Today is my daughter’s 11th birthday. We all went to Color Me Mine, a place where you hand paint different ceramic items and then they glaze and fire them up for you, creating original pieces of art. Each of us decorated a plate for Leah. There we were: me, Kendall, Leah, my ex-wife Sophie, her husband Mark, Mark’s daughter Sarah, and a friend of Leah’s from her theatre group. We had a great time and it was heaven for Leah to have us all together, but did you ever notice how much you can learn about people by doing an art project together, even when you’re all working on individual pieces? I wish I could include a RealAudio file of the twists and turns in the conversation. It was all about the art work, of course…OR WAS IT? Maybe I should just take all seven plates to my next therapy session for analysis.
Sophie and I have certainly had our share of rocky periods following our divorce when Leah was three but I’m very proud of the work we’ve done to improve our communication and provide Leah with a stable foundation in which she knows she is loved by all of the adults in her life. It’s hard to believe that eleven years have passed since that night she was born at Cedars-Sinai after an hour and a half of labor. I’ll never forget a second of that delivery, as Leah’s head emerged with her eyes open, looking around at this new world, her long red hair flowing, even before the rest of her body came out!
I remember my 11th birthday quite well even though most of my childhood is lost to vague, ever-changing, and undatable glimpses. But September 4, 1970 is different because much of it was recorded for posterity. A few days before my 11th birthday my father, always the technology pioneer, had purchased a reel-to-reel video recording system. Although it was called “portable,” the recording unit was the size and weight of a small freezer. The large, bulky tapes were 30 minutes long and cost about $40 each. A breadloaf-sized camera was connected to the machine by heavy cables and my family, marveling at the novelty of seeing ourselves on the small Sony black-and-white monitor, couldn’t get enough. I had just received a new watch for my birthday and throughout the day you can see me announcing with great solemnity, “I am now 11 years old, six hours, and twenty-two minutes.” I can’t believe that this little boy is the same age as Leah is today. At 11, she seems SO much more sophisticated, intelligent, well balanced, and self-aware than little Danny staring at his watch and trying to think of something to say for the camera. One of the reasons I’ve never forgotten this tape is because of what I later learned was happening in the background. My parents were poised on the edge of their violent divorce and all the signs are there for the taking. My mother is noticeably absent from the proceedings at first, and when she finally does walk in the door, she is caught off guard by the camera zooming in on her pained expression. At this stage the repartee between my parents takes the form of pointed jokes about fidelity and lawyers, each remark a little more shrill than the last, but all of them couched in nervous laughter and body language that is not hard to interpret. But through it all, I am oblivious, purposely lost in my own little world, often hanging upside down from the piano bench I’m sitting on or moving my feet in some kind of dance routine which I stare at in the monitor. “I am now 11 years old, nine hours, and thirty-six minutes…”
Oh, how grateful I am that Leah’s “broken home” is not so much broken as it is expanded. For years after Sophie and I split up Leah used to draw little neighborhoods where she’d have us all living in houses next to each other. She’d carefully explain who lived where and how she’d be able to go from one house to the next on her own. She doesn’t do this anymore and has very strong relationships with her stepparents. All four of us contribute our own unique interests and gifts to her upbringing and while there are still moments where I feel guilty about the lost fantasy of the Andy Hardy-like family unit, I realize that this is more about my own childhood projections than the life experience of my daughter.
It’s an amazing time in Leah’s life, you can see that she’s in a true transition from childhood to adolescence, complete with shifting moods, growing pains, and constantly changing interests. Sometimes she’ll act and look like a young adult and the next minute she’ll be very much the little girl. It’s a continual process for me to accept those changes and realize that I need to do some things differently now that Leah is growing up. I am maneuvering myself through the daily grief of losing my little girl and the joy and wonder of getting to know the person she’s becoming. No one wants to read how great anyone thinks their kid is, so I’ll just say how incredibly lucky I feel to have such a caring, creative, and loving person in my life. I can’t even begin to calculate what she’s taught me during these 11 years or describe the enormous love I feel that grows by the day.
Happy Birthday Leah!