The twists and turns of a childhood minute

_MG_5877The other night Caroline called from the kitchen: Dinner’s ready! Upstairs the boys were watching the closing credits of Dinosaur Train and tussling over a piece of paper.

“That’s mine,” Wally said, reaching for the paper as Jay danced away toward the stairs.

“Give it to him,” I told Jay, who’d already made it a few steps down the staircase. Instead of handing the paper back up, Jay gestured as though he was going to throw it over the railing, down to the hall below. Every time he feinted, Wally screamed.

“Give him the paper!” I said, loudly. Jay placed the paper between the spokes of the bannister, and left it dangling precariously over the edge of the steps, then skipped away wickedly.

“Go wash your hands,” I called after him. Meanwhile Wally had slid down the steps to where the paper dangled. He took it in his hands and then a new thought occurred to him: Maybe it would be fun to drop it off the stairs after all.

Down below, Jay, back in play, his hands still unwashed, egged Wally on. “Drop it Wally, drop it,” he urged. Wally laughed a deep and mirthful laugh and held the paper over the void. He couldn’t quite bring himself to let it go. “Do it, Wally,” Jay yelled. Wally spread his fingers and the paper fluttered free. He cackled as it floated down to the floor, then cried out when he saw the consequences. Jay, waiting below, scooped it up, and ran away, leaving Wally on the stairs, despondent again.

“That’s my paper!” I called after Jay, taking the steps down two at a time. I caught him in the dining room and wrested the paper from his grip. “Go wash your hands!”

IMG_5870Back at the bottom of the stairs, Wally was near tears. “It’s fine,” I told him. “I’ve got the paper.” I uncrumpled it, and smoothed it across my knee. It was a piece of torn printer paper with a few stray lines written in colored pencil and the letters “W-A-L-L-Y.”

“I’ll take care of this,” I said to Wally. “You go wash your hands.” He moped toward the bathroom and joined his brother at the sink, both boys squeezed atop a narrow stool. I heard the soap dispenser clatter into the sink, followed by a burst of nonsense laughter.

“Dinner’s ready,” Caroline called again.

Later on, I thought about our trip down the stairs, and I remembered something
I think my dad had told about the coast of Maine. From Kittery to Eastport is only a couple hundred miles as the crow flies, but he said that if you took the whole Maine coast and stretched it into one straight line, smoothing out every cove and inlet, every peninsula and rocky point, it would be as long as the coast of California.

Childhood time is like that. I picture the boys walking downstairs to dinner. For me, it’s a simple trip that takes no more than 15 seconds. For them, there’s no such thing as a straight shot: They double back, catch a fancy, follow a dozen emotional twists before they make it across a room. When you’re tracing that intricate a path, no wonder a year feels like a lifetime.

Looking for the fool at the card table

_MG_5862The other morning I walked downstairs, saw the boys in the playroom, and thought: uh-oh, Wally. They were sitting across a small table from each other, playing the card game War. In the first hand I saw, Wally flipped over a Queen and Jay played a Joker, the top card in our house. “I win,” Jay said, and Wally cheerfully handed over his card, happy just to have a seat at the table.

Growing up, I cheated a lot at War. My brother and sister, quite sharp now, were a step slow during a few crucial years and probably wouldn’t have said anything if I’d played five aces in a row. The easiest way to cheat was to replace high cards on the top instead of the bottom of my pile. The best way to cheat was to fabricate wars—Oh, did two nines just come up? What are the chances of that—and use the tiebreaker process to rook my brother and sister’s best cards.

So, when I saw Wally sit down at the card table with his big brother, I knew what he was in for. Yet that day, and the several times they played War together in the weeks afterward, I never saw Jay cheat. Sometimes he’d win several hands in a row and exclaim, “I’m getting good at this!” revealing a kind of myopic attention to his own perceived skills. Meanwhile, and perhaps undetected by cheery Jay, Wally was growing steadily less content to fork over his cards. Games grew volatile, and often ended in a fight, or with Wally refusing to play a card he didn’t want to lose.

This weekend, though, Jay and Wally sat down to play War again, supervised by their Grammy. The first few hands went fine and then a war hit, a big one: two Kings. Jay’s eyes went wide at the sheer improbability of it, when really they should have narrowed. He played his war cards, three down, one up, with the last one being a respectable Ten of Spades.

Across the table, however, it became quickly apparent that Wally meant to engage the fight in a different way. He peeked at his top card. Yikes, it was a Joker, the last card you want to lay down sacrificially in a war. So, rather than play it that way, Wally tucked it between his chin and his shoulder, and placed the next three cards in his pile face down. Then he removed the Joker from beneath his chin, placed it face up, looked across the table at Jay, and broke into celebration. Jay, seemingly in the same room as the rest of us, was none the wiser to this brazen treachery. He didn’t even object when, lo and behold, Wally’s marauding Joker came up again on the very next hand.

I’ve written a couple posts recently (here and here) about the tough lot of younger siblings, and I do feel for Wally, whose view is often obstructed by Jay. At the same time, we’re most exploitable at the exact moment we think we know something for certain. I don’t think it’s conceivable to Jay (or maybe me) that Wally could pull one over on him, and I suspect he may pay for that presumption more than once throughout their childhoods.

Related posts:

A tale of two Wallys

Last night at soccer practice, I realized you can’t treat a second child like a first child

Watching parents walk toward children

_MG_5790A few weeks ago I was checking out at Whole Foods. The cashier was a woman, probably in her early-fifties, with neat short hair and a bright face. Jay and Wally were with me, bouncing around in the shopping cart. The sight of two little kids must have reminded her of her own son. “He makes sandwiches right over there,” she said, pointing back toward the deli. “Everybody always tell me how good they are.” I asked if her son ever makes sandwiches for her at home and she shook her head. “When he’s not at work, that’s the last thing he wants to do.”

At the time I was struck by the pride in her voice when she spoke of her son’s sandwiches, and also by the contrast of such an intimate relationship stretched across the generic landscape of a grocery store.

After we left, I didn’t think of her again at all. Days went by and I made many more trips to the grocery store, and each time I approached a check-out lane, it never occurred to me that I might see her again. Then on Thursday night I found myself standing in the bakery department, trying to decide what kind of cookies to buy for Caroline’s parents and sister, who were due in the next morning. It was past eight o’clock at night and the store was quiet. It was possible to stand still in one place and not get in anybody’s way.

And as I stood there, a woman came up on my left. We made eye contact, just for a second, but in that second I realized two things: It was the same woman I’d talked with while checking out a few weeks ago, and I knew just where she was headed. We exchanged small smiles—I don’t think she recognized me—and I watched her walk over to the sandwich station. There was a young man in his early twenties, tall and skinny in a white food service cap and matching chef’s jacket, assembling a Ruben or a roast turkey club. She leaned against the counter and talked. He kept his head down on his work. I wondered whether she visited him at every break, or here and there when time allowed, or whether she’d walked over at the end of her shift, specifically to ask whether he wanted a ride home that night.

I didn’t end up buying any cookies that evening, but afterward I thought about the expression on her face as she’d flashed past me, and why in that moment it had been so self-evident where she was going. It was an expression I’d seen before, though it took me a few nights to remember where.

Eight years ago I came home from a long trip abroad. Caroline and I landed in New York City after midnight, and the next morning I took the train north to see my dad. We spent a week together, then I took the train back down to the city, and a commuter line out into the suburbs, to Larchmont station, where my mom was going to pick me up. We’d spoken on the phone a lot and we’d emailed even more, but the nine months I’d been away was many times longer than we’d ever gone without seeing each other.

I got off the train wearing sneakers and my big traveling backpack, and I stepped down a short flight of stairs from the platform to the parking lot. I looked around and didn’t see her. Then I looked around again, and there she was, walking toward me down a long line of cars. She seemed almost to be bouncing, and several times nearly broke into a run. I remember how far behind she’d left my stepfather, who’d come with her, the forgotten way her purse swung on her arm, and the broad, breaking smile on her face as she drew nearer. It felt almost embarrassing to be the object of such emotion after having done nothing more than come home.

There is an assuredness to the way parents walk toward their children. I can recognize it now in the way my mom walked toward me, and I saw it the other night in the way that mom in Whole Foods walked toward her son. So many of the steps we take in life are laced with doubt or indifference that it’s striking to see someone walk with so little regard for anything, but where they’re going.

Related posts: Overheard: a conversation between a mom and her son

Pillow therapy

_MG_5770A day of portentous skies erupted into an afternoon of heavy rain, and from my desk I thought of the boys: Did they make it in off the playground in time? It was a Friday and Jay and Wally had stayed late after school. Caroline was out of town for the weekend and I had a project to finish. I watched the rain for a minute, then thought I owed it to the boys to work a little faster.

A little after 4pm I walked out the front door, keys in hand, and drove quickly down the road. It had stopped raining. The trees were dripping, the pavement was slick. Water churned beneath my tires as I pulled away from a stop sign. Outside the side door to the school I found a pile of shoes, wet and caked in sand, evidence of an emergency retreat. I opened the door into a new universe, a Tilt-a-whirl of children humming busily in slow, slow childhood time.

Wally was at the far side of the room, pulling something from a shelf. Jay was a table closer by, sitting with a girl and working at construction paper. Neither saw me at first. I called out through the din, trapped at the threshold in my wet shoes, and beckoned them over. They looked up and eyed me warily.

With our arms full of lunchboxes, water bottles, art projects, worksheets, we walked to the car and rode home in surprising quiet. My mind wandered back to article I’d been working on before I’d left the house. In the back, Jay and Wally were looking at nothing in particular, the three of us still gripped by the momentum of our separate days.

At home, we unloaded from the car, apportioned the lunchboxes and water bottles between us, and made our way to the front door. “Shoes off, hands washed,” I called, once, then again. It was 4:45pm, which meant we could ease right into television, then dinner, bath, and bed. It was the kind of clear path I like, especially on days when I’m taking care of the boys alone.

_MG_5769I got the boys situated upstairs, Wally with his bottle of milk, an episode of Dinosaur Train on the television. Downstairs I started water for rice, and took a container of stir-fried beef and broccoli from the refrigerator, left over from the evening before.

There wasn’t much left to the day that could go wrong, but I still felt unsettled. It was the boys. I hadn’t seen them all day, and then after school, not much had passed between us save a few commands.

So I turned off the stove, went back upstairs, and asked them if they’d like to have a pillow fight. It’s something we do from time to time, usually on a weekend afternoon when everyone’s feeling a little bored. Now I knew it was one of the few offers that could tear them away from their show, and it seemed like the best way to reacquaint with one another.

Jay launched down the stairs with Wally quick behind him. I made it to the bed first and prepared to be assaulted. Wally struck as he usually does, with a flying jump on top of my head, his teeth gritted, his legs pinched around my chest. Jay stood above us—always more of an artillery guy than an infantryman—with his pillow cocked, waiting for an opening. When he finally struck, I offered up an exaggerated grunt. Jay shrieked and reloaded.

For 10 minutes we rolled around like that. I wrestled with Wally, countered Jay’s blows with a few volleys of my own, launched surprise tickling raids at the boys’ soft sides. At one point Jay lost his balance and fell backwards to the floor. Is this how it ends? But no, he was back up, tear free, and more determined than ever to strike a decisive blow.

When I finally called it, Jay dropped his pillow and fell on top of me for our ritual hug, the peace gesture at the end of the fight. Wally, still pincered around my head, didn’t need to go far to receive his. The boys were tired but cheery, breathing hard. “Now back to your show,” I told them. They ran off and soon the sounds of talking Pteranodons were coming once again from upstairs.

I thought about the difference between feeling close to someone and feeling like strangers. There is no instrument in the world that could measure how close the boys and I were before we battered each other with pillows and how close we were afterward, but the difference was as palpable as a foot of fresh snow. Back at the stove, I turned the burner on to make rice. I felt ready now to feed the boys and put them to sleep, with whatever it is that exists between us, replenished.

Jay in Numberland

IMG_5551On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat at my desk and Jay lay on his back on the guest bed behind me. His legs were crossed and he held my cellphone in his hands. “It’s 2:46,” he told me. “Now it’s 2:47.” “Now it’s 2:48.”

Just a few minutes earlier we’d had one of our first real conversations about how to tell time. It had been fun to watch him grasp the concept, but now I was ready for quiet. I mustered as much enthusiasm as I could for each update, and then offered him a tantalizing glimpse of the future: “You’re never going to believe what happens after it turns 2:59pm.” For twelve concerted minutes he stared at the phone, informing me each time the minute turned, getting more and more breathless as the hour wound down. When the phone’s digital display turned to “3:00,” instead of “2:60” as he’d anticipated, Jay nearly fell off the bed.

Jay’s road to numeracy has been long. He learned the words “one, two, three…” years ago, and for a while, he’s been able to actually count small quantities of things. But as recently as this summer, his command of numbers was spotty. He’d get tripped up turning the corner from 19 to 20 and had a hard time following what, to my eyes, seemed like quite obvious patterns. On the last leg of our drive home in August, Caroline and Jay practiced counting by 5s. He was able to hold the pattern up to about 25, but then lost it completely, throwing out “40” when he should have said “35,” and making wild guesses above 50.

But over the last month things have begun to fall into place, and Jay’s on fire with the power of a new idea.

Driving around town, he asks for nearly second-by-second updates on our speed. “29…32…33…34 miles per hour,” I told him in the span of a single block between our house and Whole Foods. The only time he ceased his interrogation was to ask, “Aren’t you speeding?” It was enough to make me wish we were back talking about whether a giant is taller than a house.

When he’s not thinking about time or speed, he’s got age on the mind. He’s especially into the idea that the age gap between two people holds steady throughout their lifetimes. “When I’m 2,000-years-old, you’re going to be 2,028,” he told Caroline last night at dinner, which of course was both true and not true.

Last weekend Jay had his best chance yet to practice his counting. We have a tree in the middle of our backyard that drops large nut-like seeds, which make the soccer ball bounce at odd angles and also shoot like bullets out of the lawn mower. I offered Jay a penny for each one he picked up. He went around pushing his dump truck, periodically announcing his total in a tone of disbelief: “One-hundred-and-sixty-two,” he exclaimed after about 10 minutes. It occurred to me that in a couple years I’ll have to worry about him cheating at this kind of activity; for now, he’s so excited to be able to count correctly, there’s no chance he’s going to deliberately skip ahead.

If there’s one place numbers come up most often, it’s during bedtime books, which recently have been about wonders of the natural world- dinosaurs, Mars, volcanoes, and the like.

Jay’s beginning to develop an understanding of place value, and whenever we read an amazing quantitative fact, his eyes go big and he repeats the number back in amazement. Last night, for example, we read that lava can flow for hundreds of miles, and that barracudas evolved 50 million years ago. Wally, who understands that his brother is obsessed with numbers more than he understands numbers themselves, turned to Jay looking for a reaction: “Did you hear that, Jay, FIFTY…MILLION…YEARS…AGO.”

We leave those books in the boys’ room after lights out, and lately they’ve been looking at them together in the morning. Jay, as into numbers as he is, will take them anywhere he can find them. This morning, when it was still dark outside, he yelled up to our bedroom, “My workbook has 321 pages!”

My eyes flicked open and I croaked in reply, “What time is it?” The words were out of my mouth before I realized I’d asked him exactly the wrong question.