From father to son: “We’ll see how you do”

In writing about Monday night’s misadventures with Jay, I was reminded of the best thumping I ever received growing up.  I was probably six or seven at the time and my dad had just finished repainting the walls in the bedroom I shared with my sister.  All weekend long I’d watched him work as he’d sanded, taped, primed, painted.  We had around a painter’s cap that we’d gotten free at the hardware store and I wore it as I followed on his heels, trying to be helpful.

By Saturday night the painting was finished, and I woke up early Sunday morning excited to re-hang the pictures we’d taken down a few days earlier.  I got out a hammer and nails and set to work.  I wasn’t particularly coordinated, so I missed the nail head as often as I hit it.  Each missed blow sent chips of fresh paint and plaster flying off the wall, but I was so excited to show my dad that I’d re-hung the pictures by myself that I pressed on anyway, oblivious to the damage I was doing.

My bedroom shared a wall with my parents’ room, so my dad heard what was going on before he saw it.  I imagine him sitting up in bed, groggy at first, and then suddenly wide awake as he realized what was going on.  By the time he’d made it down the hall to my room he’d worked up a pretty good fury, the memory of which is still strong enough to conjure a faint stinging sensation on my behind.

This story comes up from time to time in our family conversations.  We always tell it in a lighthearted way, as one among many episodes from childhood in which things didn’t go quite the way we would have liked.  I can tell, though, that I’m more at ease with the memory of that spanking than my dad is, in the same way that Jay didn’t wake up yesterday morning needing to write about the scolding he’d received the night before but I did.

One of the unexpected pleasures of growing up is that it provides you with experiences to understand your parents a little better.  Through my mid-twenties my understanding of my parents was limited to what I’d seen them do right in front of me.  But the more experience we gain in life the greater ability we develop to imagine our parents’ lives during the long periods when they are off-screen in our memories.

So now I don’t just see my dad entering my bedroom furious at me for what I’d done to the wall; I imagine him in the moments just before he comes into view: tired, weary before the task of raising three small children, fighting to launch a business and pay a mortgage and sustain a marriage, accompanied by thoughts and memories all his own.  In that light, I see the ensuing spanking as more, or less, or something different than simply a grievous injustice.

Which reminds me of one more little story, told to me by a friend recently.  Almost forty years ago he was in his late-twenties, working for his dad, and about to become a father.  One day on the way home from work my friend started getting on his dad for always favoring his older brother.  In response his dad turned to him and said, “We’ll see how you do.”

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Not ready for primetime: James at the tee ball game

Last Saturday morning James and I went down to Taney Park along the Schuylkill River.  He insisted on walking to start but got tired halfway there and hopped aboard his tricycle.  When we arrived the playground was nearly empty (I’m always surprised that dog owners are outside on weekend mornings far earlier than toddler owners) and James was bored.  He had no interest in going down the slide; there were no kids whose toys he could try to steal; he picked up a pine cone and then dropped it.  Then he saw a group of kids running around on a nearby baseball field and he perked up.  “Yook kids,” he said, pointing.  So we walked over to the chain link fence and watched the early innings of a tee ball game.

The kids were about six years-old though they looked like mini-Major Leaguers.  They had on yellow and blue team shirts with the logo of a local business sponsor on the front and a number on the back.  There were matching caps; most of the kids had on polyester baseball pants; a few even sported eyeblack.

Whenever I see kids even just a little older than James I can’t imagine how he’ll eventually turn into them.  This has been true all along: It seemed impossible that he’d ever walk until one day he did; when he was born some friends gave him a Nike sweatsuit that was so big we stowed it at the bottom of a drawer thinking maybe he’d grow into it before he went to college.  This spring I pulled it out, tags still affixed, and was shocked to discover that sometime, probably over the winter, his head had become too big to fit through the top of the shirt.

Kids of any age are a funny combination of skill and incompetence. When the tee ball sluggers stepped up to the tee they looked like pros: Their legs perfectly spaced, the bat cocked and wagging in their hands, their eyes bearing down on the pitcher who wasn’t actually there.  Then they’d swing and reality was restored.  Most of them hit the tee beneath the ball, which is one of the feeblest feelings in all of youth sports, for players and spectators alike. One of the dad/coaches would run quickly onto the field to replace the ball on the tee before the kid grew too discouraged.  Everyone made contact eventually.  Once you put the ball in player there was zero chance the fielders were going to get you out.

After a few batters James became more interested in the gravel along the bottom of the fence than the game, but I kept watching.  I would have imagined a tee ball game as one big scrum but they actually did a good job holding their positions, just like the Phillies do.

I was curious about how they’d been assigned positions: Why was one kid directed to shortstop and another told to go play right field?  On what basis was the kid with the knee-high stirrups made catcher?  The assignments were probably fairly random but also consequential.  In a couple years they’d be in Little League and the coach would ask them what positions they’d played before and the catcher would say catcher and the shortstop would say shortstop and the right fielder would kind of lie and say he didn’t really have a position.  The process by which a child’s future possibilities winnow and branch goes on all the time; it just seemed particularly apparent to me that morning watching the baseball game.

Last fall James and I were in Rittenhouse Square when I started chatting with a dad who was there with his five-year-old son.  The son had two baseball mitts and it happened that he wanted me to wear one of them.  We played catch for awhile and I remember thinking “This is pretty fun.  Won’t it be great when James and I can do this.”

But Saturday morning at the tee ball field I had the opposite feeling.  For the kids I’m sure it was thrilling to step up to the tee and know that whether the ball flew or sunk was completely up to them; it seemed thrilling for the dads, too, who cheered and encouraged like it was Game 7 of the World Series.  But for my part I was happy—for that day at least—to have James at my feet throwing gravel at the grass, and to know that in a short while he’d mount his tricycle and I’d push him home.