Finding Her Place at the Head of the Class

"EXCUSE me, is Gwen in a class right now?" Charlie asked at the front desk. He and I had driven into town from the farm to witness his youngest daughter in action at the fitness center where she'd recently gotten a job teaching "step aerobics."

The term was new to us, but we soon learned that each time we chase a stray cow or calf uphill and down, we are performing a loose and fast form of the exercise. Gwen, a natural athlete, teaches people how to chase calves "in place" using special stepped platforms in a room filled with music and mirrors. Charlie and I wanted to see for ourselves.

The receptionist nodded and gestured down the hall. "First door on your left."

"Let's go see our girl," Charlie said.

Because I am not Gwen's mother, I heard "our" with a shock of deep delight. I've come to love Charlie's daughters as one bonus of loving him over the past several years. I share his pride in their verve, beauty, and independence, even though I had nothing to do with any of it. His phrasing implied I could go on sharing; he expected me to.

Gwen, the youngest of his three girls, has hard acts to follow, and this was very much on our minds when we learned of her new job. Both her older sisters are solidly successful career women. Carrie is head of critical-care nursing in a large urban hospital, and Stephanie is a children's librarian who draws from her own early experiences on the farm to engage a new generation in storytelling and reading.

Both Carrie and Steffi had known where they were going in college, and they've gotten there handily.

Gwen has taken a different route, choosing courses eclectically, without a specific degree in mind. She has quietly worked a variety of jobs - first at a dry cleaner, then a health-food co-op, next a nursery and gardening center, and now leading classes of fitness buffs.

Charlie has not pushed her to set her compass in any one direction until she's ready. After all, he'd found his own passion, farming, only after years of experimenting in business, construction, and remodeling, without a fulfilling commitment to any of those fields.

Now, unquestionably in his niche with a dairy herd and draft horses, he likes to touch base now and then with Gwen's quest. And that is why we had come to town.

As we walked down the hall, we could hear her - full-voiced, energy-charged - singing out instructions in a steady, joyous rhythm. It was a voice to listen to, demanding, in tune with the audible as well as some inner music. Charlie and I looked at each other in astonishment. This was Gwen, the youngest? Gwen, who often goes quiet in the presence of her accomplished sisters?

We peeked in and saw the class, grinning as they persevered, their eyes riveted on her. They gasped for breath as they moved up and down, up and down the steps to her commands. Gwen was running with an imaginary calf, and they were in full, glorious chase.

As the hour drew to a close, with no major breaks in the exhausting pace, I went to quench my sympathetic thirst at a soda machine. Returning, I saw that Charlie had entered Gwen's small domain for the last few minutes of her class.

His improbable image leapt and glanced from every mirrored wall: his gray hair flying, suspenders stretched to the breaking point, trousered legs and big farmer's arms pumping mightily after the elusive something Gwen was after.

Judging from her smile, she seemed suddenly to glimpse it, surrounded by all those mirrored dads joining in and blessing her chase.

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