As of Monday morning, Jay had $17 to his name, kept in a folded wad of bills in an envelope inside the top left drawer of my desk. He’d accumulated the money over two years as opportunities had arisen: $2 found on the ground at the park, $3 for relinquishing a Christmas present that had been given to him, but which meant far more to Wally, and the rest for clearing fallen tree nuts from our backyard- $.05 for a whole nut, $.01 for a piece of a shell.
Since collecting the money he’d made occasional moves to spend it. At one point he wanted to put it all into a Lego set. At another, he wanted to spend it all on candy when he realized he might do much better than the two small pieces I allowed him on our weekly trips to the candy store. But he never followed through on these impulses, largely because, I think, it was never in his immediate control to satisfy them.
But this week the book fair came to his elementary school and for the first time he was the master of his own money. He came home from school on Friday, presumably after having previewed the merchandise, and said he wanted to withdraw $10 to buy a book about a dog named Balto in the Magic Treehouse series. He allowed that it was more expensive than some other books, “because hardcovers cost more,” and asked if I’d throw in $2 to get him all the way there. I gave him the money and he placed it inside the pocket of the red folder he uses to bring his homework back and forth from school each day. All the while, I was aware the whole experience of watching him take these steps made me feel surprisingly like crying.
That night Caroline and I talked about why Jay taking his money to the book fair felt so heartbreaking. Caroline thought her feelings had a lot to do with remembering how excited she’d been about the book fair as a kid herself- the library transformed with tablefuls of shiny covers, like the carnival come to town.
For me, nostalgia was part of it, too, but that didn’t explain the main thing I’d felt. Earlier that day I’d restrained the urge to tell Jay to put his money away, to assure him that mom and I would give him the money he needed. I was surprised by the urge because in my head I like the idea of the boys learning to make decisions with their own limited resources, and within that discretion, far better a book than a lollipop the size of their faces. And yet still, I wanted to say, put your money back, or at the very least, to remind him that he could hold his fire because the library has every book in the Magic Treehouse series for free.
And the reason I felt that way, I think, is that there’s something reassuring about a child with an envelope full of money that he’s never touched. It’s a reminder, whether true or not, that your child is still all potential, with no missteps to his name, no desires he’s bound to pursue regardless of the costs, no vulnerability in a world where plenty of people want to do far worse than sell you a junky pen for $3. And if I could maintain that illusion, and temporarily absorb all those concerns into a single $20 bill handed to Jay, well, that’s what a large part of me wanted to do.
But I didn’t, and this afternoon Jay walked across the schoolyard to me with the handle of a thin plastic shopping bag entwined in his fingers. Inside there was a single book, plus a blue pen topped with a rubber owl that Jay said was for Leo when Leo got a little bit older. Later today, after Jay had taken a shower and changed into his pajamas, he settled into bed with his new hardcover between his hands. As I watched him crack the spine and remark excitedly that there was a map printed inside the front cover, I found myself hoping that if he draws one lesson from his first shopping foray, it’s that if you choose carefully, it’s possible to get what you want in life.