She bounds down the stairs of the beach house we live in, all blonde curls and teeth grinning, blue eyes shining with laughter. Just like her ma, I think. And speak of the devil, here she comes now too, baby boy on her hip. The little girl comes up to me, laughter replaced with curiosity. She looks at me for a moment; I can see the gears turning. "Daddy, why are you stirring with a paddle?" she asks, in perfect English, none of the southern twang like her parents. None of the grammatical or pronunciation mistakes one would usually expect from a five year old.
I look down at the sawed off wooden boat paddle currently immersed in frothing greenish water. "Because, Lily, it makes collards taste better."
"Okay, daddy," she says and she runs off to play with that neighbor boy.
I stand outside again in the cold winter air. It is warm by the burner, though, and the steam coming up from the pot thaws my freezing fingers. Out comes my little girl again, a big girl, daddy, she reminds me. I'm in first grade now. The large pink bow perched precariously on top of her head contrasts greatly with the gray steps, the gray concrete, the gray sky. "Daddy," she says again, "why do you cook with a boat paddle?"
"Collard greens always taste better when they're cooked with a boat paddle, Lily," I reply. She seems satisfied with the answer, nodding her head, bow flopping all over the place.
"Okay, daddy," she says and she runs off again, neighbor boy waiting for her at the end of the pavement.
It's New Year's Day again, and I stand outside alone, stirring my collard greens. Lily comes down the stairs, clutching the banister, hanging on for dear life. "Dad," she says once she's reached the bottom of the stairs. "Why did we have to move houses?" I can tell she's been trying to ask me this for a long time. She's in third grade now, full of questions that her mother doesn't always have the answers to. This must be one of those questions. So Celia's probably sent her down here to ask me. But it's not one of those questions like "Daddy, can I go to Molly's house and play?" This is one of those questions that I don't have the answer to either.
"Well, Lily, we had to move. Besides, this house is better, right? Now we live right by the water. We can go out in the boat whenever you want," I say, trying to appease her.
"But I miss my friends…" she said quietly.
"You mean that neighbor boy? He can still come visit. We'll call his mom and y'all can play together. Besides," I say, "you'll make new friends here."
"But there's no one here my age."
"You can always play with your brother," I point out.
"Sheldon's no fun. He bit me the other day." She pouted. She poked her lips out and put on her "angry face" and stared at me. I just stirred my collards, adding salt and acting like there wasn't a little girl glaring at me. "Dad?" she finally says again.
"Mm hmm?" I ask, trying to pretend like I am concentrating on stirring. Two strokes clockwise, one counterclockwise.
"Why do you cook collards with a boat paddle?"
"It makes them taste better, you know that."
"Yeah…" she says, walking off. "I know…"
I've resurrected the iron boiler pot, and stand miserably, stirring the green broth. Lily comes down the stairs, walking with her shoulders hunched and her head down. "Dad…" she says quietly when she finally reaches me, pulling her hands out of her jacket pockets and sticking them over the steam. "Why are you and mom getting a divorce?"
"Well, Lily," I begin, unsure what to say. This is another one of those questions that I don't necessarily have the answer to. "Your mom and I decided that it would be best for us if she and I didn't live together anymore."
She looks at me as if she is on the verge of tears and steps away from the pot. "Ok…" she says, walking away. We should have waited, I muse. She's only in fifth grade, her whole world is changing. We're not making this any easier. "Dad?" she looks back and says. "Why are you still cooking with that boat paddle?"
"Lily, we have this discussion every year. You know why. It makes them taste better." She turned and walked away, almost tripping over her feet trying to escape. I didn't mean to snap at her.
I'm stirring collards again. Lily comes outside looking very festive in a tight black shirt and those peg-leg jeans (skinny jeans, she corrects me). She's wearing contacts now that turn her eyes silvery-gray. Her eyes are covered in makeup, charcoal black against silver. I thought I told Celia to tell her to stop dressing like that. She doesn't look like my daughter.
"Bill?" she asks. I can barely tell it's a question for the lack of emotion in her voice. I refuse to acknowledge her until she calls me by my proper title. She doesn't notice and continues on. "Did you leave mom so you could marry Ginny?"
"No." I lie straight through my teeth. But I don't want Ginny to come down during some heartfelt discussion about their mother. That never ends well.
"Still using the boat paddle?" she asks, again without emotions.
"Yep," I respond, trying to end the conversation. "It makes them taste better." She walks away.
Lily comes down the stairs. It's been five years since she and Sheldon stayed with me over New Year's. I can understand why, the "new family" didn't really get along well with the "old family."
"Bill?" She's dyed her hair now, dark brown. She's lost the silver contacts for violet ones, but she still doesn't look like my blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl.
"Are you and Ginny divorcing? I noticed she's not here."
I sigh. These questions. "Yes, we are. I should never have left your mom and you and Shel. And I'm sorry. But I'm trying to fix it."
"You can't," she whispers quietly. I pretend not to hear. "So, still cooking with that thing?" She points at the water-stained paddle in my hands.
"Of course," I reply. "It makes collard greens taste better."
She smiles at me, the first one I've seen in a long time. "Ok," she says and walks back upstairs.
Lily, now twenty-two, walks down the stairs to our old beach house, with her "fiancée" as she calls him, following behind her.
"Hey Dad," she says. I'm surprised. She hasn't called me dad since she was thirteen. "I just wanted to show Chris here what our tradition is." She smiles, looking more like my little girl than she has in years. Her hair is back to blonde, darker now then it was when she was little, cut short to her shoulders. She still wears the grey contacts, but it fits better now; she looks more sophisticated.
Chris, who is a head taller than Lily and opposite in every way, looks over at me with his brown eyes. "Hello, Mr. Bill. How are you?"
"I'm good," I say, clasping his tanned hand in mine. "How are you?"
"I'm great," he replies with a smile and puts an arm around my little girl, pulling her close. He's done that since they got engaged, like he's rubbing the fact that she will soon be his in my face. "Sir, if you don't mind me asking," he says after a few minutes, "why are you cooking with a boat paddle?"
"Because it makes collards taste better!" I say, surprised to hear Lily chanting the mantra right along with me.
"That's the tradition," she says, winking at me and then smiling up at him. They walk off arm in arm to the ocean.
I'm standing outside again, stirring collard greens in the chilly January air. My twenty-four year old little girl comes down the stairs, six month old baby on her hip. He looks like his dad, dark black curls and round body, but with Lily's bright blue eyes and crooked smile. "Say hi to Grandpa," Lily tells him and holds his arm up to wave at me.
"Hey there buddy!" I say, holding my arms out to take him. "How's my favorite grandson doing?"
"He's your only grandson, Dad," Lily reminds me.
"I know," I say, holding him up in front of me so he can look at me. He gives me a blank stare and a little spittle comes out of his fat lips. His chubby cheeks are the color of roses from the cold and I hold him to my chest. "How are you doing?" I ask Lily.
She nods and says "Well, and you?"
I choose to not reply and ask her another question instead. "You and Chris getting any sleep or is this little guy keeping you up? You know I'd be happy to take care of him if you need a break."
"He's not a problem, Dad. He sleeps through the night most of the time. But he may be making a trip to Grandpa's for the weekend once he gets a little older."
"Okay," I say, handing him back to her.
"Do you know why Grandpa cooks with a boat paddle?" she asks him. "It's because he can't cook anything else."
She laughs, and before she can whisk my grandson away and corrupt him I say, "No, it's because collard greens always taste better this way, don't let her tell you otherwise."
She smiles at me and then looks at him. "Come on, Will, let's go find Daddy, hmm?" she says and walks away.