By the time River noticed, it was a distant day-glo dot on the waves.
“Daddy, my bucket is floating away!”
I slung my towel on the picnic table and hurried over to the beach. River was pointing urgently across the water and making panicked faces over the evident tragedy of her lost toy. But it was the expression she directed toward me that had the greater significance. If you’re a parent, you know it well – the look of curiosity and expectation that says: “What are you going to do now?”
Our children are always watching and absorbing the nuances of the world around them. I knew immediately that River was waiting to see how I reacted in a moment of need. There was no one in the water near the bucket, now rapidly moving toward the brackish and weed-infested part of the cove, and the little canoe on the dock had no paddles to propel it. I weighed the only options before me – swim for the bucket, or let it go?
I made a quick list of pros and cons for each choice. The bucket was cheap, less than $1 at the Job Lot. It had no particular emotional value to my daughter, it was just another of many toys. On the other hand, I’ve been trying to teach River thrift, and a dollar saved is a dollar earned, after all. Moreover, I’m always reminding her of the need to enjoy the natural world responsibly, to carry out our trash (and other people’s too) on hikes, to catch-and-release, and never to pick wildflowers. Retrieving the plastic bucket from the water would model good stewardship.
But what really pressed on me was that look of curiosity that said, “Prove to me that what you always say is true.” I’m always promising to take of River and assuring her of my constancy and solidity. Part of me felt a surge of primal masculinity. “Be her hero, dive into the water and make a mighty rescue that will earn her pride and amazement.” Demonstrate physical prowess and protect her property. The little speck in the lake became a symbol of my adequacy as a dad.
I pondered for a full minute. And then I made the wrong choice.
“We’ll get another one at the store, Rivs,” I told her.
She didn’t cry, and she hardly seemed concerned. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I let something else go: the opportunity to send a different message to my wonderful little baby girl had also vanished.
I was scared, I admit, of the deeper waters. Since childhood I’ve heard stories of over-sized snapping turtles and entangling elodea plants in that section of the lake.
They were insignificant concerns, of course. I agonized over it while River dozed in her seat on the car ride home. Maybe I’m making a bigger deal out of it than is warranted. Maybe I projected my own insecurities into a situation that she barely registered.
But next time, I will swim for the orange bucket.