In retrospect, I was probably feeling as disconnected from “home” as Julie Ann. Why I believed the transition back to the Midwest of my youth after 18 years in the desert would be an easy one is beyond me. But, for Julie who had known only the Phoenix metropolitan area, the strain of loss was very apparent on her face and in her actions and in her reactions.
My daughter and I have vastly conflicting personalities. I live in the secluded, maddening world of the shy—Julie Ann bubbles with energetic charisma and thrives on personal relationships. She needs to dance. It is the rhythm of her life—she tangos. I trip over my own inhibitions, and my life rhythm is comparable to a slow waltz danced poorly with uncoordinated feet. To say that it has not been easy for the two of us to connect would be to understate the obvious. Julie pursues life with zeal while I sometimes have trouble finding my way out my front door. I admire her tenacity, though I am sure I’ve failed to convey that—more often, much to my regret, reprimanding her for not moving at a pace with which I can keep up.
But, for once, we were harmonizing, ironically due to our mutual agony, both of us feeling stranded in torpid water in a boat without oars, adrift without an emotional anchor. We were lost, lonely and unsteady in our new environment, certain our boat was going to capsize.
I don’t know what made me recall a high school literature class some 20 years prior, a story which had been required reading, but I had the strongest urge to share it with Julie. I went to the library and leafed through index after index in search of compilations by O. Henry to find the one story of which I had high expectations that Julie would find utterly charming, releasing her, for even a brief time, from her own sea of insecurities. She needed to get acquainted with me and I with her, and O. Henry, I hoped, was going to make the introduction a pleasant one.
I kidnapped Julie from the duplex we were renting and set off in the car to a park I had located the day before. Parks are enchantingly neutral places which have a way of transporting us to the security of our youth no matter where the location. The quaint park seemed to be working its magic as we walked across a wooden bridge spanning a brook nestled in the tranquil shelter of forest which had been preserved from the urbanized infrastructure of the big city. Julie was guarded, but I could see a glimmer of relief in her eyes at our pleasant hinterland even as she tried her best to rebuff any notion that it was a magnificent place laced with a delicious assortment of flora and fauna.
Braced for the expected resistance from Julie Ann, knowing full well she was not overly enthused at my attempt to cheer her up, particularly with a “stupid old book” clutched in the hand of “the most boring mother in the world,” I dismissed her ill-tempered mood and kept on praying we would find each other with a little help from O. Henry.
I sauntered off the beaten path, Julie grudgingly following me through the timber, as we forged our way to the waterfront by way of a steep hill full of potholes and nettles, which clung like Velcro to our jeans.
The consoling sound of water tripping its way over boulders and fallen branches was enough to iron out a lot of the anxieties that had wrinkled our securities. At last, Julie declared her approval of our surroundings, so I urged her to pull up a rock as I opened O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief, took a deep breath and began to narrate, putting as much dialect and animation into my recitation as I possibly could, attempting to bring to life the account of a very mischievous little boy who was kidnapped by a couple of bumpkins, hoping to attain a healthy ransom from their young prisoner’s parents. Much to my surprise (and delight) Julie started laughing, for she had found in “Red Chief” a kindred spirit and applauded the ornery little fella’s innocent way of making life absolutely wretched for his kidnappers. Julie guffawed at Red Chief’s parents’ counter-offer that the kidnappers pay a healthy ransom to them to take Red chief off the kidnappers’ hands! “That would be me!” laughed Julie Ann. My Julie Ann—a modern-day, female version of the pesky little Red Chief. Life with Julie has never been dull, and I’m sure she’ll keep me on my toes well into future stress-induced gray hair days.
Henry had performed his magic—Julie and I tangoed, for the first time in ages, and, for once, I didn’t miss a step. We could have been back in Phoenix where we both felt at home, or we could have been in China where we didn’t even speak their language—it didn’t matter—we were mother and daughter connected in a timeless, lighthearted tale by a very gifted writer.
Julie says that day is the best remembrance she has of the two of us, and I agree, for on the day Julie Ann met O. Henry, I finally met my daughter, and she finally met me.