ANNAPOLIS -- Father's Day was months past when Courtney Garton's younger daughter handed him a gift in August 1995. Cara Garton had graduated from college and was moving on to her new job and a new life in Philadelphia. It was time to say goodbye to her father, with whom she had lived while she finished school. As she walked to the car that day she handed him an old shoebox.
He had never seen the box, but the contents looked familiar: paper napkins, most of them white, many spotted with the residue of lunches he'd prepared for Cara in elementary, middle and high school. Each napkin bore a rhymed, hand-written note from Garton. Each had been slipped into the bag with the peanut butter, the tuna, whatever the day's offering might be.
Unknown to Garton, Cara had saved many of the napkins, stashing about 150 of them in the box.
"He looked at it, he goes: 'What is this?' " Cara recalls. "He says, 'What am I going to do with this?' I said, 'I don't know, make them into a book or something.' It was just an offhand comment."
Garton, 51, a former high school teacher and co-founder and co-owner of the Hats in the Belfry stores in Maryland and Virginia, watched Cara, then 21, drive off in her Honda. He was amazed she had saved the napkins. He considered it "one of the nicest tributes a child could give a parent."
Cara's parting remark was casual, but it stayed with him. A book? From napkins?
He wasn't a writer. And he certainly hadn't been a poet. He'd been a father trying to affirm a connection with his daughters after divorcing their mother the year Cara turned 3 and her sister, Adrienne, turned 6.
The notes were jotted in the hours around dawn, words of advice, encouragement, apology. Written to both girls but preserved only by Cara, the notes were private. Who would be interested?
"After a while," says Garton. "I started to think I had unique material."
What he had turned into "Napkins: Lunch Bag Notes from Dad," a 159-page book with a soft cover and a softer heart. The prose is not elegant and the rhymes don't always scan, but the writer is earnest enough in his intentions.
The napkin notes, says Garton, "let [his daughters] know I was a major part of their lives. And that's exactly what I wanted them to know."
Cara, 25, says "it's almost like someone else was keeping a journal of your life for you."
There's Cara at age 7 or 8, shaken by a visit to a Halloween haunted house near Annapolis. There's Cara trying to lose weight, competing in lacrosse, learning to drive, discovering boys, feuding with her sister and her father. There's Dad reflecting on trying days as father to a teen-age girl:
In Between at Fifteen
We don't get to talk,
Me and You,
The way we used to do.
You've got things on your mind,
And not much time,
For jus' sittin a spell.
That's part of being fifteen,
And I know you don't mean
The notes mark the trail of a girl's growing up and her father's struggle to guide her within the limits of his divorce agreement with their mother. Garton's first wife won custody of the girls, but they stayed with him overnight several days a month, including about six school days.
On those mornings Garton would get up around 6 a.m. to make breakfast and lunch. In their house in the Bay Ridge section of Annapolis, Cara says, you'd have a view of the kitchen from the stairs leading up to the second floor. Sometimes she would sit on the stairs quietly and watch her father sitting at the kitchen table, struggling to come up with a napkin note.
Garton says he discovered that kids are "not asking for perfection" from a parent. "I think they're asking for effort."
He says he established relatively modest goals for his children. He wanted them to finish college, not get pregnant before they were married and have good adult relationships with each other and their father. It appears all objectives were achieved.
Cara works in the human resources division of Mercy Health System near Philadelphia. Adrienne Cruz, 28, is a Spanish teacher living in San Diego with her husband and her 5-month-old daughter, Annabelle.
Modest though it may be, the book demanded considerable effort over the course of about two years. About 100 prospective publishers and agents rejected Garton's query letters. After the proposal was accepted by Perry Publishing -- a small, 3-year-old publisher in Columbia -- Garton went through about a dozen rewrites before he had a manuscript acceptable to him and his editor.
He knew he wasn't a writer. In re-reading the napkin notes all those years later, though, he "discovered my poetry was worse than I thought." Notwithstanding the quality of the verse, the book has been well-received. Even before Garton and Cara VTC made a quick appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show in late May, the first printing of 2,500 had sold out. A second printing of 5,000 is under way. Amazon.com, the Internet book store, has listed "Napkins" as a "Parenting and Families Editor's Recommended Book," praising Garton's "self-revealing, loving tales of life as a father." The book also was praised by an online parent-teen magazine.
In an age in which the personal is always potentially marketable, even Garton's early-morning scribblings have found an audience.
"People like it because it's personal," says Garton, "but it has a universal aspect to it."
Pub Date: 5/27/98