The Coat in the Backseat of My Car

A father's reflections on a girl growing up

We’re always telling her to put on her coat. “It’s cold outside. It’s raining, sweetheart. You should put your coat on.” Her mother is particularly adamant about the coat. It’s 60 degrees and sunny, yet she’ll have our daughter grab her puffy coat. “The weather could turn,” she’ll say. “We don’t want you sick.”

She gets cold, but she never says she’s cold, the daughter I share with my ex-wife. So we have coats. A big ski coat. A puffy purple coat. Zip-up sweaters. Windbreakers. There’s an emergency coat in the trunk of my car. (What if the car breaks down and it’s cold outside?)

Most of the time, she wears the coat out of the house — a show. “Look, dad, I’m wearing the coat. See?” She’ll then shrug it off in the car and forget it there, or just shuck it off at school. The kid is at recess, 30 degrees outside, and she’s without a coat — just her Selena Gomez concert T-shirt and a red plaid skirt. I drive off, her forgotten coat in the backseat.

All these coats: She sheds them. She gets bigger. They get smaller. The zipper breaks. It gets ripped. Each of these coats, they tell a story. She’s a baby. No, she’s a little girl. No, she’s a young woman. These coats, like cocoons. All these beautiful butterflies she’s become, flying out into the meadows of life.

• • •

She had this pink coat when she was a tiny little thing. I’d put her on my shoulders and walk. There we’d be in the forest, dark, raining, and she — a little pink jewel in the gloaming. I’d put her down so she could feel the earth beneath her feet, hear the forest breathe. She’d pick wild mountain blueberries. Later, I’d find them smashed into her pockets, a slick of berry, a purple smear on that pink coat.

Out to the beach down below our house she’d go, walking along the shoreline, collecting little rocks, the cuffs of the coat getting soaked in the tides. Out to Mount Rainier, where we’d camp, the river roaring nearby, the stars above a silent riot. She’d sleep in her coat, the smell of woodsmoke and s’mores penetrating our little Coleman tent. To the pond we’d go, the snow thick, the water silent, the ducks gone, the wonder of winter a bare whisper to her. My baby. My daughter. I put the coat over her arms, little mittens on her little hands.

• • •

She grew. Kids do that. You grow with them, and because of them. She was given a black pea coat with these wild calico patterns and color all over it. “That’s a beautiful coat,” people would say to my little girl. “Thank you,” my little girl would reply.

I didn’t have to take care of everything for her anymore. She could zip up her own coat. She could pick out her own hat.

I needed her then, more than ever. It was during my divorce, the ugly part of it, and her hand in mine made everything seem like it would work out in the end, even when I thought it wouldn’t.

We’d walk, and talk, and learn about the world together. I’d teach her things. She’d teach me more. We’d find frogs in the ponds, birds in the trees, salamanders in the muck.

That calico coat, I don’t know where it is anymore. I think we passed it down to her cousin. My daughter gets older, taller, bigger, stronger, and that coat couldn’t contain her. She outgrew it just like she outgrew my shoulders, the board books I read to her countless times, princesses, sticker books. She outgrew the Easter bunny and writing letters to fairies she knew were real.

But there’s always a coat that will fit her, and there will never be a time when she can outgrow my love for her.

She shed the calico coat, finally, and turned into yet another butterfly flitting through the city like a smile.

• • •

She’s so big now. She got this brown coat with turquoise accents, with matching gloves and a headband warmer thing. Thick. Good for snow. A couple of years ago, we sledded the steep streets of Fremont so many times that the sled broke in half. I think I bruised my tailbone that day. Anything to see her smile.

Strange now, these days, how much I want to be around her. How things have shifted some. As a little kid, she looked at me with adoration, like I was some sort of god.

Now, it’s me who feels all that toward her. She’s not my little girl. She’s my daughter, always will be — but I stand in awe of her now. A 10-year-old wiser than I’ll ever be. Yet so innocent.

My daughter, you can do it all now: You can read novels thicker than the ones I read. You’re doing algebra. You’re on stage because acting brings you the same joy that I once felt playing trombone.

She’s not discovering the world anymore, not the world I made for her anyway. She’s discovering that there’s a world outside of that world. Whether she has her coat on or not, she’s going out into it. She’s finding her own way.

Perhaps this life I created for her was a cocoon, too. I have tried to save her from pain, doubt, fear. It’ll come to her, I know that. But she’s discovered in herself so much that will help weather those storms in her life, those ones right there on the horizon.

She’ll fly out into the world, a new world of her own, another butterfly reaching up toward something new. She’ll thrive there. And hopefully she’ll look back at our little world — the one I created for her, with her — and she’ll smile at me, her coat still waiting in the back of my car.

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