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 affection police are coming to hug you away

Some things from your youth flow into becoming part of the family culture you build with your children. From earliest childhood I was taught to stay out of the way. Doctors have their “first do no harm” principle and farm kids have their “first get out of the way” maxim. You don’t have to be doing the most important chore so long as you aren’t hindering the person who is. My boys aren’t farm kids, but I try to stress this awareness. I can’t teach staying out of the way as well as an 800 pound bull can, but I try.

Other parts of your upbringing you reconsider with your own children. I grew up in a non-huggy, non-kissy environment. My wife, who has far fewer Germans in her lineage, is all hugs all the time. While I am still not a confident hugger of adult people, I’ve adopted her system with our children.

I can’t imagine not hugging and kissing our children every day; it’s become so routine now for me to do it. Also, our children will not suffer themselves to be robbed of their rightful hugs and kisses. Mommy’s warm blood seems to have conquered my aloof genetics within them.

They are the affection police.

At bedtime I have to give three hugs and three kisses to make the world right for sleeping. Big Man’s kiss is actually a carefully choreographed series of kisses. He takes my head firmly between his hands and stamps my lips upon his face as he turns his head side to side. If I pull away before the process is complete, we have to start over. The same goes for Mommy.

This old picture of them kissing each other is more appealing than a new picture of them kissing their crusty old dad.

At 3 a.m. one morning I awoke to a boy standing beside my bed. I expected to hear the sad tale of a bad dream. Instead I heard mournful reality. “You didn’t hug me when I went to bed,” Buster lamented. That is, I didn’t hug him to his satisfaction. The midnight raid was just so I understand who is privileged to interpret the law.

Going to work is another ripe occasion for hugs and kisses. There is a program for this as well. Big Brother gets his at the table where does his reading. The little boys go to the door. Big Man is very particular about where he gets his hug and kiss. He will position me at the threshold if I am lax in my staging.

Mommy is last to get her kiss. Once, when I gave her only a quick peck, Big Man stepped forward, giving me a stern glance. “And a hug,” he demanded. I gave Mommy a proper hug and was allowed on my way.

Big Man isn’t always pro-hug. If I hug Mommy too long when neither of us is going away, he steps in to break it up. He doesn’t know where it might lead, but as reigning baby of the family, instinct tells him it could be dangerous.

Brotherly love: the bruise that keeps on giving

The other night, after feeling the baby in Mommy’s belly, my son came over to announce to me that his little brother had kicked him. “What?” I asked. “You two are fighting already?” I knew it would come to this, but I’d imagined that we would have peace until his brother was born. I should have known better, because if there is one thing I have a little experience with, it is brothers.

I have four brothers, three of them older. Any toughness I have in my constitution is largely thanks to them. They did an outstanding job of terrorizing my childhood toughening me up. Every charred spot on the back lawn, its black silhouette exactly matching the shape of one of my model airplanes, made me a stronger person. Every one of my toy soldiers fed to the dog prepared me a little more for the hard knocks of life. Their mangled, tooth-marked bodies were a constant reminder of the dangers of getting too close to the men.

I have confidence that my son will do a good job in teaching brotherly life lessons to his new sibling. He will, no doubt, learn a few things himself. There are a lot of useful things that brothers teach each other. If you never had a brother, you might be tempted to retreat when someone jumps out at you from a hiding place. Retreat invites attack. A brother teaches you that you should charge and punch that someone square in the middle as hard as you can. Further, you should keep punching until the threat is adequately diminished.


And they called this the brothers' war? Milquetoasts! My family could have shown these Quakers a thing or two about how to throw down.

Brothers teach each other how to sleep in defensible positions. Just because it’s dark and the house seems quiet, don’t assume that a heavy body won’t land on top of you of a sudden, pinning you down on your bed. Don’t tie up your limbs in blankets, making yourself vulnerable to attack. Keep an arm free, so you can at least get a handful of ear or something. A would-be attacker with an ear that still hurts from last time is more likely to think twice before he pounces.

I don’t envision adding three more boys to my brood, so my sons will have to work overtime if they hope to teach each other all the lessons my brothers taught me. I wish I could lend them a hand, but there are some things you can only learn from a brother. If Dad nails one of the boys in the back of the head with a snowball, it’s not so much a learning opportunity as it is child abuse.

A boy needs to learn how to anticipate an ambush from his big brother. If he has multiple big brothers, he may be fortunate enough to have this teachable moment reinforced with a second snowball to his neck. The neck snowball does not pack the same instant enlightenment as the skull snowball, but the red welt is a good reminder for up to a week.

If their shirts are any indication, these brothers were out back educating each other with dirt clods. Nothing brings home an important lesson quite like a dirt clod up side the head.

My wife did not grow up with male siblings, so I’m not sure how much she knows about the educational services brothers offer each other. One thing I do know is that, in the coming years, she will find out.