Wally at dusk

_MG_5842We left for soccer last evening to a thunderclap, but instead of rain, the skies opened into long streaks of late afternoon sun. Beneath that fading glow, the Falcons raced up and down the field against the Pink Ninjas, the ball disappearing into thick knots of five-year-olds before shooting out again: sideline cheers, hard collisions, a call for “subs,” the glory of a goal.

On the sidelines, Wally raced around. From my position on the field—whistle poised, timer running—I caught glimpses of him, fast by Grandpa’s side, then raising a new, discovered treasure from the earth.

After the game, a few kids continued on, chasing each other and a soccer ball around the vast plain of the old, converted airfield. Wally chased the soccer ball, too, though he never got it. Finally I caught up to him, at rest with two older kids.

“We carved our pumpkin today,” Wally said. “We gave it a silly face.”

“We’re not talking about pumpkins right now,” one of the older kids replied.

Wally chewed on that for a moment, then switched gears. “Poooopy diaper,” he crowed, hoping to gain a little social traction with his potty talk charade.

The older kids laughed. I looked at Wally, his narrow shoulders cocked in the silver light, his head thrown back in laughter, a fire roaring into the night.

Two kinds of Jay in a single day

_MG_5854Friday the boys were off from school, and as I sometimes do on long days at home, I retreated into chores. I changed sheets, washed dishes, swept the floors, and generally kept myself occupied to avoid having to referee squabbles between Jay and Wally. I went upstairs to our bedroom with a basket of laundry, which I dumped on our bed to fold later. Down below I heard the two of them playing War with a degree of high-energy chaos I was glad not to be a part of.

After lunch, though, I took my turn, and brought the boys with me to the grocery store. We had a long list that included ingredients for jambalaya, which we were bringing to a friend who’d recently had a baby, and for deviled eggs, our contribution to a 1950s-themed murder mystery dinner that evening.

We found a spot near the entrance to the store, and before unbuckling the boys from their seats, I turned to give them a talk. Jay recognized the look on my face and preempted me. “I know. You don’t need to tell me,” he said.

“You do know, but you also knew last week at Target, so maybe you need a reminder,” I said. Then I gave the boys their instructions: No acting wild in the grocery store, no getting out of the car cart, no banging each other, no screaming and being crazy. Just sit, drink your complementary juice box, and be quiet. They both nodded earnestly, and with that, we stepped out into the parking lot.

In the store, the boys were good to start. They stayed peacefully tucked inside their police car cart while I deliberated about the number of bananas to buy, and even endured a long conversation with the meat clerk about the best substitute for Andouille sausage (we settled on chorizo). Things frayed a little in the yogurt aisle, when both boys suddenly jumped out to lobby for their favorite flavors (raspberry for Jay, maple for Wally). But with some stern, eye-level words and a pointed finger, I reminded them how important it is to stay composed while food shopping.

_MG_5845That pep-talk was enough to get us to the checkout line, which is where things fell apart. While I was unloading the cart and handing off our reusable bags, Jay climbed out of his seat and stood on the front of the cart. That would have been fine, but then he stuck his foot through the mock windshield and tried to nudge his brother, who was still sitting inside. Wally squirmed out of the way and grabbed Jay’s foot. There was a lot of jostling, a fair amount of squealing. “Yes, that’s a navel orange,” I told the cashier. “No, it’s not a debit card,” I told the pinpad. Off to my right I had the sense that a swarm of monkeys was moving in on me, and I realized the best thing to do was to get out of the store as quickly as possible.

Back in the car, I was exasperated, with Jay especially. “Do you know what it means to act wild? Do you like it when I get mad at you?” I asked him. He nodded his head yes, then no. “Then why do you do it?” I said. He looked down at the floor between us and shrugged his shoulder to say that he didn’t know.

At home, I told Caroline I didn’t get why Jay, who seems capable of so much, and so mature a lot of the time, can’t hold it together for a thirty minute shopping trip. We often take turns convincing each other that an event, which seems like a big deal in the moment, really isn’t. This time it was her turn to convince me. “Eventually Jay’s going to put it all together,” she said. With that, the boys started afternoon quiet time, and I took a nap.

Some time later I woke up to find that the afternoon had moved on, and the boys were sitting at a table in the playroom making Halloween crafts with Caroline. I walked in, still groggy. Jay was using pinking shears to cut out what looked like a pumpkin from a piece of orange construction paper. He put the paper down and told me he wanted to show me what he’d done during his quiet time. He led me upstairs to our bedroom and I prepared to praise whatever it was he’d made out of Legos.

_MG_5844Instead, I walked into the room and found him standing before the bed, which was topped with neat piles of folded clothes. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. Caroline had come up behind me. “Jay did this,” she said. “All by himself.” Apparently it had been a surprise to her, too.

I took a closer look at the piles, and slowly began to make out Jay’s handiwork. Each individual sock had been folded in half and the socks had all been stacked on top of each other, rather than balled in pairs, and instead of creating a pile for his clothes and a pile for Wally’s clothes, which is how Caroline and I normally do it, Jay had grouped their clothes together by item: a pile of neatly folded little boy polo shirts, a pile of little boy shorts, a small stack of underwear.

I looked over at Jay, expecting to see him beaming, but he had a more reserved expression on his face. I tried to imagine the moment when he’d decided to turn his attention from his Legos to the pile of clothes. I pictured him withdrawing each item from the pile and folding it, one after another, all alone in the room, with our experience at the grocery store reverberating in his mind as he worked. Maybe he’d done this to show me he was capable of more than he’d displayed in the checkout line. Maybe though, he’d done it to prove the same thing to himself.

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.

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.