I’ve been pretty focused recently on our baby that Shonnie is carrying and who is due to be born sometime around Labor Day. Today, on her 42nd birthday, I want to share a bit about my first baby, my daughter Lilla Mulkey Newton.
Lilla came into the world on June 11, 1968, a tumultuous time in the history of our nation and in my life as well. In my quest to find my place in society, I had inadvertently taken on a macho, hard-ass persona to mask my fears, insecurities and lack of awareness of the possibilities life offers. And to gain some peace of mind, I self-medicated with lots of alcohol and a cornucopia of drugs.
So at the age of 25, in a prolonged state of adolescence, I became the father of a lovely little baby girl—Frances Lilla Mulkey. I really didn’t know much about supporting Lilla’s mom, Shannon during this time. And I don’t think I was much help caring for Lilla early on, usually finding something very important to do when I’d get the slightest whiff of baby poop.
But despite my insensitivity and irresponsibility, Lilla was such a dear little being—her charming smile, her endearing temperament, her sweet innocence—that I soon gained a powerful attachment to this beautiful baby girl. I felt a love deeper than I’d ever felt before. And I knew that I would defend and protect this child with all my being, even with my life.
At first we lived in the “little house” on Shannon’s parent’s farm outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and it was a great place for Lilla to spend her early years. With some boundaries, she had the run of the place. I distinctly remember one summer day when Lilla wandered out of the vegetable garden where she’d been grazing with juice of the tomato she’d eaten running down her little belly and onto her diaper.
Though I don’t think I was then conscious of my own shortcomings in this area, I wanted Lilla to learn to take care of herself, to become independent. As she grew we extended her boundaries, gave her space to explore and let her handle her issues with other children whenever possible. We talked with her as a fellow human being rather than with baby talk, and we read to her each night until she learned to read; then she read to us.
One memory from Lilla’s childhood particularly stands out for me. She, her little black lab, Langdon, and I went on a hike to the lake near our home in Bear Hollow, outside of Knoxville. It was a cold, overcast winter day, and ice covered the lake’s surface. Even though I was a bit apprehensive about it, we three ventured onto the frozen surface. In the moments we were on the ice, I felt a strong sense of my connection with Lilla, with Langdon, with everything around us. And while it didn’t last, I gained an inkling that there was another way to live other than the riotous existence I continued to lead.
Through the years we were together, it was Lilla, with her sweet smile, her Eskimo and butterfly kisses and her tenacious love, who could break through my tough guy facade and remind me, if only briefly, of my compassionate nature and my deep and abiding love for her. If not for my connection with her, I believe I might have lost myself entirely. Did I help Lilla become the strong, independent, compassionate woman she is today? Absolutely. But in return, she helped me become who I am, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.
Happy birthday, Lilla.