Like a lot of fathers, I tell stories to our daughters. They revolve around the adventures of a mischievous little boy named Ralph, and his goody two-shoes sister, Patti, who lived in my apartment building as a child.
Ralph once decided that he was going to pour boxes of lime Jell-O into the Chicago River. Patti said, "Ralph, you cannot turn the river into Jell-O. I am sooo embarrassed!"
But everybody in town enjoyed bouncing on the Jell-O river.
There’s a whole cast of characters: Duncan the Dolphin, who lives in Lake Michigan, but leaps out to snatch cheese and caramel corn with his beak. Beulah, a good witch, who watches over us and gives broom rides around skyscrapers, and tiny little wicked witches, Kee, Jo Ella, Mary and Katie, who hide and cackle in our drawers and closets. They’re actually nice at heart, but they like to play pranks, like putting a clown’s nose on Ralph when he’s asleep.
There's Scully, a skeleton who sleeps in Patti and Ralph's closet, whom we dress up in old clothes to sneak him into school. And Ethel Mermaid, who clambers onto the Oak Street Beach to sing, "You'll be swell, you'll be great . . ."
The stories I tell have no moral whatsoever, except to make our daughters laugh and wonder, and maybe persuade them that I was once a little boy.
But over the past few months, our daughters have started making suggestions to my stories, like Hollywood producers at a script conference.
If I begin, "It was nighttime," they’ll say, "Make it morning." If I say, "It was winter," they’ll say, "Make it summer." Our imaginations mingle. They have grown into co-conspirators.
This delights me, and sometimes depresses me. It’s a father’s dilemma: we want our children to grow up to be strong and good—yet in some ways, we don’t want them to grow up at all. We want them to be sure of our love and stand on their own. Yet we despair of a day when they think they no longer need us.
Sometimes, when I put our 7-year-old to bed, she sees lights blinking above the river and asks, "Is that Beulah Witch?" I go to the window, peer out and say, "Yes, baby. She’s out there. Winking at us."
"Ask her to stay," our daughter says. "I want her to stay." I put my hand on my daughter’s head and tell her, "So do I."