For my youngest daughter, a pinky promise is the greatest of all vows. She lives by them.
So when she held out her pinky to me at the end of last summer, I should have known that she would finally let me teach her how to surf like her older brother and sister.
This would, of course, complete my dream of becoming a family of surfers who together would travel the world in search of good waves. And, maybe, the three of them would go on to compete professionally or become paid soul surfers like I had wanted to do as a kid.
At the time of making her pinky promise, however, my youngest daughter, then seven years old, hedged her vow.
“I have to learn how to swim first,” she said.
Now eight years old, she has learned to swim, but not well enough to brave the surf on her own.
That didn’t stop her – or me – on our first days this summer on the coast of Argentina. She came out with me in the shore break with her bodyboard, more confident than last year, but still cautious, her skinny body like a rod of nervous electricity.
She caught a wave on her bodyboard, a first step toward advancing to a surfboard. She rode into the shore and turned around with a bright smile.
Then on her second wave, she wiped out. Her belly wrapped around the board in the very same way that had turned her off surfing the previous summer.
My mouth dropped as I watched her come up spluttering, her face expressionless as if she was deciding whether to cry or brush it off, give up or get on with it.
She looked over at me and said, “I’m fine.”
I smiled, broadly.
And she said, “Let’s try your board.”
So out we went on my longboard, and she let me push her into a few small waves, the both of us lying on the board together and riding toward shore.
After three waves, she said, “That’s enough,” and in she went to play on the beach while her brother, sister and I surfed.
I thought, maybe next summer we’ll all be out in the surf together, not this summer. As the days went on and the youngest declined my offers to take her out, I became more certain that it would be next summer. Christmas came and went, and my son got a new surfboard as a present. Friends came to visit, and my youngest still didn’t surf again, save a time on the bodyboard with her sister.
A week after Christmas I took my son’s old surfboard into the surf shop to sell it, as my wife and I had discussed. I dropped it at the shop before driving to Buenos Aires for a week of work, while my family remained at the beach.
After 10 minutes on the highway, however, my wife called me frantically.
Neither of us had known what had been transpiring between our son and youngest daughter, but amongst them they had agreed that the old surfboard would be handed down. It would become the youngest’s board, and she had already been plotting to get her guts up to learn how to surf on her own board.
“But it may have sold already,” I told my wife.
She called the shop and sorted things out, and from the highway it all became clear to me about what had happened, of how my youngest slowly builds up her courage. She doesn’t throw herself into the surf but takes her time to get up her nerve, suss things out, acclimate and test herself, mind and body. But all the while she is projecting herself forward, envisioning herself carrying her brother’s surfboard as her own.
Her brother is, no doubt, proud to be a part of all this, to make her happy in the surf, like he is becoming as he continues to get better on his new board. He understands his sister, maybe better than I do. That’s because I forgot that she lives by her vows. A pinky promise for her is, of course, a pinky promise.