One man’s coffee . . .

The other night, Big Man saw me pouring hot water into a mug. “Are you making coffee?” He asked.

“No. I’m making tea.”

“Oh,” he said. “I want some coffee with strawberries in it.”

I made a face. “Strawberry coffee? That sounds horrible.”

“It sounds good,” he insisted.

“How do you know? You don’t even know what coffee tastes like.”

“Yes, I do.”

“How? You’ve never had coffee.”

“Yes I have.”

“When?”

“At Andrew’s house. His mom gave it to me.”

“No. She didn’t give you coffee.”

“Yes she did. We went out to play in the snow and then we came back in the house and she gave us coffee because we were cold.”

“She wouldn’t give little kids coffee.”

“She did. She gave all the kids coffee. She put it in cup just like that.” He pointed at my mug. “And we all drank coffee.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. With marshmallows on top.”

Swiss miss coffee

We don’t have any, but some of the fancy preschoolers have coffee that comes with the marshmallows already in it.

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What lies beneath

In matters of the heart, our boys are all boy. When it comes to demonstrating emotions toward each other, that demonstration usually takes the form of a punch or a blind-side tackle. Sure, they play and joke together, but when one inspires a deep feeling within another, that feeling is generally somewhere between annoyance and anger.

That’s what makes it so much extra soft and fuzzy when the moon turns blue and they show some genuine warmth for each other.

Last weekend was Big Brother’s league basketball tournament. This was the biggest tournament of the year, and he had been looking forward to it. The Thursday before the tournament, Big Brother got sick. We thought he’d be better in time, but when he woke Saturday morning it became clear he wouldn’t be able to play.

He and I were both disappointed. As he sat in his pajamas, coming to terms with disappointment and his physical discomforts, Buster took me by the arm and whispered into my ear. “Can you make him stay upstairs and you come downstairs with me?”

Big Brother didn’t look like he was going downstairs in the next few minutes, so I just went down with Buster. “Can you get me paper and a pencil?” Buster asked, leading me toward the drawing paper the boys use to make birthday cards for their friends’ parties.

I got him a piece of paper and a crayon, because crayons are better than pencils for Hallmark occasions. He sat at the dining room table and folded the paper into card form. Looking up at me, he said, “I need help with the words.”

I nodded. “What do you want to say?”

He told me his thoughts and I spelled the words for him. He wrote the letters as I dictated.

 

The best cards are made of crayon on paper.

All the words were his. Only the spelling was mine, except for the word “BAeTter” where he kind of got ahead of me. It didn’t matter. The meaning was clear.

A mouthful for a boy to say to his brother.

Big Brother came downstairs. Buster made me stand guard so Big Brother wouldn’t come into the dining room. When Buster was finally done with the illustrations, he handed the card to Big Brother with the understated, brotherly tenderness that comes with the single word: “Here.” “Here” is the most caring word in a boy’s lexicon when it accompanies a hand bearing a heartfelt gift.

Big Brother read the card. He didn’t know how to react. At last, the brotherly instinct took over. His face brightened just a bit. “That’s really nice,” he told Buster. He put the card down on the coffee table and life went back to normal.

Everything that needed to be done or said was done and said. The exchange lasted a brief instant, and that was exactly the right length for it. If it had gone longer, it would have turned fake.

This was real, and it had to be allowed to sink down underneath, where brothers keep it.

 

The sledding hills have changed but the cold feet are the same

When I was a kid, we used to sled down the big hill behind the barn. There were two runs, neither of them safe by today’s standards. The front run was straight and long. A barbed wire fence ran across the bottom of it. The side run was shorter, but steeper than the front run. At its bottom was a six-foot drop into a creek bed. Along the edges of both runs were thorny bushes and, here and there, a small tree. It was great.

Nobody got killed, although there was at least one snow suit torn by barbed wire. The worst injury I remember was when I ran my sled into the prickers and scratched my cornea. I had to wear a patch over my eye for three days. It wasn’t even a cool pirate patch – just some cotton taped over my eye.

If it sounds like I’m just blowing hard about how tough a kid I was, I’m not. I was so shaken by the idea of wearing cotton taped over my eye for three days, I fainted right there in the doctor’s office. This was the first time a doctor made me swoon. It wouldn’t be the last.

My children don’t sled as much as I did. We don’t have cow pastures with big hills in them. We have to drive to a hill. Mommy is not on good terms with winter and I don’t enjoy being cold nearly as much as I used to, so sledding isn’t common.

I feel guilty about this, so sometimes I put on my thermal skivvies and take the boys out. We go to a park with a big hill. Devoid of barbed wire, tree stumps, and watercourse embankments, the hill is safe by 21st century standards. This is a good thing; emergency room waits are much longer than the wait for our old family doctor used to be.

The most dangerous part of our modern, suburban sledding is getting up the hill with all the other park-going kids chomping at the bit to slide down. It’s kind of like outdoor bowling.

Big Brother headed for the steepest part of the hill, but the little boys wanted to take the path less traveled. This was gentle slope with deeper snow, where sometimes gravity alone was not enough to get them down the hill. My job became to push them down the hill and then pull them back up.

the power behind the sled

This fancy sled comes with a 1-Kidpower outboard motor.

Eventually they got brave enough to try a spot where I only had to pull them back up. This was major breakthrough for my sledding longevity. I even got to ride the sled down with them once.

One thing that hasn’t changed is feet still get cold in the snow. When Buster’s feet got cold, it began the 20-minute process of collecting all our people and sleds at the bottom of the hill. It’s hard when your feet hurt but you still want to play in the snow. I remember that every bit as well as the eye patch.

Mashed potatoes, gravy, and the power of of suggestion

If you’ve ever had to feed kids, you know a story just like this one.

For Sunday dinner I made the boys roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I went to the extra trouble to make the gravy from scratch because store-bought gravy is always likely to turn at least one of them against me.

History said I should have an easy time selling this meal. There aren’t many meals that somebody won’t complain about, but this one should have been in that small set they all could live with.

Except History can be turned upside down by a seemingly innocuous event.

While I was mashing the potatoes, I added some cheese, like I do every time. Big Brother happened through the kitchen and saw this. The sight left him aghast. Apparently, he has never seen me mashing potatoes before.

“Ewww! You’re putting cheese in the potatoes! That’s gross!”

I explained that all the mashed potatoes he’s ever eaten had cheese in them. I was not convincing. These potatoes were tainted. Little did I know, it was not only the potatoes.

Buster had overheard the cheese kerfuffle, but not necessarily the specifics of it. After the first taste of his gravy, he grimaced. “This gravy tastes like it has cheese in it!”

For the record, I did not, nor do I ever, put cheese in the gravy. Also for the record, these kids love cheese.

I reassured him there was no cheese in his gravy, but my words were futile against the evidence provided by his discriminating tongue and suggestible subconscious.

cheese gravy

Better dump a lot of gravy on to drown out the cheese in those potatoes – unless the gravy is made from cheese. (Photo: Russell Lee/U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Dinner proved to be a struggle, with only Big Man willingly eating his food, because he didn’t care if it had cheese as long as it tasted good.

On Monday, I gave us all a break and fed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Nobody complained about the cheese.

We still had leftover roast and potatoes to eat and by Tuesday I was up for another try. As I was warming it, Buster made a skeptical request to taste the gravy so he could go to full Battle Stations by the time I put his food in front of him.

He took a tiny taste and proclaimed. “This tastes like it doesn’t have any more cheese in it.”

Thank goodness for our cheese-absorbing fridge.

Big Brother overheard. “There’s not any cheese in this one?” he asked, meaning the leftover potatoes.

“No,” I replied, not really lying, because the conversation was actually about the gravy.

Nobody complained. Half way through dinner, Big Brother declared: “I would rate this food five stars.”

“What about last time you had it?” I asked, wondering if I should hug him or put him in a head lock.

“Not even one star. Half a star.”

I guess my dinners get better with age. Maybe it takes time for all that nasty cheese to settle out.