It is a somewhat faded photo of us on the beach taken when she was probably two or three years old. In it we appear to be making our way back from having spent some time by the shore. Although the sun is not in the frame, it appears to be a sunny day (we both have our hats on—as the ultra violet rays can be quite severe in the southern coast of Australia) with the white clouds and light blue sky behind us providing a fitting backdrop. She is wearing a plum tank top with a matching bikini bottom (her tummy sticking out), I, a plain white shirt and a pair of long navy blue shorts. Apart from an elderly lady with her back turned towards and standing far behind us, we seem to be the only ones on the beach.
As she skips on the hot white sand towards our tent, I on the other hand appear to be keeping a watchful eye over her. My left arm outstretched seems to be guiding her back to where my wife who was taking the photo was. My eyes are covered by my beach hat, but a smile is noticeable on my face.
Surrounding this photo, which is pinned up on a cork board are trinkets of objects and art work that she has collected in her short life (she is now ten), projects she has undertaken with Bella her best mate and cousin, a digitally altered CD sleeve jacket of High School Musical with her image inserted among the cast members given to her by Denver her favorite uncle (for Christmas I believe), an invite to a Japanese themed sleepover party from Bella artfully crafted with a handmade figure of a lady in a kimono. Ours is the only photo in the whole collage.
I was struck by the importance my daughter conferred on it.
I do remember that day. I had come from Manila, which is where our family was based at the time. She and my wife along with our newly born son had been in Australia visiting my in-laws for several months (since our marriage, and before we moved here permanently five years ago, my wife made it a point to shuffle to and from to reconnect with her parents and brothers who are all based here). At the time, I was busy spending 10-12 hour days, six to seven days a week throughout the year expanding my father’s business. As a result I seldom had time to spend with my first two kids (we now have a third, a boy) during their formative early years. This was one of those rare opportunities for me to do that away from the phone calls, meetings and appointments.
They seemed too young to remember anyway, I must have felt. My role as the sole breadwinner was to provide for them a stable home and a secure future through my hard work. So I thought. A day at the beach—how it all seemed so frivolous and self-indulgent to me at the time. But seeing it through the eyes of my baby girl (who sometimes acts these days like a bratty teenager) I have come to find the true meaning of that singular event. To her, the photo of us together on the beach symbolizes the fact that I was there. I was there even though she was too young to remember. I was there even though there must have been a ton of things I left behind (and on my mind). I was there despite all my hang-ups and misgivings about it. The precocious child that she is, she recently remarked that I was simply pretending to enjoy myself during our family outings (she is not mistaken there). So perceptive, she probably recognizes the difficulties I experience at unwinding.
As she enters puberty in the next year or so (she turns eleven in a few months), I am mindful of the fact that she will soon want to detach herself from our family life (she has already begun to some extent). Recently, I have been making it a point to spend tender moments with her. I will often invite her to sit with me for no reason. I will then wrap one arm around her. We sit as couples sometimes do in silence. When she is troubled she sometimes comes to me and just rests her head on my shoulder. These occurrences I know will not last for very long. Soon she will be embarrassed to receive or demostrate any affection towards me. At some point the photo hanging on her board will be that of her and another boy. She will attach greater significance to other things more proximate to her, to experiences new and exciting to her young and vibrant life.
For now though there it still hangs—an image, a memory, a remembrance of an event. For one it seemed inconsequential. For the other it might have meant the world. So many daughters have few or no fond memories of their fathers at all to speak of. So many teenagers are lost with no idea about who their parents were or how they felt about them. I am glad my daughter will not be one of them. Although it may have meant little to me at the time, I now assign the greatest level of significance to that day. Long after that photo gets pulled down from her wall and is consigned to some old shoebox, I will remember it and cherish it for what it symbolized to her, and for what it means to me now, now that I know…
To all my fellow fathers, Happy Father’s Day!