” he says cheerfully. “But that’s an adult size. It will be five dollars more.”
He turns to my daughter. “Why don’t I measure your foot, kiddo?”
She winces. I wince. I know she doesn’t like this man calling her “kiddo.” I don’t like it, either.
He measures her foot and it’s a five and a half. There is a brief silence, as if we are all contemplating the significance of this foot that is too big to fit into the kids’ shoes, but not technically ready for the adult shoes.
“Well, the shoes all run differently, kiddo. I’ll get a six.”
The six fits and she relaxes. Then I say something stupid. “Is it comfortable enough to run in? Do you want to run around the store?”
I don’t know where that came from. Of course she doesn’t want to run around the store. She would rather stick pins in the skin of her eyelids than run around the store in her new softball cleats. Her eyes widen.
“Go ahead, kiddo!” the salesman says jovially.
She shakes her head, fast: a tiny shake, more of a shudder.
I turn to the salesman. “I think we’ll take these.”
Back home she tries on her new cleats. I am one inch taller than she is, but not when she’s wearing the cleats. She likes to wear them. She stands on her tiptoes and stretches her neck up and says, “I’m taller than you are!” and pats my head indulgently. It’s certain that I will eventually be the shortest member of our family. I am the ultimate growth chart for her. She can’t wait to surpass me. It doesn’t bother me, but I joke around anyway, saying that she needs to stop growing, or that I’m going to put rocks on her head to slow her down. Her new height is all the more sweet for her because of my complaints.
It’s bedtime and her cleats are lined up neatly in her closet. They are arranged carefully, the one ordered thing among the chaos of her room. I do the same thing I do every night before she goes to bed: I hug her, and I don’t let her go. She pushes away, and I hold tighter, and then I act like she’s the one holding tight. I say, “A short hug is fine. Why do you always hug so long?” and I sigh, exasperated. She kicks her feet and moans and laughs. Eventually, I release her and I say, “Finally! Enough is enough already!” She always comes for that hug, and she always laughs. She doesn’t like going to bed until we do the hug. I think that she likes pushing away from me. And I think she likes me holding on, not letting go.