“Tag! You’re it!”
I’m watching several kids play tag in a neighborhood. Eight children scream: “Jon’s it! Jon’s it!”
Jon is “it.”
Their high-pitched laughter is followed by the sounds of tiny feet running upon grassy earth.
Jon is a second-grade redhead who chases his friends like his reputation is on the butcher block right now. Because in Kid World, it is.
I was walking my dog when I came upon them. But now I’m a spectator at this fracas, along with two moms who shout idle threats between their conversations.
And I’m remembering when I was “it” during boyhood games of tag.
When I was in fourth grade I had red hair and I looked like Danny Partridge with a serious carb addiction. Our games of tag were intense. SEC rules. It was a full-contact sport.
One time, Katrina Hoskins was “it.” Katrina was three feet taller than the entire fourth grade. She could pick me up and twirl me overhead like she was a shooting guard for University of Kentucky.
Katrina thought I was cute and often proclaimed that she was going to marry me. But when I told Katrina that I was keeping my nuptial options open, she used an Encyclopaedia Britannica to dislodge my jawbone during a game of tag. She selected “Volume 3: Bolivia—Cervantes.”
“Tag! Jon’s it!”
Someone starts crying.
“Hey!” shouts a mom. “Don’t hit your brother, or so help me, I will come over there and…!”
I wasn’t lucky enough to have kids. We wanted them. We tried for them, but it didn’t happen. Even so, I always imagined what my own children would be like.
I had it all planned out in my imagination. If we had a boy, he would’ve been named Lewis. If it were a girl, I would have remortgaged our home to spoil her and make her queen of the United States. And she would have been called Benny.
But some things aren’t meant to be.
Still, there was that one time when we thought my wife was pregnant. I got so excited on my way home from work that I bought flowers and pink bubblegum cigars.
I found my wife sitting on our sofa, caught in a serene glow. My wife took my hand and placed it on her tummy. Tears swelled in my eyes.
“I’m scared,” I told her.
“That I’m not gonna be a good dad. I’m gonna screw this up, I know it.”
She touched my cheek. “People have been screwing this up for thousands of years. Now it’s our turn.”
But it didn’t work out. We had no babies. And our childless lives went on. My wife became a preschool teacher, then a high-school math teacher.
Her students worshiped her because she was one of those teachers who called your house on your birthdays and sang to you. She gave students tens and twenties at graduation ceremonies, and she applauded harder than some kids’ parents.
Jamie Martin Dietrich would have left a grand mark on the tradition of motherhood.
“Ow! Taylor hit me!”
“Listen up!” yells a bloodthirsty mother. “If you don’t quit slapping your brother I’m gonna pull your pants down right here in front of God and the State of Florida, and…!”
What a blessing.
I still think of Benny often. Her imaginary red curls. Her mama’s hickory eyes. Her proclivity toward third-degree sunburns, just like her old man.
I would have taught my daughter how to dance in our living room, with her little feet standing on mine. Girls need dads to teach them to dance.
I would have carried Benny on my shoulders in public and reminded her how much Daddy would always love her. Even if she grew up to make the same kinds of nonsensical decisions her Daddy was infamous for.
I would have assured Benny that Daddy would never attempt to hijack her life plans. Daddy would not interfere, not even if we disagreed, and he would not judge. Daddy would let Benny be Benny.
Daddy would try to go along with every weird haircut, every vegan diet, each odd ideology, and awkward romantic interest.
And if Benny ever found herself stranded at a wild party where inebriated teens were acting like jackasses, her father would only ask that she not drive or ride in anyone’s car, but instead call her old man.
And just like magic, Daddy would appear in his truck to carry her home safely. He would not embarrass her, he would not make a scene, he would not sermonize. He would only be her taxi. He would even let her choose the radio station on the ride home.
As long as it wasn’t modern pop-country.
He would have given Benny a string of pearls on her 12th birthday. All girls deserve pearls, or at least decent fakes.
And Daddy would have rented a tux for when he gave her away. He would have done his level best to make her proud when he waltzed at the wedding reception, her head against his chest. And yes, Daddy would have most certainly done the Cha-Cha Slide.
Her curly copper hair would have been my gift to her. My mark. The mark of a painfully average but earnest man.
And no matter how far away Benny’s life journey would carry her; no matter how many times she might mess up; no matter what her age; within her Daddy’s feeble heart she would have always been “it.”
At least that’s the way I imagined it.