Beacon’s Riverfront Park looks different today, as if we’d been away for years, though it has only been a month or two since our last visit. They’ve erected a new sign in honor of Pete and Toshi Seeger, for whom the park is now named. The sign stands in front of the volleyball pits, which, today, have a full battalion of twentysomethings playing in them—the men shirtless, the women in tank tops and gym shorts, the laughter boisterous and the banter refreshingly unprofane. When you were younger and I took you here every summer weekend, you used the volleyball pits as a sandbox—you wanted to dig “bolt holes,” like you’d seen on Meerkat Manor—and were always disappointed if they were occupied. Today, you don’t seem to notice.
“I want to check something, okay?” And you’re off, running, toward the river. You probably want to see whether it’s high or low tide—if low, a large bank of rocks will protrude above the surface, and you like stepping out onto them, at least before you get to the ones too slippery with river slime. I’m watching you run: long strides, arms swinging in symmetry, something confident about the way you move. On your way, you pass a group of toddlers, and I’m astonished at how you tower over them and by the contingencies that shadow their every step.
Did you really move like that? You did. There is no more apt word for it than “toddle” (a drunk totters, a child toddles). These tiny people, even when moving on surfaces as flat as kitchen floors, jostle like pickups on potholed back roads. When you could toddle reliably, I’d let you run from the car to the play structures in the park’s center, while I followed. I’m seeing that little girl running away in my mind’s eye now; I’ll probably see her when my time comes.
And the even smaller girl: When your overnights settled into a regular pattern, I started manning them. At 2 a.m., like a metronome, you needed a change and a bottle—reasonable demands. I’d sit with you in my lap until you had settled back off to sleep. Your room smelled like Burt’s Bees; your still-wiry hair felt like a texture from some other world. The only sound was the low ticking of a clock. These were the most peaceful moments of my life.
Almost since you’ve been talking, you’ve been fascinated with the idea of the “older girl.” We spent slow winter afternoons at Jumpin’ Jakes, a play space filled with inflatable “bounce houses.” You were four years old when you emerged from one, breathless, eyes bright, and exclaimed: “Daddy! I played with an older girl!” The girl in question, still bouncing, looked back and smiled. She was about as old as you are now.
Sometimes I calculate what portion of your life I’ve missed. Before you were in school, you went with your mother down to Florida in February, to stay a while with your grandparents. I never found a way to join the two of you there. Every August, it was off to Michigan, to your grandparents’ regular home. I did make those trips, but only for a small portion of the days. In recent years, you’ve gone away to summer camp for several weeks, and once every quarter, I spend a week in a New York hotel, working late. If I average out the vacation weeks annually and add the weeks lost to work and summer camp, it’s coming up on a year’s worth of time.
I catch up with you near the rocks. Your mind has shifted to other things, and we circle the park together. I note the brand-new benches, bolted to concrete so they can’t be removed by cretins, and apparently graffiti-proof. They look out on expansive views of the Hudson River and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, whose massiveness never fails to surprise me. Years from now, I muse, when I’m coming here alone, I’ll sit and think. The angst that stalks the thought is my fear that, when that time comes, my mind will go blank.
You surprise me by rushing over to the two play structures, which stand adjacent to one another on a soft landing pad of wood chips. The monkey bars are about all that’s left for you here; everything else is too small. You’re patient with the young children climbing about, blocking your way with uncertainties. You seem to be in a wistful mood, even nostalgic—is that possible?—as you laughingly go down these slides, some hardly longer than you are tall. I’m remembering how one seemed always to act as a basin for rainwater and leaves, and how some goon once chopped a hole into the “bumpy slide,” rendering it unusable for about a year, before the city got it fixed. And I’m remembering the first time you went down the bumpy slide, and how the look of alarm in your eyes dissolved to delight, prompting the most-repeated word of your early years: “Again.”
You loved this place so much, you even asked me to bring you here in December, when everything you put your hands on was cold to the touch. We were alone; sensible people had conceded the season. When the mid-afternoon gloaming descended, I told you that it was time to go home, but you pretended not to hear. So I pretended to leave, walking some ways to the parking lot. It didn’t work—you may not have even noticed the gambit—but when I returned, you ran to me and pressed your frigid hands inside my coat, and I carried you to the car, in the fashion we had in those days.
It’s scarcely believable that you’ll be ten, “double digits,” as you say. You’re an older girl. The little ones look to you, and someday I will, too: even now, you’re off and running, back toward the water, and I follow.
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring. He and his family live in Beacon, New York.