Babies don’t make promises. They live and thrive on the willingness of others to make promises to them – promises that they will be fed, clothed and sheltered, kept warm, given comfort, played with and loved.
My extraordinary good fortune was to be born into a family more than willing to make and keep promises. My father took promises especially seriously. The eldest of six children, he was one of those increasingly rare creatures – a man of his word. Whether it was a work colleague, a neighbor, a family member or his tiny daughter coming to him with a request, if he said he would do it, he did.
“Daddy!” I’d ask as he came in from work and settled down to look at the mail. “Will you color with me?” “I’ll color with you after dinner,” he’d say. “I’m going to a meeting tonight, but we’ll have time to do a couple of pictures.” “Promise?” I’d ask. “I promise,” he’d say. And the promise always held.
When I’d beg for a story, I always was welcome to snuggle into his lap while we “read” together. Sometimes the story involved puppies, princesses or trains. Other times he’d read a “story” to me from a philatelic magazine or an industry journal. Still, reading was reading, and if I’d been promised the pleasure of sharing the discovery of words, I never was denied.
Even on our yearly vacation – those precious two weeks that he must have cherished beyond words – there was time for more than fishing. When I begged him to come with me on my hunt for smooth lake pebbles or fresh-water snail shells, he’d grin at his friends, lift his can of Pabst or Hamm’s as if estimating its contents and say, “You go down and look for a while. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” “Promise, Daddy?” “I promise.” And when the beer was gone, he’d walk down to the water and we’d talk while exploring the world.
Eventually, the time came for me to begin making promises of my own. One of the first I remember involved my tricycle. “You can go to the end of the block,” Dad said, “but then you have to turn around and come back. Don’t cross the street, and don’t go around the corner.” “I won’t,” I said. “Promise?” he asked.
Of course I promised, and on the second day of tricycle-freedom, I broke my promise. Tempted beyond all reason by the sight of a friend across the street with her new kitten, I stopped, pondered and then chugged across, forgetting that the corner was fully visible from our back yard. It was my mother who brought me home, but my father who talked to me.
“Didn’t I tell you not to cross the street?” Dad asked. Tearfully, I agreed I’d been told. “Didn’t you promise not to cross the street?” Yes, I had promised. Thinking things over, Dad finally said, “Do you remember when I promised to take you to the carnival last month?” I did remember. I’d brought home a bisque kewpie doll and a splendid green glass-bead necklace. “Would you have been happy if I’d forgotten to take you? If I broke my promise?” My stomach twisting in grief and guilt, I stared at the sidewalk and said, “I don’t know…”
“I think you would have been sad,” he said. “I think you’d have been really disappointed that I broke my promise.” Looking at him, I simply shook my head. “OK,” he said. “Will you promise me you’ll try to do better about keeping your promises to your mother and I?” Sensing a reprieve, I promised. Within minutes my beloved tricycle was freed from Dad’s improvised impound lot, and not another word was said.
As the years passed by, the promises began to add up. “OK,” said my dad. “If I build you a sandbox, will you keep your toys in the sandbox and not carry sand all over the yard?” I promised.
When it was time to do yard work, he’d ask, “If I let you help, will you promise to do exactly what I tell you, and stay where I can see you?” I promised.
As I grew older and began to take on more responsibility, the promises became larger, more demanding. “I have to go to New York for a week,” he said. “You’ll have to help your mother. Promise me you’ll be a good girl and help out around the house.” Of course I promised. I knew I’d be rewarded with a new book or chocolates when he returned, but I also knew I’d be rewarded with his pride in my growing willingness to be a “big girl”.
Even when I’d become a truly “big girl”, he extracted a full share of promises – to come home on time, to stay away from “wild kids”, to tell him if I wanted to go to Des Moines or Grinnell with my friends. Sometimes, the promises he sought were purely good-natured, like my promise the night of my senior prom that I’d take off my high heels to dance so I didn’t break my neck.
Recently I’ve tried to remember the last promise made between us before his death thirty years ago. It may have happened in Liberia, when the chief of a remote bush village presented my visiting father with the gift of a fish. It was a toothy thing, with large scales and a distinct odor of mud. Just after this photo was taken Dad grinned at me and said, “Promise me I’m not going to have to eat this thing.” I promised, and he didn’t, and we laughed at the photo for years.
After I returned to the States, the time for making promises to Dad seemed over. We remained close, but I have no memory of him ever again saying, “Promise me this“, or “Promise me that“. I’d not thought about it for years, until my mother raised the subject this past week. Finally succumbing to illness and hospitalizations after 93 years, she was pondering aloud the slightly amazing fact that I’m now two years older than she was when Dad died.
“Tell me something,” she said. “Did your dad ever make you promise to take care of me after he died?” “No,” I said. “We never talked about it.” She closed her eyes and I went back to my book until I felt her sideways glance, and she spoke again. “Maybe he didn’t think he had to ask,” she said. “He’d done a pretty good job, teaching you about promises.”
Yes, I thought. He certainly had.