I don’t want to curb Natalie’s enthusiasm in any way; so when she started talking about expenses, I just smiled as if I’d invented money. When she asked if she could use my antique automobile to drive her and her new husband, Matt, from the wedding to the reception, I simply said: “I’ll just have to get it out of storage early next year.” And when she asked if her little sisters could be flower girls, I said: “Of course.”
I’d do most anything for Natalie, and she knows it. But when she asked, “Dad, do you still have that wagon I had when I was a kid?” I hesitated.
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, I was thinking I’d like someone to pull Vivi Anne down the aisle in it.” (Vivi Anne is Natalie’s baby).
I thought for a long moment and said: “Well, it’s kind of beat up. Don’t you want to use a new wagon?”
“No. I want to use that one. Can I?”
I paused again and said, “I suppose.”
“And I want to paint it pink.”
My heart stopped.
When my heart began ticking again, I took a big gulp of air into my lungs. My face got warm and sweat beads formed on my forehead. I wiped them off slowly with the back of my hand.
I decided to ignore the situation. I’d pretend she never asked for the wagon. Maybe she’d get caught up in her wedding plans and forget all about it. That’s when she started snooping around my garage.
“Where is that wagon?” she asked.
“Um, ah, I don’t really know where it is anymore.”
“Well, here it is,” she said.
And there it was — underneath some blankets and folding chairs, lined with sand, covered in cobwebs, with rusty wheels and peeling paint.
“Can I take it?” she asked.
The last thing in the world that a soon-to-be-bride wants to hear is “no” — so I just said: “Y’know what, Honey? I’m just not comfortable with you taking the wagon.”
“Well, it holds some sentimental value to me. Listen, your wedding is a long way off — let’s just leave the wagon here for now so I can think it over, OK?”
“I guess,” she said, but I know she didn’t understand.
It’s just an old Radio Flyer Town & Country wagon. It has a wood bottom and wooden side panels that lift off for easy loading and unloading. I’ve had the wagon for more than 20 years. I got it when my daughters, Natalie and Hillary, were small.
I pulled that red wagon many miles with a little curly dark-haired girl and a curly blonde-headed girl inside it. On weekday mornings, I’d pull the girls to school in the wagon with their backpacks and lunchboxes. I’d say goodbye, and pull the empty wagon home. In the afternoon, I’d pull the empty wagon back to school, pick them up and haul them home.
In the summertime, I pulled Natalie and Hillary all over our neighborhood. I’d grab the handle behind my back with both hands and lug them to the grocery store to pick out Nacho Lunchables and microwave popcorn. I pulled them to the video rental store to pick out movies like “Ernest Goes To Camp.” We’d go to the ice cream shop and get bubblegum or blue moon ice cream cones. We’d visit their grandma and grandpa, leaving the wagon parked beside their back door.
When the girls got older, they’d spread a blanket across the bottom of the wagon and pull their baby dolls up and down the driveway. When I got a kitten, the girls would place her in the wagon and haul her around for as long as the cat would tolerate it. After awhile, the cat would hop out and hide under the porch.
In recent years, the old Radio Flyer has been pushed to a dark corner of the garage. My children grew up and I started a new family. We got a new wagon that’s made of molded plastic with wobbly wheels. It doesn’t have the character of the Town & Country, but my wife prefers the new one because it has child safety straps and cup holders.
I don’t have many things left from my first family: a shoebox full of photographs, a handful of elementary school art projects, a partial set of “Muppet” jelly jars and that old wagon. My ex-wife took a lot of the girls’ stuff, and then the girls themselves confiscated things, and garage sales consumed the rest. But for some unknown reason, I haven’t been able to part with that wagon.
I haven’t spoken to Natalie about the wagon since the day I told her she couldn’t take it. However, I know she’s going to ask me about it again. And when she does, I’ll tell her she can use it, but she can’t keep it and she can’t paint it pink. I’d love to see my granddaughter sitting in that wagon in the same place her mother sat.
Now I know why I have such an affection for that wagon. Natalie’s just going to have to understand that, when I see that wagon, I can still picture a curly dark-haired girl and a curly blonde girl inside it.
— By Grant Berry, Tribune Community Columnist