“Is Daddy Going To Be With Us All The Time?”
It was two days after Debbie had taken her to Bullock’s department store to see Santa that Carrie wrote the letter. She came into the warm rose and white living room with the paper clutched in her tight little fist.
“Mama, I need a ’tamp.”
“Stamp,” Debbie corrected automatically. She reached down for her little girl. “What for, lovey?”
Carrie, who had more important things to do than stand around being hugged, wiggled away. “To mail my letter,” she said importantly. “Here!”
Debbie accepted the piece of paper, started to unfold it. then stopped. “May I read it?” she asked politely.
Five months ago, she would have read it, assuming it was readable, without a thought. Maybe it was never too early to teach a child about privacy, but if she’d slipped up once then, Eddie could have put in a word. She could almost hear him saying to Carrie, “We always ask before we read somebody else’s mail, honey.”
But Eddie was no longer on hand. Anything Debbie failed to teach, Carrie might never learn. So she was being very careful indeed these days.
Now, with Carrie’s permission, she studied the paper. Fourteen X’s, some wiggles, and then at the bottom, in a long, proud row, six big, scraggly E’s—the one letter Carrie knew how to print.
And she had learned it last week, from Eddie.
Debbie had found errands to do, on the day Eddie came for their daughter. By the time she returned, Carrie was back, too, rosy and contented on the living room rug.
“Hi!” Debbie had called out, lifting Todd out of his carriage and into the playpen. Then, carefully, “How is Daddy? Did you have a nice time?”
Carrie nodded vigorously. “Look! Daddy showed me how!”
She was printing “E” across a pad. “Now I can write,” she announced. Her chubby little
fingers gripped the pencil as if she were afraid it would run away. Her hand moved with infinite care. First a line down, then a bottom, then a top. Then a middle—well, almost in the middle. Her face glowed with pride.
“That’s wonderful, darling,” Debbie had cried. “How did you happen to think of it?”
But Carrie was too busy to answer. And suddenly Debbie’s, joy faded. Probably Carrie didn’t even know how. Only Eddie knew. Only Eddie. And now, forever, there’d be no more cozy talks at night, cuddled together in the great big chair—the chair they’d bought because that was the only way to sit in it, cuddled together—no more telling each other what each one had thought or had seen the children do.
All that was in the past now.
And so, Debbie had thought with sudden bitterness, all our lives there’ll be things I don’t know about Carrie and Todd, because Eddie will hold the keys.
It was a hard thought, not calculated to help in what everyone kept calling her “wonderful adjustment.” She had pushed it away. Now, as she stared at Carrie’s scribble to Santa Claus, it came back. And with it came another thought, even worse, because it carried so many memories—of wrapping paper and secret shopping trips, of presents hidden in corner closets, or whispering and laughter and surprise, of the first wonderful Christmas after Carrie was born.
But Christmas was coming again, and she couldn’t put it off any longer.
“Carrie,” she said slowly, “honey, have you thought what you want to send Daddy for Christmas?”
Across the room, Carrie looked up, puzzled. Finally, she shook her head.
“Well, you think about it,” Debbie said. “Maybe a nice sweater. Would you rather get red or blue?”
You mustn’t give a child too many choices, she thought. If you do, she won’t understand.
But the frown deepened on Carrie’s round face. She rubbed her hand on her forehead. And all of a sudden Debbie knew that her daughter was struggling with her child’s mind against some problem bigger than red-or-blue, something much too big to solve alone. She almost ran to Carrie. She caught her up in her arms.
“What is it, baby? What’s wrong? Tell Mamma.”
And into her hair, her face hidden, Carrie whispered, “Mamma, is Daddy going to be with us all the time? Isn’t he going to be with us any more?”
For a moment, Debbie stood quietly, breathlessly still. So it had come at last, the question she had been dreading more than anything else since the night Eddie left home. It had come at last and it had to be answered because Carrie needed to know. But how? What was she to say?
“Someday she’ll grow up and read it in the papers, won’t she?” a friend had said to Debbie. “She might as well know right now that her Daddy has left her.”
“No,” Debbie had cried. But afterwards she began to wonder. Mightn’t it save anguish later if Carrie’s heart belonged all to her? She could be mother and father to her children if she tried. But still, even if she were to tell Carrie the truth, what was the truth? How could she put into red-blue terms things she herself didn’t understand?
Carefully, she carried Carrie back toward the sofa. “That’s a hard question to answer,” she began. “You see—your Daddy . . .” Her voice trailed away. Carrie lifted her head and looked at her mother. But Debbie’s eyes were not on her child. They were fixed somewhere else, somewhere far away. And what they saw was not the present but a moment out of the past.
It had been a sunny day. The sky was a shimmering blue, there wasn’t a trace of smog in the California morning air, and there were still two weeks before school opened again. A perfect day.
And yet, right in the middle of the wonderful day, sifting on her front step—a little girl named Mary Frances Reynolds was crying as if her heart would break. Even her pigtails were limp with misery.
She had been sitting there twenty minutes when her mother came up the street, arms full with the day’s shopping. At the sound of her footsteps, Mary Frances lumped up to catch her and hold her, and bury her face in her skirt.
“Baby, what’s wrong?”
“It’s not fair,” Mary Frances sobbed. “It’s not fair. . . .”
Mrs. Reynolds took her into the house, washed her face, smoothed her hair, till the tears stopped coming and the eyes took on a hopeful look. After all, Mama could solve anything.
“Mama,” Mary Frances said at last, “they—they won’t let me play with them. And it’s not fair. I can play almost as good.”
Mary Frances gulped. “All those—those old boys. An’—and Bill, too. He said I couldn’t.”
“Your brother Bill? What did he say you couldn’t play?”
Mary Frances’ eyes brimmed over with tears again. “Football!’ she wailed.
Then she reached for her mother’s hand. “I wouldn’t care, I wouldn’t even care—only I don’t know why. I’m nearly as good as they are, honest. It isn’t fair. Why won’t they?”
Mrs. Reynolds considered. “Well, because boys are just like that. Anyway, you don’t want to play football, honey. It’s too rough.”
“But I do,” Mary Frances sobbed. “I do. Why won’t they let me?”
Mrs. Reynolds stood up. She reached for her little girl’s hand “I’ll tell you what,” she said finally. “Never having been a little boy, I can’t tell you. But if you’ll dry your eyes and come help me fix lunch—when your Daddy comes home, you can ask him.”
“Oh,” Mary Frances said, her eyes wide. “Oh, sure.”
At twelve-thirty her father came home At five to one, Mrs. Reynolds disappeared tactfully into the kitchen, and Mary Frances turned to her father. “Daddy, why—?”
Her father listened gravely to her tale of woe. Then he began to talk. To tell her about little boys, about how they really did like girls only they were too young to know it yet, about how some day they would be proud to be seen with Mary Frances but right now they were afraid She other boys would call them sissy. Then he stood up. “I have an idea, sweetie. The other boys couldn’t call them sissy for playing with you if you were the best football player on the block.”
“No,” Mary Frances said doubtfully. “But—I’m, well, I’m not that good.”
“What you need,” said her father, “is some practice”
He didn’t have the easiest job in the world; he often liked to take a nap after lunch. But for the rest of the summer, he got up from lunch every day with a football under his arm, and in the back yard of the Reynolds’ house—he taught his little girl to play.
The strange thing was—she never did become the best football player on the block. She never did get, except on very rare occasion, to play with the boys. And somehow it didn’t matter at all. Maybe because she understood a little better now why she couldn’t. Maybe because school began again and her life was crowded with other things. But mostly because when her Daddy was there, to play with her, to talk to her, to tell her things—she didn’t need anything else. Those were the very best two weeks of her whole childhood—and it didn’t have anything to do with playing football!
“Just because he was there,” Debbie Reynolds found herself whispering out loud, her eyes wet with sudden tears.
“What?” Carrie demanded. “What, Mommy?”
Her voice brought Debbie out of the past. She stared down at her own daughter–only a few years younger than she had been when Bill wouldn’t let her play “But it’s not the same,” she said My father came home every day. Eddie—Eddie’s given all that up. How do I know he’ll be around when Carrie needs him? Maybe it would be better if she didn’t hope and take a chance of being disappointed.”
Carry gazed around the room. “Mommy, who you talking to?”
“To myself, darling,” Debbie said. She swept Carrie into her arms. “Come on. I’ll make you some lunch.”
But all day, as she went about the business of living—the strange, lonely business of living without a husband—it haunted her. Mommy, isn’t Daddy going to be with us always?
I have to tell her ‘no,’ she thought. It would be a lie to say ‘yes.’ You shouldn’t ever lie to a child. I’ll make it up to them alone.
But the memories kept flooding in. Silly things, little things. Herself and her mother, waving goodbye to Daddy and Bill as they went out to some forgotten place. She had been a little disappointed at not going—and yet, it made her feel somehow like a woman instead of a child to be left, like a woman, at home—to see her menfolks off. Other things. Bill’s face, flushed with pride, saying to a friend, “Wantcha to meet my Dad. . . .” Her mother’s voice. “Wait a while. Daddy will fix it when he comes home.” Her loneliness when her father went away on a short trip, the feeling that nothing was really right till he came back. Her own voice, chanting through the house, “Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home!”
And then, abruptly, the memories stopped. There was something wrong with that last one—something—odd. For a moment Debbie Reynolds stood stock still, trying to place it.
And then she knew.
That high, happy voice out of the past hadn’t been hers at all. It was Carrie’s voice, her own baby’s voice—and she had sung that way when Eddie came home from a night club tour or a business trip or even from a poker game—“Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home!” And with it—Todd’s joyous laughter, the rosy little arms stretched out to meet Eddie, and Eddie himself, his face alight with happiness, stooping for his babies, swinging them into the air, digging in his pockets for presents, asking, “Did you miss me, hey? Glad to have me back?” It might have been a lie that Eddie was living all that time with her, Debbie. But his love for his babies had been no lie—no lie at all.
And now the memories were different, suddenly. Eddie’s voice instead of her father’s, calling twice a day on the long distance phone: “Has that tooth of Todd’s started to come through yet? Did you try rubbing his gums some more? How’s Carrie’s skinned knee? If she’s still up, let me say hello. I can’t go to sleep without saying good night to my baby. . . .” Eddie changing Todd, feeding him, laughing at pureed carrots on his new jacket, Eddie leaning over a crib to sing his child to sleep, or having the phone placed nearby so he could do it from three thousand miles away.
They were good memories. And they had, suddenly, a very special meaning. They meant that her children, Carrie and Todd, were used to living with separation as she, Debbie, had never been. What would have broken her heart entirely was something they could get used to—if she handled it right. They could still have their father, still leave her free to be only what she knew how to be—a mother. There could, if she would let it be a man’s hands, a man’s voice in their lives, there could be Todd saying with pride someday: “This is my father.”
Or there could be loneliness and shame and disappointment.
There could be Eddie’s heart, broken—and her own, torn with bitterness shared with her babies.
And it wasn’t necessary—not at all. Because her children hadn’t been lost and miserable when Eddie was away, only happy when he came home. And they could go on being happy, just that way.
Debbie Reynolds looked at her watch. In fifteen minutes, Carrie would be getting up from her nap. In fifteen minutes Debbie would go upstairs to her and put her arms around her, and answer the question that had been so hard—and now was suddenly so easy. In words that a child could understand, she would tell her:
“Darling, you remember when Daddy used to go away on a trip? But no matter where he was, he went on loving you and thinking about you and waiting to see you again. Well, it’s the same way now. Daddy isn’t going to live in this house anymore. But he’ll come to see you, he’ll sing to you, he’ll love you and Todd just like always. Because nothing can ever change that. You wanted to know if Daddy’s going to be with you always. Well, the answer is yes. Because it isn’t where a person is that counts. It’s where his heart is. When you have that, you have everything.”
Maybe some of it would be over Carrie’s head. Maybe she wouldn’t understand it all. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the answer would be ‘yes’—and it wouldn’t be a lie. The rest could come later, with time and patience—and for the sake of her own love for her father, for the good that she wanted for Carrie and Todd—she would see that what came later would be free from bitterness and hurt.
With a lighter heart than she had had in days, Debbie Reynolds turned to go to the nursery, to wake her daughter from her nap—to answer the most important question in the world.
BE SURE TO SEE DEBBIE IN M-G-M’S “THE P MATING GAME” AND EDDIE ON “THE EDDIE FISHER SHOW,” ALTERNATE TUESDAYS, 8 TO 9 P.M. E.S.T., ON NBC-TV.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JANUARY 1959