I’ve been thinking about love lately. About the twists and turns love requires of us. About the hardships.
When you’re young, you think love will be grand. It will be easy. It will require no work, no dedication other than to its pursuit. No compromises or heartbreak. But as everyone learns, none of that is exactly true.
When I entered the fourth grade, we’d just moved from Lake Havasu, AR, to San Diego, CA. We settled into to our little home one block from the elementary school. Each morning you walked me and J to school, dropping J off at the kindergarten building while I headed on to my classroom, in a bungalow on the other side of the school. There are things I remember learning in every year of school, and in the fourth grade, I learned cursive. It’s also the first time I remember struggling with my name.
Whenever we moved, Mom would head to the school to enroll me. I’d sit in the office and swing my feet, and Mom would explain to the counselor about my name. No, you hadn’t legally adopted me, but could I please use the same last name as the rest of my family? We always joked that Mom could sell ice to Eskimos, and in most cases, the counselor would eventually relent, and I would spend the school year going by Ashley C instead of Ashley W. But in some cases, the school held firm, and in those years, I had to go by my legal name. Ashley W it was.
And so as I sat in that hot classroom my first year of school in San Diego, I learned to write my name the way everyone else did. Then I went home and taught myself my other name, the name I went by at home. The name the rest of you used.
Sometimes when we walked to school in the mornings, you and I argued about things. Sometimes I think we argued just to argue. Sometimes I wondered if we argued because I was being the wrong Ashley in those moments. Ashley W instead of Ashley C. Ashley W was fastidious and drawn to the logicalness of things. The right and wrong. The black and white. Ashley C was the Ashley I tried to be. Drawn the creativity and passion. To freedom from restraint. To bravery.
Once, I found you in the kitchen spreading peanut butter on a piece of sandwich bread using the belly of a spoon. I climbed into the Director’s chair next to the counter and watched you work.
“That’s not how you do it, Dad,” I said.
“What’d you mean, how you do it? It’s peanut butter.”
“You’re supposed to use a knife to do it.”
You stared at me, the curve of the spoon full of peanut butter. Then you mashed the rest of the peanut butter onto the bread, tossed the spoon in the sink, and sauntered down the hall, shaking your head. “God, Ashley,” you said as you left. “Don’t be so bourgeois.”
I had to go into Mom’s studio and find the red dictionary with the cloth cover to look that word up. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew from your tone that you hadn’t meant it as a compliment. But that was okay. I knew it had to do with the fact that I was curious about things you didn’t think I needed to be curious about. Like cars that had back seats and jeans that went down all the way to your shoes, music by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and braces like the kids in my class had. What I wouldn’t have done for a pair of braces in the fourth grade. But people didn’t need braces, you said as we walked to school. That was cosmetic. We needed to strive to see past all that. To think about the things worth thinking about.
So I tried. When we had trouble meeting the water bill one month, J and I sat in the front yard on the big green electrical box near the sidewalk and brainstormed how we could fix it. Apparently it wouldn’t work to put buckets under the faucet to catch all the water before it went down the drain, because the water company charged you when the water came out, not went back in. (Tricky.) When J and I wanted a swimming pool but you said we didn’t have the money for that kind of thing, we volunteered to dig the hole ourselves. But digging swimming pools is on the list of things that renters can’t do, along with paint the walls and put star stickers on the ceilings over the beds.
And so you and I lived and let live, even though we butted our heads every now and again. Slowly but surely, I grew accustomed to writing Ashley W instead of Ashley C, and the Ashley C that I had been faded away. But J and I went to the same school, and eventually C would too, so soon they learned about my two names. The Ashley W who existed at school and the Ashley C who existed at home, scheming up ways to build swimming pools in the backyard and selling lemonade on the corner.
C and J teased me unmercifully, as siblings do. It was their greatest ammunition in an argument, and the three of us had grand fights, kicking and hitting and pulling hair. But they always had the final straw waiting in the wings, the one nugget of truth to throw at me when the battle was at its most desperate.
“You aren’t really part of this family,” they would scream at me. “Dad isn’t really your dad.”
And that was that. The fight was over, all except for the victory laps. What could I say? It was true, and they knew it. Because at school I was Ashley W, the legal name. At home I was Ashley C, the pretend name.
It was important to you that C and J win our arguments. They were younger, you explained. Younger children should be allowed to win. I don’t think you ever knew that C and J had already figured out how to win on their own, without the need for older-sister mercy.
But sometimes my temper flared. I fought on, refusing to relent, and got in trouble. That’s when all my cursive practice came in handy. Your favorite punishment was for me to write a very long sentence some astronomical number of times. I will never again for the rest of my life hit my little brother J and my little sister C. You’d check on me in my bedroom at my desk, the pencil scribbling furiously across the paper. Eventually I would hit the invisible line in the sand, and you’d tell me I could stop. Mercy granted after one hundred lines.
But now the battle was between you and me, and I couldn’t lose. So I’d keep writing, finishing whatever the penance had been. Five hundred sentences. Two hundred sentences. Each line as neatly written as before. Once, I ran out of paper before I’d finished, and spent the rest of the night feeling vaguely as if I’d cheated without meaning to.
At the time, I remember thinking that it was hardly fair to always insist that the youngest win everything. But in a way, Dad, you prepared me for the world better than I would’ve imagined. I understood then that not everything was going to make sense or be logical or fair, and that sometimes I would have to deal with that reality anyway.
And in ways I wouldn’t understand until many years later, you taught me about love.
I remember so many good things about San Diego. I remember the countless trips to the ocean, riding home with strands of my salty hair in my mouth as I lay on the floor of the van. I remember begging to walk to the 7Eleven for red Slurpees. Watching fireworks each Fourth of July from the park behind the elementary school. Visiting you and Mom at art shows on weekends. Sunday lunches with Grandma B. A trip to Disneyland with your younger brother F and his wife R.
I also remember the fights.
For some reason, they always happened at night. Like you and Mom swapped your daylight personas for something altogether different once the sun went down. I once asked C and J how they managed to sleep through the arguments each night, and J shrugged and said, “Sometimes I wake up, but then I go back to sleep.”
This was a fit of strength I didn’t seem to possess, because from the fourth grade on, I spent the rest of my life waking up to each fight, lying in bed listening to the complicated dynamics of my parents’ relationship play out in the kitchen as the stereo blared. I still remember the first fight I woke to, because it was one word that jarred me from my sleep: knife. My feet tugged me from the bed and carried me down the hall without conscious thought. I clung to the edge of the wall just around the corner from the kitchen and tried to will myself to go back to bed. Only when Mom convinced you to put down the knife and stop threatening to cut your wrists with it was I able to pad back down the carpet and climb to the top bunk. C was still asleep below, snuggled under the quilt.
Most nights after that I managed to stay in the bed, to listen from beneath my Lion King comforter, eyes wide in the dark. Until the night you said you were leaving.
I didn’t even bother with the ladder. Just leapt from the top bunk right onto the carpet below and tore down the hall. When I turned the corner, tears already cascading down my cheeks, you were standing in the foyer, threading your arms into your jacket. You and Mom froze when you saw me, the fight melting away in an instant.
“Please don’t leave,” I begged. “Please don’t leave, Dad.”
You were the only dad I had. You couldn’t leave. You couldn’t.
And you didn’t. You and Mom smoothed my hair and rubbed my back, and I went back to bed, hiccuping against the tears. It was quiet the rest of the night.
The next day it was like nothing had happened. This was how it always was after your arguments. The sun came out and the soft California breeze blew away the angry words that had clogged the night. All was well again.
It’s hard to explain what the years of this cycle taught me, Dad. But I try now to think about it.
It taught me that love is hard. That marriage doesn’t mean easy, and that it is something you have to work for every single day. That love is enough until it isn’t, and that once you hit that point, there has to be something else there to hold on to and pull yourselves through the muck by. It taught me what I wanted in a marriage, and what I didn’t. It taught me to strive for forgiveness, and that sometimes, forgiveness is the hardest part of love.
You taught me that no matter what my name is, I determine who I am. That life isn’t fair, and we must accept this in order to struggle past it. That no matter what happens during the dark hours of night, the sun will always return. That love is grand and wonderful and hard and painful all in the same breath. And that it is always worth striving for.