What was the happiest moment of your life? For Debra Gwartney, winner of our 2018 Good Read essay contest, it was a picnic where she saw her adult daughters in a whole new light.

By Debra Gwartney
Updated March 16, 2018
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Photo of Family
Credit: Photo Courtesy of Debra Gwartney

Inside the picnic basket: two ripe peaches still moist from a rinse, a bowl of cherry tomatoes, small pots of spicy pâtés, a block of cheese, and a still-warm baguette. I carried this basket of food, purchased at the garden’s entrance, to a sun-dappled table while one of my daughters brought out a bottle of chilled rosé, perfectly suited for a summer day in the shade of a medieval fortress called Abbaye Saint-André. My three other daughters arranged plates, opened tins, and handed out napkins, a symphony of cooperation. I sat back and watched them, my children, as they ate and drank and laughed under the olive trees outside Avignon, France, resting their feet after our long walk, murmuring in smooth, pleased voices, unfolding a map to plot the rest of our afternoon. I dared not move, wanting to absorb this scene, sear it into memory. A café server wandered out and agreed to take a photo of us, but what I longed for was an oil painting with its nuanced shadows, capturing the light and the calm and the joy of being together, my daughters and me, in a way I once felt certain would be impossible.

I am not a wealthy woman. Most months I barely get by. But I’d opened a savings account and slid dollars into it for 15 years so I could have a stretch of time with my family, a family I would have described years ago as splintered, storm-tossed—whatever cliché creates the image of tattered people, none of them touching, not even leaning in toward one another, only left wondering, “How did we get here?”

I had a pretty good idea of how things had soured. I’ve had years to ponder, to finally admit that their father and I allowed our long-ago divorce to become bitter and, in the process, half-embittered our children. Confused them mightily, anyway, with our unspoken demand for loyalty. Choose me! It was my habit, back when I was barely free of this unhappy marriage, to pretend it was all him. He was the bad husband, the bad parent. Though I am humiliated now to think of this attitude, I was convinced that if I stayed even one inch more civil I could hold myself up as the good one. The heroic mother. But the truth is, neither of us were good parents in those days. We pulled our young daughters into our fray. We too often let them hear us denigrate each other. I allowed the kids to see me break down in fits of frustration over his latest antics, until finally our four children could no longer trust their mom and dad for emotional succor and stability. They had no choice. By ages 14, 12, 10, and 8, our girls had learned to mostly depend on one another.

I can’t make a direct correlation, of course, but I believe I have a case for saying that frustrated and fearful children become angry teenagers. Mine did, anyway, and our house was filled too many days with the kind of fighting they’d, I suppose, seen between their father and me. They wanted freedom; I wanted control. They skipped school and wandered the streets, smoking pot. I cracked down.

Which brings me to a recollection of a different garden: a small patch behind our house in Oregon that I’d planted with tomatoes, a thin vine of cucumbers, a few pale beans—struggling to stay alive in spite of my neglect. On a warm Saturday afternoon I was pulling out weeds when my two oldest daughters, 16 and 14 then, came out of the house with stuffed packs on their backs. I stood up to face them. “Where do you think you’re going?” I said. They shrugged. They turned away from me.

That was nearly two decades ago, on an afternoon when I wiped mud from my hands and watched them walk off, their wide-eyed little sisters taking all this in from a corner. I didn’t know then that the girls would meet up, that very day, with runaways who lived on the streets, who traveled by freight train. I didn’t know that it would be months until I saw them again, and that I’d be taken over by a frantic search for them. Now I think of that day in our garden as one of profound defeat. All that I had stitched together simply unraveled like a worn-out blanket.

Once I’d located them, my two older daughters wove in and out of the house, my life, over a period of several years, but it was a long time before we all came together, firmly, as a family. Even longer before we could say words like “forgive” and “heal.” As the years passed, I’d see mothers and their teenage daughters in the grocery store or walking down the sidewalk of our town, the girls bumping into their moms now and then, as if to say, “Here I am and there you are,” the girls casually resting a hand on their mothers’ shoulders. I needed that with my older daughters. I wanted it desperately, and I promised myself someday I’d get it. I’d find a way to restore the time we should have had together and the sweetness we all deserved but had missed out on because, despite our love for each other, we couldn’t find a way to get beyond our former morass. I still call them girls, my four daughters, though they are now grown women with jam-packed lives—jobs, homes, relationships, and, for my oldest, young children to tend to on top of everything else. But somehow I persuaded them to put everything else aside and fly with me to France for two weeks. We rented an apartment in downtown Avignon (three bedrooms but only one bathroom, just like in their growing-up years); I got a car. Every day, we headed out to discover a new location.

Today, the third day of our trip, was Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. It took us nearly two hours to walk from our apartment to the garden at Abbaye Saint-André, and deep in the back of my mind I know I was counting on this moment: that here in France, my tender teenage daughters would return to me; they’d fold into me, hold me tight, and I would return their tenderness with compassion and deep affection. I was determined to get what I’d come for.

So, at our picnic in the garden, with peach juice on my tongue, a daughter handing me a slice of baguette spread with pâté and tomato, I sat back and waited for the restoration of the past to begin.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Not that day or in the days to come, when we visited a Roman aqueduct, drank wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, wandered through the Palais des Papes. But along the way, inch by inch, I started to finally get it. A new kind of wisdom trickled in: The past was finished. It was time to let it go, to understand that I could not, no matter the ferocity of my desire, recapture what I’d lost. These women with me, my companions, would never again be my young daughters. The do-over button I’d long yearned to push simply didn’t exist.

So what to do about that? Only one thing, and that was to honor and appreciate the people in front of me, the marvelous, capable adults these four had become: My oldest daughter, with her uncanny skill with food, putting together a feast for us on many evenings after a brief stop for ingredients in a French market. The second daughter, with her grace and charm, who could ask a stranger for directions and make a friend for life. The bold third daughter who’d charge down narrow alleyways and steep ravines to make sure they were safe for the rest of us. And the youngest, with her facility for language and geography, who’d figure out which train lines to take so we’d arrive at our destinations with no fuss or trouble. And so many more capabilities and strengths in each of them. The ways they argued with one another, the ways they helped one another. Their solicitations toward me, their mom.

In France, far from home, I finally witnessed it—a connection among my daughters that had been there for years but that I was only now letting myself recognize and embrace. They had a bond with each other, and with me, as mighty as the thick branches of the deeply rooted trees that surrounded us in the garden. Now I realize that this was when the real healing set in, on a warm afternoon in the garden, our legs entwined under the table. Yes, it was my happiest day, because right then, I fell in awe and love all over again with the four most important people in my life.

Debra Gwartney’s memoir, Live Through This, published in 2009, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Oregon with her husband and teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.