My daughter was 14 when I noticed she had settled into what would become her adult walk. It was no longer the carefree skip of a child, but not yet the determined gait of someone who had lost sight of magic in the world.
I don’t remember what triggered the recognition. Perhaps it was the day itself. Brilliant sunlight danced on the tender leaves of spring, and the undulating foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains held up the sky. It struck me, strolling behind her, that the unhurried, graceful walk my daughter would carry into adulthood was the essence of that day. Sadness followed pride as I realized the little girl I had carried on my shoulders would from now on carry herself.
I remember, too, following in my father’s footsteps. I would take great strides as I placed my feet in the imprints of his on the sandy shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks during summer vacation, stepping into them before the water could wash them away. I held my arms out, as if balancing on a tightrope. Growing older, I began to notice how his feet turned outward, which seemed awkward and duck-like to me. I started to modify my walk, choosing to make his style my own.
In college, none of us could afford a car. We’d walk to the local pub in groups and drink “quarter” drafts served in plastic cups. Headed home from the bar one night, a female classmate following behind me shouted, “I wish I had a porch swing like that!” implying that my walk had more of a swish to it than a man’s should. I corrected my walk again, keeping in mind that my feet should not turn out like my father’s and that my rear end should not have more of a swing than my mother’s.
It’s hard to walk naturally when you’re consumed with how not to walk.
When I began dating my future husband, Paul, I felt again like the little boy who struggled to keep up with his father on the beach. As Paul walked ahead of me, I noticed the confidence in his posture, the square shoulders, arms straight by his sides, palms always facing back, head held high, and the giant stride of his long muscular legs.
“Are those hairy little legs having a hard time keeping up?” he would turn around and ask, tilting his head and flashing a grin.
He began to take deliberately exaggerated steps. “Ah’m sorry,” he said, elongating his vowels to match his ridiculously slow pace. “Ah forgot yowah from the Sooouth.” Laughing and in love, I forgot to think about how to walk.
On a recent evening, I walked from Back Bay Station to the South End and thought about a honeymoon video Paul had taken of me, as he, uncharacteristically, trailed me. In it, I’m making my way through the lobby of an Art Deco hotel in South Beach, Miami. Some people might cringe to look at themselves walking, but I was surprised to find I rather liked what I saw — a blending of both my father’s stride and my daughter’s unhurried pace.
It was a cool evening like this when my father’s footprints were washed away for good. I held his head in my hands and my brothers sat at the foot of his bed while we counted the seconds between his final breaths. But I can still hear his footsteps in the click of my shoes on this brick sidewalk, on these streets laid out by ghosts. As the lamplight illuminates the delicate leaves, I walk comfortably along these avenues I have come to know so well.
I have finally settled into my adult walk.
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