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On Old Haunts, Daughters and Time-Travel

April 25, 2017

Prague reading 2017Recently, I not only had the privilege of performing a reading of Welcome to the Hotel Yalta for the Alchemy Double Feature at Napa Bar and Art Gallery in Prague (see above picture), but got to spend a glorious eight days in the golden city with my twelve year-old daughter, Charlotte.

The reading was on a Monday, only a day or so after we’d landed in the Czech Republic, and I aimed to offer my little girl a memorable night of friends, family, great prose and off-beat poetry. We donned our virtual Berets, and I sat her down at a long, wooden table with a big, fat Coke, shamelessly showing her off to my Prague friends. Up until that night, most of them had only seen her in pictures or heard about her exploits via social media.

Having brought Charlotte’s older brother to a similar event in Prague a couple of years earlier, I also looked forward to showing off a bit for her. Giving her a taste of what her mother does apart from driving car-pool, picking up cupcakes, and nagging the whole lot of Dougherty children to practice piano.

Chauffeur and buzz-kill are not the only descriptions I want ascribed to me – even if used affectionately.

And since Charlotte herself is a creative writer, I thought the experience would be good for her – enriching. I know I never wanted the night to end. Full, frothy mug in hand, waxing nostalgic about the “old Prague” of my twenties, I turned to my daughter at one point… and watched her yawn. She tried to cover it up, but when I pressed her, she admitted she was dying to go get a hamburger and escape the whole “booooring” scene.

You can’t please everyone – least of all your own children. And as the late playwright, dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel once said, “Work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance to succeed.”

I’m not entirely sure I made the grade on either parts.

Prague velvet

After the Alchemy Double Feature, I laid in bed – still wide awake with jet lag – and tried to envisage what the rest of our week would be like. I made a valiant effort (after several Pilsners) to recall what struck me most the first time I came to Eastern Europe – the fairytale anatomy of the buildings, the smells of dog poop and sausages, the tiny, gnome-like old ladies who pushed to the front of the line with well-earned meanness – and how it would be possible to translate my experiences and make them relevant for my daughter. 

How could I describe to her that lingering sense of otherness that comes from knowing a place as well as the geography of your own hand? And would it even matter to her if I did? I know Prague’s spirits, her hard-fought victories and crushing defeats. I know her sins. Especially her sins.

And she knows mine.

It is an intimacy that follows you around for a while. It’s not quite like the emotional hangover that comes on after bumping into a former lover. More like the act of remembering – truly remembering – a long dead friend whose absence can still be felt inside your heart chamber.

Except that my daughter has never had a lover, or been forced to navigate the loss of someone beyond an aged grandparent who she only saw a couple of times a year. She loves history, though, and has a wild imagination for its characters and exploits.

So, that was a start.

She understood when I told her that there is a time-travel aspect to visiting an old haunt. Especially a haunt that’s been around for well over a thousand years. Prague is an ancient soul, one that held me in the palm of her hand during some of my most tumultuous years. I do have a sense when I’m there, that part of me is following around the ghost of my younger self.


Prague cowboy love

Years ago, when I vowed to take each of my children to Prague on the cusps of their thirteenth birthdays  – I decided I wanted to craft an over-arching theme for our journeys. First, I took my eldest, my only son, and we had a magnificent time. We did the touristy things, of course, but we also visited my mother’s village, saw my father’s farm, which had just been sold after hundreds of years in our care, and even went to a Burlesque show.

My objective then was to bequeath a sense of family legacy to my son, a notion of honor that would launch him into young manhood.

Charlotte, however, is very different from her brother, and not just because she’s a girl. Family legacies aren’t really her thing. She wants to chart her own course and while fascinated by the past, she chafes at feeling encumbered by it. Since her infancy, she has demanded my full attention all the time, and has never been content to sit in companionable silence together. Her brother, on the other hand, could go three days without ever saying a word.

To my glowing pride, amazement and exhaustion, Charlotte squeezes every bit of juice out of any given situation. “This is my trip,” she let me know – big smile, but with hands on hips to convey she meant business.

It was daunting to re-imagine the trip for her, bring something new to it, so that it wasn’t just the same tour I’d planned with her older sibling. She wouldn’t abide that anyway, and there was no doubt in my mind that she’d be keeping a private ledger, comparing his trip to hers.

Did I mention she’s a middle child?

Nor did I want to be like the parent who drags her kid to her college town, telling cringy stories about where she puked after the “wildest Halloween party ever.” How she and her friends dressed as Van Halen and jumped off the roof of the cafeteria! Get it? Jump-ed! My daughter loves me, but I know she will never, ever think I’m cool and I have no intention of striving – in vain – to change her mind.

As I stared up at the ceiling in the dark that night after the reading, it occurred to me how little interest I had in going back and creeping down my own personal memory lane. Almost as little as my daughter had in following me there. I’ve grown up and away from the young woman I was when I called Prague home. Even if I hold great affection for that old me and some of my more colorful adventures and misadventures. They were at once fun, scary, weird, devastating and glamorous.

So, after subjecting Charlotte to my book reading, I decided to steer as clear as possible from stories of my days in theater, the hours I spent in smoky pubs talking Cold War shenanigans, my travels through the backcountry and affairs of the heart. How boooooring.

I told Charlotte instead about history, the fickle nature of politics, the centuries-old gravestones, the art and architecture that spoke not just to its own generation, but to humanity at large. Things that transcend.

In short, I endeavored to make Prague hers, ours. A place she could adopt into her heart for its own sake.

So, on our last day, when I asked my daughter what she wanted to do, she didn’t hesitate. “I want to get watercolors and go paint somewhere.” Her enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the rainy weather that visited us out of the blue – another Prague feature that has spanned the ages. But she wasn’t deterred.

We bunkered down at a series of coffee houses, ordering tea and goulash, capturing the people, the cobblestone streets outside the arched windows, the intricate fleur de lys patterns molded onto the high ceilings. I’d never done that when I lived there and it was truly one of the best days I’d ever spent in the city. Just me and my daughter, painting pictures – her’s much better than mine.

“Can we move here, dad?” Charlotte begged my husband over Facetime late that afternoon.

I turned back to the view from our balcony. The streets were damp and glossy, and the smell of exhaust fumes and baking bread wafted up.

“Perhaps, Mr. President,” I whispered. “We’ve managed to do something both good and successful.”

Prague Char view

  1. Makes me wish I had been along on the trip.

  2. It was wonderful. Hope reading about offered some pleasure…

  3. As always, absorbing and beautiful! I’ll expect to read Charlotte’s first novel soon? See her paintings? ♥

  4. Cynthia Byrne permalink

    Prague is dear to my heart,also! Family on my fathers side are from the area. My son and daughter in law live there. It is my safe haven, dream come try favourite place!!!

  5. It’s good that you didn’t try to force your childhood memories onto your daughter,If she wants to know them, she will ask, you have a vibrant artistic daughter by the sound of it.

  6. Deb permalink

    Both good and successful indeed. What a lovely way to spend a rainy day in an old city.

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