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Fishing For Approval
Her name was Agatha, my dad had told me this morning. She is my Cousin Benny’s daughter, Daisy. She’s eight years old, just like you.
Looking at her right now, she seemed more like twelve to me. Standing forward, Agatha wore a bright purple dress with a mini brooch at the center, metallic open-toe shoes, and gold bangles at her wrist. I could even see a touch of balm on her perfectly rosy lips. She toted a small white purse with her left hand, while the other was grasping her father’s.
I looked down at my own denim overalls, the plain yellow shirt underneath it, and my everyday Mary Janes. I blushed and decided to focus on Daddy instead.
Daddy embraced Agatha’s father like a brother, and both exclaimed how good it was to see the other after all these years.
“This is Daisy Reynolds,” he said, squeezing my shoulders. “Daisy, this is Agatha.” The porcelain doll in front of me took my hand automatically and said, “How do you do?” Before I could even respond, she looked at her own father and said, “She doesn’t look much like a daisy, Papa…”
Her papa laughed heartily, and so did my father.
“Certainly not as much as you look like a princess, Agatha!” My father’s comment surprised me, which made me feel bad afterward.
Why was my daddy flattering this girl whom he hardly knew over me? I’d always been Daddy’s Girl, and we—Daddy and I—always had a special bond of our own. Possibly because Mama died years ago and there was nobody else for me to be with…but that was okay to me. Perhaps it was because we’d suffered the same difficult ordeal. But Daddy was enough, and I was grateful to have him, although I still wondered about Mother at times.
“Thank you, Mister Reynolds.”
“How sweet she is!” my father exclaimed. Sweet? To me, sweet Agatha sounded more like a new teacher’s pet. Agatha looked like the type, too…I could easily see her in my mind, bringing a Red Delicious up to a granny-looking math teacher.
“Well, shall we go in, then, Daniel?” Daddy agreed with Mr. Modlin, and we walked inside together.
The others were waiting in the restaurant: Daddy’s whole side of the family, including Mr. Modlin’s and his parents and…there were more than fifteen of us, possibly twenty. I didn’t have time to count the rest before greetings and introductions were being made. At least five different men and women approached me, saying how much I’d grown and how they hadn’t seen me in so long and how I probably didn’t remember them. I really didn’t.
Agatha’s immediate family behaved in a very proper manner and wore extremely nice clothes, not unlike Agatha herself. I later discovered that Mr. Modlin owned a very, very big business and that his family was quite rich as a result of its success.
All of us finally sat down after many greetings in a private dining room. A huge table sat in the middle, with a twirling glass circle in the center. There was a television propped by the corner opposite to me, plus a stereo and karaoke system sitting on one of the counters. No less than three waiters were standing like guards near the door, and another one was already pouring white wine in tall glasses.
Naturally, this dinner gathering tonight was on Mr. Modlin.
Agatha quickly became the center of attention. To be honest, once the introductions had subsided, she’d come to act more or less like children my age. Unfortunately, there were no other children in our group, so I had nobody to play with or talk to. Agatha was very much unlike me, and not just because she was rich and pretty. She had a wide vocabulary and was very talkative, a big plus to the grownups as they admired Agatha and Mr. Modlin’s fine parenting skills. With only myself and Agatha and our differences in between, it felt like a competition. I could also tell that she’d already been to a million of these formal dinners and was used to them, for she had no trouble knowing how dining worked in this kind of vicinity and what each food was.
Food…there was so much food that I didn’t know what to do. First came appetizers…there were salted peanuts and sushi rolls and cucumber sticks (their strings had already been peeled off beforehand) with peanut sauce. I inspected a small, red, and wrinkled oval and, when I failed to discover its identity, turned to my daddy and asked, “Um…what’s this?”
“It’s a date!” piped up Agatha, who was chewing on a date herself. “It’s like a wrinkled grape…the inside is orange and has little seeds in it. Mother says they’re very good for your health, though!” The lady beside her and who looked like an aged Agatha beamed.
Like a volcano, the table erupted with praises for Agatha and her flawless precocity.
“She’s so smart!”
“She must get the intelligence from her mother…”
"And her sense of style!"
“She certainly gets her flair of discussion from Benny!”
All I could think about were my old denim overalls.
The talk about wonderful Agatha—especially about her and her mother—was starting to make me feel irked, so I decided to concentrate on the food. The food really wasn’t half bad, and it would have been quite delicious to me had Agatha not been announcing each dish’s name to her father’s guests as they were brought in by the waiters. Once she finished naming a dish, she would say, “Mum, I would love some of those rice noodles over there, but I’m afraid my arms are too short!” or “Oh yes! The eggplant is especially delectable! Do try some, Cousin Edith!”
I shook my head in disgust and looked down, unconsciously making sure my napkin was not wrinkled and that it covered my whole lap—this was done more out of practiced habit. I began to think of my mother.
I still remembered when Mama would help me place the napkin in my lap when I was four, and when she’d teach me manners and polite phrases. She often said that respect was among the important things to adhere in my mind, and it was good to give first impressions. First impressions really don’t matter much, because there’s so much to everybody than others realize, she had often said. Of course, you know that, Daisy. But it’s good to show people the kind of personality you have when you first meet them; and, most importantly, to show that you will grow up to be a good person.
Mama taught me lots of things, but this was the topic I remembered best and learned the most from. I was proud of how I was keeping up with what my mama taught me more than four years ago, even with her gone for so long.
Nevertheless, even with Mama gone and after the shock and grief had finally passed, Daddy and I had begun to build a friendship and the closest bond a father and a daughter could have. We had more inside jokes than could be written on a single page, and much laughter passed between us as well as support when hard times came and memories of Mama returned (especially during Christmas and birthdays).
Presently, I wiped my mouth and decided to keep on a happy face. I knew that Mama wouldn’t have approved of me moping and showing others what a glum face I had, instead of my cheerful side. So I sighed and swiftly browsed the table, looking for any familiar foods. However, everything looked so foreign that it reminded me of UFOs. Whenever it was mentioned, that title always had me laughing.
Strange as we often were, Daddy and I often identified weird-looking foods that we saw and had never tasted before as UFOs: Unidentified Food Objects. We first came up with this ‘alien group’ when we went to my father’s Greek friend’s house for dinner one time. I remembered how we laughed behind our faces for several moments over a dish of moussaka, completely bewildering poor Mr. Andreus.
“Eel, Daisy?” At that moment, Daddy held up a spoonful of short, stringy-looking black things. I briefly inspected them and concluded that they were disgustingly unappetizing. Forgetting my manners for a moment, I shook my head and made a face. Dad looked disappointed and turned to give the eel to Agatha instead, who was sitting beside him. Then, he turned back to take some more eel for himself.
I suddenly started to giggle. “Daddy,” I said loudly, “look! It’s a bunch of UFOs!”
Instantly, my father was stern…he gave me a look that was clearly telling me to hold my tongue and be quiet. I didn’t understand why; if it was all right to mention UFOs in front of Mr. Andreus, why couldn’t I mention them now?
Daddy turned to the others and laughed off my comment, apologizing and adding how silly I was and how I often burst out randomly.
“Children are always like that,” Aunt Doris said, “It’s impossible for children to stay taciturn all the time. Especially at her age, when they are just beginning to discover everything there is to discover.”
Daddy agreed, and the matter was closed after that. I silently thanked Aunt Doris in my head; Aunt Doris was Mama’s sister, and had always been kind to me. She understood me best, as a second to Daddy.
“Daddy,” I said a few moments later, “what’s taciturn mean?”
“It means children often don’t stay quiet when they are supposed to,” my father answered, almost snapping. I got the hint and withdrew immediately, pouting and feeling hurt. But my father wasn’t done.
“If you have to talk, why can’t you promote conversation like Agatha does?” he asked, gesturing to his other side, where Agatha was telling everybody else about her new pony, Sierra, that Mr. Modlin had recently bought for her.
I didn’t reply, and Daddy finally left me alone, but only to turn to Agatha and ask what color Sierra was.
As I soon found out halfway through dinner, Daddy absolutely loved Agatha, and this was what made me feel the worst. Daddy laughed at everything Agatha said, from her tacky jokes to inquiries about “the pink squid dish in front of Uncle Ben.” He asked endless questions about everything she talked about, and seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say.
I was jealous and disliked Agatha more and more with each word she said. I just wanted to yank her ribbon-tied pigtails and yell, “That is my daddy, go talk to your own! I lost my mama, and I don’t need my father taken away too, especially by you.” It was more than that, though, and I knew it. Agatha had everything I wanted and was everything I wanted to be: witty, conversational, pretty, luxurious. Everybody in the room enjoyed her, so she was well-liked and also popular. She was too perfect for an eight-year-old; perfect enough so that I wanted to tell her an unpleasant thing or two.
But I held my tongue and just sat, occasionally wiping my mouth or pouring more tea in my cup. It gave me something to do without making myself look like a complete fool. Not that much attention was paid toward me anyway.
The only time I was noticed was when Daddy or some other family member offered me one of the dishes. I began to get thoroughly exasperated after the hundredth “Try this, pumpkin, it’s delicious!”
If I wanted to try something, I thought huffily to myself, I would just take it myself! I can see what’s good for me and my taste buds—it’s like I don’t even have eyes!
“Well,” began one of my other relatives, “your daughter is pretty independent, isn’t she, Daniel?”
I felt puzzled. Independent? What makes her think that?
“Oh,” my father replied, “yes, Daisy does have a very autonomous personality, although that’s not always a good thing. She’s very much like her mother, I can tell you that.”
“Quite,” Aunt Doris said, addressing everybody now. “She looks just like my sister, too. Anna was a strong-headed woman, and Daisy will be too, when she grows up. She is a tough girl, but that trait comes from Daniel, I suppose. You two are both tough.” She smiled widely. Others beginning to look at me and smiling too, nodding their heads at each other. I flushed the lightest shade of red.
“Daisy,” Mr. Modlin began. I turned to him, and couldn’t help but give a cold look, despite the happy-dancing that was taking place inside the pit of my stomach.
“Yes, Mr. Modlin?” I said as stiffly as I could.
“You have an admiring way of carrying yourself,” he said, catching me off guard.
“Huh?” Why do the Modlins always speak in English that sounds like Gibberish instead?
“I’m really impressed by your manners,” rephrased Mr. Modlin. “I watched you pour tea for yourself a couple times, and I noticed the way you pour."
Mr. Modlin tried again. "You hold the tea cozy with one hand very carefully over the teapot, and pour into the cup with your other hand. Who taught you to pour tea like that?”
Oh! I definitely blushed at the moment.
“Mama,” I said, trying to keep from stuttering (one of my worst habits when I’m nervous). "She—she, uh…taught me a lot of ways to act like a young lady before…before it happened.” To me, what I said sounded odd, and a second later I wished I could take it all back and start over. I knew I didn’t sound as profound or delicate as Agatha did when she talked, and she always seemed to talk. And besides, who ever said young lady nowadays?
“She did, did she?” There was a note of delighted approval in Mr. Modlin’s voice. Everyone else around the table were listening closely as well, and a few looked just as impressed, and I began to go red again.
“Yeah.” I continued, deciding to take this chance. “Mama taught me—things— like—how to whip napkins the way restaurants do and what's the best way to receive a gift from someone, especially a grownup. She told me that…that respect was one of the most important things to give, because if you respect people and form yourself well in front of others, then you’ll be treated right the same way.”
Did I say it right? I took a breath and blinked, then glanced around the table. Everyone’s head was turned toward me, and their beady eyes bored into mine. I started to panic, thinking I said something wrong or disapproving. I quickly glanced at Daddy, but he was smiling.
“Well,” Mr. Modlin finally said. “That is quite impressive. Agatha, did you hear what Daisy just said? You must remember that too, for it is an important lesson to learn.”
“Luckily,” piped up old Uncle Ben. His voice was raspy as always, but he was wearing a toothless grin. “Luckily, Daisy has already learned that lesson, so she is luckier than most of us.”
Before I knew it, my other family members were nodding their heads and talking amongst themselves about me and how accomplished I’ve become or how lady-like I’d grown to be.
I soon found myself telling my paternal grandparents about school and my hobbies; I told my oldest cousins about what I wanted to do what I grew up, though so far I just had fantasies and imaginative careers that only an eight-year-old had.
Moments slipped by, and with the topic of Daisy Reynolds still in hand, I stole a glance at Agatha. She’d become slightly quieter during the last few moments, but she didn’t look sulky or even annoyed. On the contrary, she was listening intently and seemed thoughtful. Negative thoughts in my mind about Agatha began to subside, and I started wondering about Agatha. Not her as Perfect Agatha, but her as Agatha the person. I wondered about her...what she was thinking, what her hobbies included, and even what she thought about people. It was because of our differences that I wanted to know what her person was like.
Later on, about half an hour later, conversations among our families began to differ and dissimilar topics were formed. We’d done a very good job with dinner: just about every dish was picked off clean.
“Well,” I said happily to Daddy, “The restaurant workers won’t have a too big of a job washing our dishes, will they?”
Daddy chuckled and agreed. “I certainly agree,” he said, rumpling my hair. I smiled and felt like a big happy balloon was swelling inside of my stomach, though that feeling was probably from all the food I’d eaten (not including eel).
As a final wash-down, a couple more waiters entered with gold platters of watermelon. Slice after slice was spooning together around in a spiral, and once the platters were placed on the table, hands immediately began to move toward them.
“Watermelon, Agatha?” Aunt Doris asked kindly. Surprisingly, Agatha shook her head.
“No thanks, Aunt Doris,” she replied. “I’m allergic to watermelon.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
Taken aback, I looked at Agatha, who was watching the others eat watermelon. We've got something in common? And I had begun to think we were from different planets!
I looked around, and each hand but ours held slices of fruit. Our family members were chuckling and making merry small talk. I sighed deeply, but not wearily. I'd made a decision, and didn’t know what the conclusion would be, but I knew that it was something that ought to be done before the meal was finished and everybody took their leave.
I leaned forward closer to Agatha, who looked at me and seemed slightly surprised at my sudden approach. I smiled at her.
“What reaction do you get from eating this fruit too?” I asked. “Because I’m allergic to watermelon too.”