Mermaid at the ocean’s door

Author: Mark Clevenger

My 4-year-old daughter Chloe likes to take her toy tambourine into the front yard to put on “shows,” setting a hat on the sidewalk so passersby can give her money. Along with her imaginative play, I also find her language beautiful. She begins nearly every sentence with “Know what?” or “Even,” as in “Even I ate oatmeal this morning” or “Know what? Even Mommy said I could have a hermit crab.”
Sometimes Chloe’s words sound so good together I have to write them down. She said recently that when she grows up she wants to be a mommy and an astronaut so she can bring the moon back to her babies. But believe me, not everything she says is poetic. There’s a dragon she likes to talk about, and, as she says, “Know what? When it yawns, poo comes out of its mouth.”

Her life so far has been composed of playing, laughing, pre-school, Sunday school and fun at home with her toddler brother, Ben. But recently I started worrying about a possible problem—a concern related to athletics. We signed Chloe up for a soccer team. This is a real team, the Mermaids, who practice on Tuesdays and play games on Saturdays. As instructed, we went to SportMart to buy her real cleats and shin guards. As I watched her wobble across the floor in those cleats I realized she was about to enter a new phase of her life. Chloe’s time was to become much more rigorously organized for her. Her wonderfully silly, unstructured play in the front yard was going to be cut into by practice, drills and games that are won or lost.

I wondered, as we paid for the pink-swooshed Nikes, if we were allowing her to cross some sort of childhood line prematurely. Were we getting too serious too fast about organized competition? And, as a corollary worry, would I be one of those dads who says publicly that he only hopes his daughter is having fun but secretly only wants the team to win? The terms “club soccer” and “select team” were edging strangely into my consciousness, and I knew that eventually I’d have to admit to a fantasy I don’t want to have: Chloe will love soccer so much and be so good at it that one day—God help me for even thinking this—she’ll be able to play for Notre Dame.

But thank goodness for Chloe’s imagination. On the first day of Mermaids practice she insisted on bringing her Ariel doll. In her mind, the connection must have been obvious. Of course you bring the Little Mermaid with you if you are a mermaid. She carried the doll throughout the practice, occasionally holding it in her mouth, like a bear holds a fish, as she tentatively kicked the ball. As she played, sometimes giggling, sometimes angrily crossing her arms over her chest and refusing to move, she helped me understand that, for now, maybe we’re still okay. Chloe let me see her for who she is: a little 4-year-old who wants to play only because her friends Ainsley and Maya are playing, who loves the idea of being a Mermaid, who is far more interested in the fruit snack she’s going to get after practice than in practice itself.

I wish I could assure myself that I’ll always be a dad who can keep his daughter’s inexorable growing up in perspective. I’d like to know that as Chloe gets older and the stakes get higher—drama involving friends, pursuit of faith, getting into college—I won’t let my love for her turn selfish. I hope I’ll figure out how to guide her gently, slowly, that I won’t rush her through adolescence toward something that matters more to me than to her.

Will I be successful? I don’t know. I guess there’s plenty of time to worry about this later. For now, and for as long as possible, I’ll just remain thankful for the joy in my daughter’s eyes when she talks about mermaids and dragons and the moon.

Mark Clevenger teaches writing at Menlo School in Atherton, California.