One of the best gifts any parent can get is a sign that they’re raising a nice guy or gal. The boots drying by the woodstove yesterday morning were my signs.
Thing1 came home from college for the day Friday to schlep his brother home from school and to help out around the house while the Big Guy and I were at the hospital.￼￼ He had the wood bin loaded by the time we got back and, with the Big Guy, helped get me up the front stoop into the wheelchair.
He’ll go back to his glamorous life of studying (yeah, studying, all weekend 🤪) later this afternoon, and I’ll keep the picture of his boots drying by the woodstove as a reminder what a nice guy he’s become.￼
I’m taking a step back from oil painting in October to participate in Inktober. It’s a good time to do some drawing, and, anyway, my studio is about to be torn apart as I claim a larger space.
Today’s prompt is “ring.”
I’m sitting in one part of a ring — on the couch with the Big Guy as I draw. I’m trying to get Thing2 to do Inktober with me, but he’s over at the piano teaching himself the Beatles song book and making our eyes sweat.
It’s almost Thing2’s 13th birthday, and I’ve been thinking about the first few minutes after his birth. I’ve been remembering that perfect round baby head and those early days when nothing seems as pure as the love that we felt for them.
Now all these years later, we know his triumphs and follies, and the love is anything but pure. It’s stronger and better because we know that each day will reveal some facet that makes it stronger still.
We are shy one kid. He’s away at college, and it’s been an adjustment. As broken bars of “Imagine” drift over from the piano, however, I keep thinking about how full our little family circle, with its faultlines and reinforcements, still is.
I sat with a student today who is trying to navigate from adolescence to adulthood with only support from the state. She has little help from the adults who brought her into the world, but her courage and determination to help people she still loves is nothing short of heroic. I know she should have enjoyed — that they all should enjoy — that same kind of parental love we take for granted, and I know the only thing I can do is support her and show her that I expect great things from her during our last few months together.
But, now, sitting on the couch as the first bars of “Let It Be” begin to echo, I think about the other things I can do, and I make a point to never take our small circle for granted.
Thirteen-year-old Jack and I have always been able to bond, not just over the mother-child kissing of boo-boo’s or doling out of hugs after a meltdown, but because we have a lot of the same interests. Lately, Jack’s primary interest has been focused on all things computer. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this interest. I love that he has a hobby that lets me bond with my son while we discuss digital life. I hate that his passion has also become a wedge.
At the end of the school year, Jack brought home a less-that-stellar grade on a final exam, and the Big Guy and I lowered the boom. He had already enrolled in computer camp (his first sleep away camp), so we let him indulge his obsession over the summer. When he got home, however, we made it clear that until a satisfactory first progress report came home from school, he was grounded from the computer. We live in the middle of the woods and any social event requires us to act as chauffeur, so traditional grounding is redundant. Jack’s obsession revived the punishment as a useful stick.
We’re not shy about removing privileges or assigning extra chores when the occasion arises, and, in the past, Jack has seen the error of his ways and usually accepted our punishments as just. Something about being thirteen, however, has made the enforcement of this sentence much less pleasant.
The punishment has inspired tortured looks of betrayal from my first born. It’s prompted legal arguments about the wisdom of ending the punishment earlier and, as homework requires more time on the computer, it’s also inspired him to attempt head-on defiance of the punishment. No longer are we the people he trusts without question. No longer is our judgement sound. In his eyes there is now the constant question that, if we are so wrong about this punishment, what other things have his parents been wrong about? I don’t think he questions our love for him, but, for the first time in our relationship, he’s actively questioning if we know what we’re doing. I have that question all the time (and I can write it because I know he doesn’t read this blog).
I remember my parents using similar carrots and sticks and how they became wedges as well. It didn’t take becoming a parent to see around the wedge, but I think it did take walking this mile in their moccasins to see that the wedge really brought us closer because at that point they weren’t trying to be my friends. They were being my parents. And that’s ultimately what any kid needs.
At home it’s still the story we know – twelve-year-old Thing1 and six-year-old Thing2 play together a lot because we live in the country and my work-at-home job precludes a most of non-school related chauffeuring. Thing1 has spent hours coaching Thing2 on the finer points of throwing and catching – hollering at him (with love of course) when he sees his younger brother’s elbow in the wrong position and cheering when Thing2 makes a hit off of one of his pitches. He fields with comic incompetence, always letting his younger brother get around the makeshift bases to win the run and the game.
Last year, Thing1’s enthusiasm bubbled over at the ballpark, and he even spontaneously volunteered to help the coaches at most of Thing2’s T-ball practices. He caught fly balls at first, helped the five and six year olds remember where second was, and played catcher for the more ambitious players. When the new season started, I waited for Thing1 to jump into action. And then I waited some more.
“Don’t you want to go help them?” The Big Guy and I asked at different times and then together at the ballpark.
“I just don’t see the point,” Thing1 responded in a voice that has taken on a deeper timbre. Each query was met with one of his. “Why does it matter? Why are we here? Why can’t I just go home? What’s the meaning of everything?” No amount of cajoling or browbeating was going to get him on that sunny field, but Saturday mornings are family time for us, and Thing2 has spent years watching his big brother’s games, and we decided Thing1 should return the favor. “I’ll stay,” he replied when we informed him of the judges’ decision, “but I won’t enjoy it, and I’m just going to watch.”
We chalked his attitude up to hormones and decided to enjoy watching Thing2. We’re both willing to tolerate the moodiness – we even sympathize with it – but we were pretty sure that only time would be able to handle it. Even without his cape, however, Thing2’s has superpowers that we are still discovering.
Our six-year-old was oblivious to the drama on the sidelines as he walloped a ball off the T and skipped happily around the bases. Then it was time for the tiny teams to switch from practice game to plain old practice, and he skipped to the outfield. Jumping and dancing and tossing his glove in the air, he chattered with his new teammates, occasionally pausing to listen to the coach’s directions.
The teams formed parallel lines to practice throwing and catching. Somehow having generated more energy from having run across the field, Thing2 spun and leapt to his assigned spot. His assigned partner had the ball, and as the three of us migrated around the perimeter to get a better look, we saw him field a grounder with ease.
“Huh,” mumbled Thing1. “He remembered what I showed him last week.” It was Thing2’s turn to toss now, and he jumped and then lobbed the ball across the row to his partner. The other kid missed, and Thing1 called out to his brother, “Keep your elbow in!”
Thing2 heard his brother and smiled and waved just in time to ignore the ball that was coming back to him. He ran and chased and then ran and threw. The ball barely made it to the other kid, and Thing1 gave a loud sigh. “This is just painful,” he mumbled, “he’s forgetting everything I showed him.”
“They’re having fun,” I said. “What’s he doing wrong?”
Thing1 started to explain throwing theory to me just as Thing2 had another throwing turn. Then he saw his little brother pull back his arm for another toss. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve got to go help him. This is just too painful to watch.” Swinging himself over the fence and stuffing his hand into his glove, he marched over to the group of kids.
From the fence on the sideline, I heard him correct Thing2’s. There was no yelling now. He was still serious, however, as he began showing some of the other five- and six-year-olds on Thing1’s row how to catch and throw. The coach waved a welcome at the self-conscious newcomer and turned his focus to another part of the practice line.
Thing2 caught the ball again, earning a pat on the back from his older brother. He looked up, and we both saw the beginning of a smile on Thing1’s face. Then he turned to face his practice partner. Mindful of his elbow, Thing2 pulled his arm back and threw. And the smile turned into a cheer.
Thing2 chattered and danced as we headed back to the car and to breakfast at Bob’s Diner. Thing1 was quieter but no longer sullen. We didn’t try (at least not much) to coax any admission that the game had been fun, and in the end we didn’t need to.
Every Saturday since, he’s surreptitiously and spontaneously found his way onto the field, shedding his somberness for an hour and a half. Thing2 still watches his elbow, but his inner superhero seems to understand that while he’s chasing balls and bases, he’s doing another even more important job.
When our twelve-year-old, Thing1, was about four, he began begging us for a baby brother. He didn’t want more playdates with other boys, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister. Fortunately, we were able to deliver on his request two year later, and, even though we couldn’t take credit for Thing2’s gender, Thing1 was perfectly happy to go along with our contention that Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.
Thing1 took his big-brother responsibilities very seriously. He read to Thing1and held his hand on the jungle gyms. He made sure that I didn’t pick any outfits or Halloween costumes that violated the boy code of ‘not-too-cute’. It didn’t take Thing2 long to decide that his older brother was a hero. Six years later, Thing1 is learning that no good deed goes unpunished.
The two of them share the same wants these days, and the perfect harmony that characterized their early years together goes off key with increasing frequency. They still share a bunk room, and, for a time, I thought the close proximity was the primary cause of their constantly overlapping material desires. But the other night, as the Big Guy and I orchestrated the circus that is homework hour at our house, it became apparent that it does’t always take the opposing forces that lead to conflict don’t have to be equal in size or determination.
The increased expectations and volume of homework this year drove Thing1 to study at the desk we put in his room two years ago. Thing2, however, still needs more supervision if we want his 20 minutes of homework done before eight o’clock at night, and we’ve designated the kitchen table as his study space. Anything can draw our happily distractible six-year-old away from his studies, and, if we don’t keep a close eye on him, we know we’ll find him in the bunk room pestering his older brother.
Last week I had a chance to watch this ballet once more. This time, however, a different angle made it seem like a completely new production. Thing2 had just been restored to his chair after bouncing around the house, showing us his afternoon artwork. Thing1 had the door to their room closed. Hoping a little music would help Thing2 concentrate, I hit play on If I Fell, one of his favorite Beatles’ songs.
My plan backfired immediately. Thing2 began singing, revealing that he wanted to sing Beatles at the school talent show. The love song ended, but instead of bending his head to his work, Thing2 hopped off the chair and ran to the bunkroom, calling to his brother through the door to let him know about the talent show plans.
“Leave me alone,” Thing1 yelled through the door. “I’m trying to work!” I ordered Thing2 back to his seat and opened the door to let Thing1 know yelling at his brother should be reserved for actual crimes. He came out to defend his reaction and, after we discussed the right tone to use with his parents, Thing1 trudged back to his desk. Thing2, watched the exchange and hopped up again as soon as his brother began his retreat. It was like watching a match chasing a long fuse.
I got up to pull my first-grader back to his homework before a fight broke out, but when I got to the door of the bunk room, Thing2 was hanging on the back of his brother’s chair, arms wrapped tightly around Thing1’s neck, consoling him while revealing his talent show plans. Thing1, still miffed, was trying to write while ignoring the stranglehold, but then I saw him pat his baby brother’s hand. At that moment I knew he also realized that this wasn’t pestering. It was worship. Sometimes it hurts, but even when he’s trying to find breathing space, Thing1 seems to understand that being someone’s hero is not just a responsibility; it’s a gift.