The twists and turns of a childhood minute

Originally published on October 20, 2014

10.20.14 aThe 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!”

10.20.14 bBack 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.


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