With a One-Year-Old, All the World’s Edges Are Sharp

The best we can do is herd her from the worst of it.

Zach Bowman Odyssey
Beth Bowman

Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.

Part 59
Bowman's Odyssey

In another six months, our daughter will be two, and already her tantrums are growing, her cries twisting from an earnest wail to a pointed shriek that sets a rage in me. She has my temper, and what starts as some small frustration builds to a fresh fury as she finds herself unable to communicate with us. Beth is patient, talking to her in a calm, collected voice. I am not.

There’s more than a little congruity in our situation. I need her to understand that this is not acceptable behavior, but have no way to tell her so. There’s not a common tongue between us, just jagged bits of comprehension and emotion. My impulse is to raise my voice, but doing so only frightens her further, stokes her frantic, piercing screams. Beth gives me a look befitting someone who just tried to get his daughter to be quiet by shouting at her. If I thought I had plumbed the depths of idiocy before, I was wrong.

The truck never feels smaller. Never more confined, no more dangerous a place to lose hold of your anger. I shove my feet into my boots and storm out to the sound of ever-greater cries, into the air sharp with pine and heavy with the last drops of a passing storm.

Beth Bowman

I wish I could tell you how our daughter has changed. How these six months have grown her. She was a crawling thing when we left Knoxville. All dirty hands and red knees, her pink Carhartts scuffing over concrete and gravel and grass, through leaf litter and ferns and flowers. She had no words; just coos and squeals of glee. Cries of pain or sorrow or rage. It was a language we learned, her mother and I.

This country has been her nursery. She learned to walk not on the soft and accommodating carpet of our living room but on the hard-packed sand of the Atlantic coast. Refined her steps over the wild terrain of 22 different states since, shuffling over brittle Mississippi clay and the raw, sunset stones of Arizona and Utah alike.

Now, she walks on her own. Wanders about on unsteady legs, wobbling but shunning any helping hand. Scrambles over rocks and moss and logs, eager for the challenge. She’s a climber, too, the camper her personal jungle gym, and she could scale from floor to top bunk long before she was confident enough to stagger from one parent to the next.

It’s impossible to childproof this life. I can’t shield her pale skin from every scratch and bruise. All the world’s edges are sharp. The best we can do is herd her from the worst of it. Try to teach her why we don’t go rummaging through cupboards or walking in roads, neither abandoned dirt nor busy city asphalt, without holding someone’s hand.

She stops my heart a hundred times a day. Teetering towards stairs or falling forward on all fours, skittering over gravel. There’s half a moment, an instant when we both wait to see how bad it is. Most of the time, she stands up with an “Oof,” and keeps going. Wobbling forever on, unphased.

I’ve made some adjustments to the truck to accommodate her expanding world. Spent a long, hot afternoon in the Florida Keys running a rasp over our aluminum steps, rounding off the razor edges wherever I could. And I bought a sheath for our axe. It was impossible to imagine our daughter being tall enough to catch her tender head on the downturned blade when I bolted the thing to the side of the truck back in Virginia. But here we are, an eye blink later, her thick red curls bobbing within kissing distance of that cruel cast iron, flirting with a scar she’d carry all her life. We’ve come a long way from shoving plastic covers into electrical outlets.

She’s talking, too. Short bursts of half-formed words. Some are easy: Tree, bird, sit, water, milk. Others less so. I find myself wrestling with the hidden complexity of it. How do I tell her to attach “thank you” to gratefulness? To that warm and humbling glow in your gut when a stranger acts selflessly on your behalf? How do I teach my daughter the meaning of “sorry” without walking her through the hollows of sorrow? Of remorse? Of regret? This could not be a more necessary lesson, but I can hardly stomach the thought of her facing those dark and coiled emotions.

Beth Bowman

Beth calms Lucy down. The forest goes quiet, but the thick thread of frustration is still taut across my shoulders. Not at her, but at myself. Because my own memories of early childhood aren’t images or emotions, but of darkness and unintelligible shouting. Dim voices that grow bright with incomprehensible anger, then wane again. Over and over.

I’m wearing those sounds thin in my head when Beth opens the camper door and asks me to come near. I expect her to chide me. To curse me for raising my voice at our daughter. I deserve it. The two of them are standing there when I round the corner.

“Lucy, can you say sorry to daddy?”

Her cheeks are still flushed. Her brows furrowed with confusion. Her brown eyes wet with tears.

“Surry. Surry.”

She reaches out for a hug, and stops my heart.

Beth Bowman