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A Fledgling Daughter, a Father's Wing

By John J. Byrne / June 17, 1996



'Dad, I'm 22 years old. I've been working in New York City for two years. I've been hanging out there ever since I was 15. John and I used to sneak in on the train at night and stroll around the Village."

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This was Lisa's response six months ago when I expressed my concern about her decision to leave our home in New Jersey and get a place of her own in the upper 90s of Manhattan. I skipped over her tardy confession about Greenwich Village to concentrate on the imminent move that would turn my home into the proverbial empty nest.

In one way, I was pleased that Lisa was again showing that desire for independence that I had tried to instill in both my children. I was also relieved that a place of her own was in fact going to be shared by two female co-workers.

At the same time I was anxious. I had spent my working life in various parts of New York and was thoroughly familiar with its advantages and its problems. It would be good for her to experience the greatest city in the world as a permanent resident, but there are natural fears that a parent may feel when he sees his last child leave, going off to the unknown.

My son, John, moved to Hoboken, N.J., a year ago. He comes in once a week to bring his wash and visit his girlfriend, who lives in town. I like to think that he also visits to hang out with me. We talk about work, catch a movie, and get dinner. Even though Hoboken also has its dangers, I feel OK seeing him go back. When he was at Rutgers University, he was mugged at midday in the middle of the campus, and he handled it well. He ran, exactly as I would have. I feet that he can take care of himself.

So can Lisa. But women have so many more things to beware of, and she's so innocent in many ways and so friendly. She has this wonderful desire to explore, to taste life, to enjoy, to laugh, to learn, and to grow.

I grew up in Manhattan and was 24 before I even saw the Statue of Liberty. I tried to make sure that John and Lisa would know the city and its offerings. From the time they were toddlers, I took them to museums and myriad other attractions that the Big Apple offers so bountifully. But in all large cities there are dangers.

Lisa moved, of course.

I visited her as she and her friends decorated their new apartment in nouveau retrouv. With her I tried the wonderfully varied restaurants in the neighborhood. When I was in Manhattan I called her at work, and we had lunch on Fashion Avenue. I did the same with John, visiting him at at his job on Wall Street and grabbing a bite at the South Street Seaport. But for Lisa, there was always that extra concern, that need to hold on.

My concerns were magnified whenever she would sneak a piece of startling information into an otherwise ordinary conversation, a talent she had perfected over the years. For example, one day while we were having lunch on Seventh Avenue, Lisa was telling me how clean and free of graffiti the subway cars in Manhattan were. She then announced casually, "I was on the wrong train the other night, and it was heading to Brooklyn. There was no one else on the whole train. Boy, was I scared."

TWO weeks ago, something happened that convinced me everything would be all right. I had helped Lisa hang a huge painting, "Pygmalion and Galatea," over her bed. Over, not in front of it, not beside it, but on the ceiling over her bed. I was afraid to ask why she wanted it there.

We went for a late snack to the Barking Dog restaurant on the corner of her block, and as we were walking back to her apartment, three shabbily dressed young men approached us. One of them said to me, "Gotta match?"

My instinct in such encounters has always been to avoid eye contact and keep walking, no matter what. Lisa stopped and began to chat with them. I couldn't believe she would do this. All my counseling, all my warnings, all my paternal advice, out the window. I thought we were in for it for sure.

By the time I had turned to rescue my precious daughter, Lisa was saying good-bye to the now not-so-tough-looking young men. She put her arm in mine, and as we resumed our walk, she said, "I'm sorry I didn't introduce you, Dad. That was Chuck and Jose and Ahmad. They live in my apartment building. They work on Madison Avenue. Sometimes we go out for lunch."

I didn't ask any questions.

The incident reminded me of what I have always believed: that worrying about our children may be natural, but it's often wasted energy.

Children know what is right and wrong, what is safe, and what is dangerous. They trust their instincts more than we trust ours. And knowing this, it's easier to let them go when the time comes.

We have given them our values. If they accept them, they'll be OK. If they reject them, they'll follow their own instincts.

Not long after she'd moved, Lisa came home for a surprise visit and found me in what used to be her bedroom, which I am slowly converting into a study. I do my writing here because it's peaceful and because the walls are covered with posters and stickers that remind me of her. In between indecipherable pictures of Morrissey and Billy Idol are signs from Greenpeace and handwritten stickers with Lisa-like statements such as: "Practice Random Kindness & Senseless Acts of Beauty."

When she came upstairs and saw me typing, she said, "So, I'm only gone a few months, and you've taken over my room already, huh, Pops?"

Now I was able to reply, "No, Lee, this is my room. Your room is on Ninety-sixth Street."

She hugged me, radiating that warmth that only a loved parent can feel, gave me a generous kiss, and said, "You didn't see my old bathing suit around, did you?"

"No. Why, honey?" I asked.

"Because it's supposed to be 80 degrees in Las Vegas now."

I didn't ask any questions.