From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Just a Walk in the Park

The events of childhood do not pass but repeat themselves like seasons of the year.

Eleanor Farjoen

She was the wisest person I’d ever met. With messy hair and tattered clothes, she never cared one bit about success or wealth. It seemed that her only job was to laugh all day, which kept her healthy. She listened well and, in her own innocent way, sought out the truth in everything. Her mind was a sponge in search of right. Her heart was pure, and she had no qualms about sharing it. In her eyes there was peace, while her mouth spouted the kindest words I’d ever heard. She was polite and good, trying desperately to choose right over wrong. In her smile there was forgiveness and healing, and she was an open book when it came to her feelings. The word “shame” was never affiliated with her true emotions. She worried so much less than most, and her sleep was sound. I often wondered if she’d found the secret to true joy. Her only possessions in the world were hope and love, and for that she thanked the Lord daily. I felt blessed she was my daughter; Aubrey was four years old, and I couldn’t have loved her any more.

I remember that day when the trees were still bare, and we had to wear bulky winter jackets. As soon as we rounded the corner and saw the park, somehow, at that very moment, spring arrived. With shoes unlaced, only our noses could run faster than our feet. My best friend, Aubrey, beat me to the bottom of the hill. She was small, but she was quick.

First, we tackled the slides, but that was only a warm-up. From there, it was on to the real games. Like two wild gorillas we hit the jungle gym hard. Before long, our coats were unbuttoned, and the brisk air seemed hot. While playing hide-and-go-seek, either my big butt or her giggles gave us both away, so we decided on tag. That was the most fun. We laughed, really laughed, and meant every second of it. There were no adults there to tell us what we couldn’t do. We were king and queen, and, knowing this, we quickly claimed our territory.

We built a fort under the jungle gym. Resting on a floor of dirt and wood chips, Aubrey made me a birthday cake out of mud. She sang out of tune as I blew out the candles. Then, to my surprise, she found it—a treasure, the most valuable thing on Earth—a bottle cap. Quietly digging a hole, we buried our treasure where nobody would ever find it. I marked the spot with a stick, and we promised each other that we would tell no one. It was our secret; something we could rediscover at our next visit to the park.

Covered in sweat and dirt, we shared a swing for the last time that day. Aubrey talked about her life, and I listened because that’s what real dads do. Racing to the top of the hill I beat her home but, looking back one last time, I realized something: I had just enjoyed one of the best days of my entire life. There had been nothing but laughter, yet somewhere through it all, something very serious happened: I’d been reminded that I was still alive, alive to run and play and laugh. The simple experience was so profound, I was inspired to run home and pen several poems.

The truth is, although she was only four years old back then and twenty-five years younger than me, Aubrey taught me that I still had much to learn. In those days, I honestly think she knew more than me. And whenever I recall days like these, I’m sure of it.

Aubrey is an adolescent now, and I move a little slower, think more before speaking and take a little longer to do the same things I could when she was four.

Last week, she was asked to baby-sit our neighbor’s five-year-old son, Ricky. When I heard she was planning to take him to the park, I asked if I could tag along and watch. Somewhere along life’s way, I’d become so busy with imaginary deadlines that I’d forgotten the blessings of innocent fun. It had been years since I’d gone to the park. Aubrey was thrilled to have me along.

Upon arrival, while Aubrey and Ricky headed for the swings, I said hello to the other adults on supervision patrol. Most offered a grin, a nod or heavy sigh, and then quickly returned to the army of small children on the jungle gym. I took a seat and tried to get comfortable on the hard, green bench, opting to do some people-watching. In truth, I’ve made few choices in my life that turned out better. You see, as I sat on that bench and watched my daughter play with our neighbor’s little boy, I realized something priceless: Through the years, all the times I thought my little girl wasn’t looking, she had been. My examples had clearly paid off. Aubrey was a genuinely good person, the only perfect measurement of success for a father. I quietly wept tears of pure joy.

In time, Ricky approached. With his muddy face, he asked, “Will you play with me, too?”

“Geez, I don’t know, Ricky. I’m getting a little old to be running around this park.”

Little Ricky wouldn’t hear it. As my daughter watched on in amusement, he begged for me to play with him. I shook my head in disbelief. With all the kids running around, he actually wanted me to play with him. For the sake of not disappointing anyone, slowly, I stood and grabbed Ricky’s hand.

As we stepped through the park, I peered down at him and saw the past return in one wonderful jolt. He was Aubrey, ten years earlier. His nose was running like a broken faucet, his shirt was untucked, and in his dirty face, there wasn’t a worry in the world. Adopting his carelessness and surrendering to his imagination, I decided to forget myself and everything I knew as an adult. I still remembered the joy I’d shared with my daughter on a day no different from this. Now I’d been blessed with a second opportunity to view what was important, to be reminded of who I really was and what honestly meant anything in life.

The entire day was magical. Ricky told stories that made no sense. The three of us ate fast-melting ice cream and danced under the sun. For Ricky and my entertainment, Aubrey described each person who passed with great fictitious detail. One was a real princess. Another was an astronaut.

We lay in the grass, rolled down a hill and looked up to watch big, puffy clouds float by. We took turns pointing out the obvious pictures painted above. Ricky then diverted our attention to a colony of ants that worked hard, marching in a straight row, each carrying his fair share. We played so many games that I had forgotten.

As the day wound down, Aubrey led us under the fort. With her bare hands she dug in the very area that had been our special hiding spot. My eyes filled from nostalgia and love that gushed for my daughter. Minutes later she held up the treasure. It was our secret bottle cap.

Little Ricky went wild. “It’s a real treasure!” he squealed. “Let’s bury it for some other lucky kids to find thousands of years from now. What a treasure!”

As he and Aubrey picked another spot to bury it, I decided then that everything worth knowing is learned young and understood by children. Lessons like playing fair, the reasons not to fight and sharing, for example, were really all anyone ever needed to know. In fact, anything more than that complicated and confused things.

I was so blessed for the sweet reminder, something everyone could use from time to time. I swear I’ll never pass on the opportunity to take a walk through the park ever again. There are so many treasures that wait to be uncovered and rediscovered.

Steven H. Manchester

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