Fatherhood

July 06, 1994|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — The first chance he got, Hudson Swann started to teach his daughters how to drive. When they were very little, he would drive up and down the road at a snail's pace, holding them in his lap, letting them pretend to steer his Ford pickup.

In the long summer evenings after dinner, while Jeanne has her quiet time with bubble bath and Country Living, Hudson, Amber and Ashley pile into the truck and drive down to Omar Hinton's store for ice cream cones. Ashley steers and Amber works the pedals on the way down; it's the opposite on the way back. Being twins and having that bond, it seems to work out well between them. Hudson coaches from the passenger seat. He's pretty proud of their progress. By the time they're big enough to reach the pedals by themselves, he thinks they'll do all right. Hudson believes everyone should know three things: how to swim, how to drive a car and how to read. The rest, he says, will fall into place.

Over to Omar Hinton's store, all the watermen and farmers are lounging around under the big ceiling fan, trying to stay cool. Warner, Omar's old black lab, is stretched out under the stove, where the cold metal feels good on hot nights. When he hears Ashley and Amber coming, he gets up and finds his old tennis ball. With Warner, hope springs eternal. Black labs put up with a lot on the Eastern Shore.

Hudson buys the twins the exact same thing every night; one scoop of vanilla, one scoop of chocolate on a wafer cone, done twice. He gets himself a single scoop of butter brickle and settles down on the bench while the twins and Warner toss the old tennis ball up and down the cereal aisle. It's about all the excitement Warner can handle these days, Omar says. The truth is, it's about all the excitement Omar can stand.

Ashley and Amber have decided when they grow up, they are leaving Oysterback to launch careers as a fairy princess and a mermaid, respectively. Amber also wants to be an MTV star in her spare time. Ashley is starting to lean toward becoming an artist like her big sister Duc Tran; she likes Duc's pierced nose. Eating ice cream cones and half listening to watermen Tales from Oysterback over to Omar Hinton's store complain about the DNR and Washington is a temporary condition for them. They know there's a world out there waiting for them.

They also know to say ''thank you'' when Omar gives them each a biscuit for Warner. Warner can balance a dog biscuit on the end of his nose until you tell him ''go;'' then he flips it in the air and catches it in his teeth. Warner thinks it's a pretty stupid trick, but he likes the biscuits.

When the cones are finished, the twins go over to their father and crawl all over him until he realizes they're there and it's time to go.

Then they all get into the truck again and start for home. This time Amber steers and Ashley works the pedals, and Hudson looks out the window at the soybean fields and pine woods going by in the fading summer twilight.

When he sees a herd of deer, six or seven does and their fawns grazing at the edge of the field by the woods in the twilight, he makes the girls stop the car and they all stare at the deer. The deer stare back, like it's a contest, a Mexican standoff, to see who can look the longest. After a few minutes, a big 16-point buck comes along and urges the herd back into the darkening thicket. There are a few graceful deer movements and then it's as if they were never there; just a few quivering branches and then, nothing. That's what deer are like, Hudson says, the last magical animals.

At that moment, he has a new thought; that he will remember this moment forever; his daughters as children, the bright orange trumpet vine that crawls along the fence, the distant sound of a red-wing blackbird, those deer at twilight on this road. He folds this away in his memory like an heirloom, something to be brought out for special occasions. Not for the first time, he is awed by this circumstance of being a father, by the idea that children are hostages to fortune. That we all must do the best we can with what we have, whether we are deer or daddies. Cliches, he decides, have the terrible weight of truth.

Next, he decides, it will be time to show them how to run the boat. Celestial navigation is a good thing to know.

Helen Chappell's ''Oysterback Tales'' is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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