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DIANNE KLEIN

Father Loves Best in Letting Daughter Go

July 04, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

I have come to Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim because I am supposed to deliver wisdom.

I am supposed to stand up in front of these graduates, all of them young women, all smart and college bound, and tell them that the world is their oyster. Not in those exact words, of course. These graduates, and their families and friends, would recognize the laziness of a cliche.

I have brought my older daughter with me, the one who just graduated from the first grade. I want her to see these women get awards for prowess in math and science and drama and English. I, too, want my daughter to grasp greatness in things prosaic and professional. That is, some day. In the distant future.

Just before the ceremony is to begin, my daughter and I must return to the car. She has forgotten her teddy bear, and she wants it, needs it, now. We retrieve the bear. I feel strangely comforted too.

The string quartet begins to play, and the graduates stride in, each dressed in white gowns, some diaphanous and flowing, others straight up-and-down chic. The graduates are holding their heads at a stately height, their eyes are dancing and their hair is decidedly not everyday. They are wearing incandescent smiles.

The parents in the crowd pop up with video cameras attached to one eye, adoring paparazzi with a sameness to their expressions that I have seen before.

They look, all of them, as if their hearts might burst. Seeing their own daughters' teddy bears right now would surely be too much. Exactly when was it that their little girls grew up?

The formal program begins. The campus minister at this Catholic high school gives a blessing, then the president of the student council says a few words. The chairman of the school's board of trustees, Timothy R. Cappel, steps up to award the diplomas next.

A few minutes earlier, this man had come over to introduce himself to my daughter and me. He said that I had met his older daughter, Ashley, the other day and yes, I can see the resemblance now.

Ashley was the redhead, tall and lithe, interested in theater, bound for USC. She was wearing one of those flowing, sheer skirts. She was sitting right there in my office, she and the other emissaries from Connelly's senior class. They had come to advise me on what my commencement address might touch. They didn't want anything boring, they said.

We talked about girl stuff, the serious and ridiculous minutiae of everyday, and college, and teachers and boys. Ashley had mentioned her dad.

She said how she had been surprised, and thrilled, that he had gotten so involved in her school. He is a very busy man. I remembered her look of pride.

Ashley's father is addressing the crowd right now. He is giving the usual thanks and talking about what a wonderful school year it's been. Then he departs from protocol and tells us that he'd like to speak as a father, asking our forgiveness "for being selfish for a moment."

"For I, perhaps like many fathers in the audience and unlike the mothers, have never fully told my daughter what this day means to me."

Then the measured voice of Timothy R. Cappel, big shot lawyer and chairman of the board of trustees, cracks. I am close enough to see the start of tears in his eyes. Ashley, seated behind him with the other graduates, nearly loses it right there. She stops a tear before her mascara runs.

Her 44-year-old father goes on to read excerpts from an article in "Sports Illustrated." This is cool, this is reading for a manly man. The story was written by a father who took a summer bicycle tour with his daughter on Martha's Vineyard. Only Cappel places himself and Ashley there.

I am the leader. I ride the first bike because I am the father, and I will handle any of the problems that may arise . . . I will meet the trouble first because my daughter is only five years old and this is her first bike and the training wheels have not been removed for very long and . . . . no, this is not exactly the truth.

My daughter is 17 years old. She rides a bike very well. I am the leader because I don't know what else to be. I suddenly am the father of a young woman.

"Why do you keep looking back at me?" she asks.

"Just checking," I say.

"Well, I'm all right," she says. "Just watch the road."

I look to Ashley, who is traveling this road with her father now. Yes, it sounds like something that she might say. Oh, Dad. I can do it on my own. But this leader thing. Because I don't know what else to be .

Since when do manly men, fathers like her own who have given more time to their careers than to their kids, suddenly confess such thoughts to the world?

Cappel quotes more. There was the summer between his daughter's junior and senior years in high school that blurs with her first day of kindergarten and nervousness about a junior high school dance. Didn't he just finish building that three-foot-tall green dollhouse last night? Then how did that covering of dust appear so suddenly on its roof?

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