Column: Tangled-up parent may need new perspective

By SCOTT SAALMAN

At 13, my daughter has become incommunicado.

I grasp for anything no matter how cryptic (it’s always cryptic) to understand what’s going on in her world. On the toes of her Converse All Stars, with a magic marker, she has written “NEW” on the left shoe and “PERSPECTIVE” on the right: NEW PERSPECTIVE.

My questions result in a moan, followed by a blank stare, followed by a closed door. Perhaps she writes on her other shoes during these times. She’s a teen now.

I try hard to keep my feelings in check on this matter, but lately a Harry Chapin song has been affecting me like kryptonite, weakening my sturdy stance to a near Slinky-state, causing a salty puddle of tears to form at my toes.

No, not Harry’s 1974 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” though I do have a son whose life zipped from newborn to 18 as if on high-speed rail. He, however, has never asked to play catch, borrow the car keys (he has his own car) or stated he wants to be like me — wisely so (I don’t want to be like me either).

It’s another of his songs — a non-hit — that tugs the heartstrings, this one for parents of newly teen daughters. It’s called “Tangled Up Puppet.”

“There was a time that you curled up in my lap like a child/You’d cling to me smiling, your eyes wide and wild/Now you slip through my arms, wave a passing hello/Twist away and toss a kiss, laughing as you go.”

“Harry liked the song because our daughter Jaime was changing at 13 from a pal to closing her door and writing in her diary,” recalls Sandy, Harry’s widow. A poet, she wrote the lyrics just as she did for “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

Their daughter Jen Chapin recently put me in touch with Sandy. Harry died when Jen was 10. Jen, 42, follows in her famous father’s footsteps as a singer-songwriter, but she does so independently of her dad’s vast recording catalog. Still, she has covered a handful of Harry’s songs, the few that fit her as a person and performer.

I heard Jen’s “Tangled Up Puppet,” which was recorded live last December during a tribute concert celebrating Harry’s 70th birthday. I was driving on first listen and wished my eyes were equipped with windshield wipers. I nearly had to pull over.

“You used to say, read me a story and sing me songs of love/For you were Princess Paradise on the wings of a dove/Now I chase you and tease you, trying to remake you my own/But you just turn away and say, please leave me alone.”

“It’s one of the better Harry songs,” says Jen. “It wasn’t written about me. It is about Jaime. I was never a teenager with my dad. I didn’t have that relationship with him like ”˜Go away, you are bothering me.’ The song is about a biological pull, an ancient developmental stage where daughters need to assert their independence. It’s a great song.”

“You are a drawer full of makeup and rinses and things/You keep changing your moods like your earrings and rings/But tonight while we played tag for five minutes in the yard/Just for a moment I caught you off guard.”

“It’s special for me to point out that mom wrote that,” says Jen. “It’s a great example of Harry and Sandy, two parents, wrangling with this person together and commiserating through this collaboration. I recognize her touch, her poetry.”

“But now you write your secret poems in a room just for your dreams/You don’t find time to talk to me about the things you mean. What I mean is — I have watched you take shape from a jumble of parts/And find the grace and form of a fine work of art/Hey, you, my brand new woman, newly come into your own/Don’t you know that you don’t need to grow up all alone.”

When I first heard Harry sing the last line, I lost my breath, couldn’t speak, as if I’d been punched in the gut. Parents of daughters will understand. Jen delivered the same blow.

“Most of the words came out pretty quickly, but the last line took about 18 months to get right,” recalls Sandy. “I think I am proudest of ”˜Don’t you know that you don’t need to grow up all alone.’”
Both Chapin songs are about the passage of time between parent and child. Though heartbreaking, at least “Cat’s in the Cradle” tells us how things end. “Puppet” leaves us hanging, the daughter eternally frozen in early teen-dom, the parents perpetually tangled in strings and knots.
How does it end? I ask Sandy, whose children’s ages range from 40 to 53.

“There are many different endings,” says Sandy, “and the biggest surprise is that you never ”˜finish’ being a parent.”

I take solace in Sandy’s words at a time when I do feel finished as a parent. I stare at my daughter’s empty sneakers. “NEW PERSPECTIVE,” they say. Maybe it’s time I try them on.

Scott will appear in Will Read (and sing) For Food shows at the Dubois Library at 7 p.m. on April 22 to benefit the Friends of Dubois Library and at the Forest Park High School auditorium at 7 p.m. on April 27 to benefit the Paul Ash Endowment For Music and Arts.




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