The burden of helpful children

If you live among deciduous trees, you know dry leaves are much easier to clean up than wet leaves are. If you live with an 11-year-old, you know this is the sort of fact he must learn the hard way.

There are many, many things an 11-year-old has not learned yet. He has learned it’s not nearly as fun to help Dad with yard work as it seems like it should be. Hence, he doesn’t offer to help as much as he did when he was young and callow about such things.

Occasionally, Big Brother will be overcome with the nostalgic temptation to help out. If he were older and better disciplined, he might be strong enough to overcome this temptation. But he’s not older, so everyone will pay the price of his weakness.

During the prime season to clear leaves from our lawn, it rained, and rained some more. Then we got a snow storm. Most November snow melts within a day or two. This snow covered the ground for a week.

Even after the snow melted, the nights were cold, leaving a thick layer of frost on everything. If the sun warmed the day, this frost melted into another soaking for our lawn of leaves.

The back yard leaves, undisturbed by overzealous children, wait for the unlikely combination of dry weather and a weekend.

Saturday morning there was an ample frost. When I went out to clean the gutters and found the leaves collected there were frozen in place, I determined it was not the right time to mess around with the leaves on the ground. Big Brother didn’t get the memo.

While I found other chores, Big Brother came outside and decided it was his morning to be helpful. He grabbed a rake an made a pile of wet leaves on the front lawn.

When it gets to be late November, even thinly spread leaves need a little luck to dry. A pile of leaves is nature’s permanent wet sock. This was the wet sock Big Brother saddled us with, only it was in the middle of our front lawn, so we couldn’t let it be permanent.

There were two options: spread the leaves back out over the lawn like some ass-backward fools, or go ahead and bag the soggy mess. We chose to charge ahead, though I think Big Brother would have preferred a plan of action that involved going inside and letting the pile shift for itself.

It took a lot longer to clean up that pile than it should have, with those wet clumps clogging up my leaf vacuum every 30 seconds or so, but it gave me a good chance to teach Big Brother a few lessons. Aside from the difference between wet leaves and dry leaves, he learned that when you start a job, you don’t leave it half done because it’s taking longer than you expected.

Probably, the lesson he took nearest to heart was to put up a better fight against that rare and unexplainable impulse to make himself helpful to Dad.

When you wish upon a chicken bone

A couple of Sundays ago we smoked a whole chicken. After all the meat was cut off, I showed Buster and Big Man the wishbone. I explained that if two people tugged at the wishbone, the person who got the bigger piece when it broke could make a wish. Buster was lukewarm to this chicken bone voodoo, but Big Man was intrigued.

Big Man wanted to give the wishbone a good yank right then, but I insisted we wait a day until it dried out. I put it behind the sink to dry and Big Man only asked three more times that night if it were ready to break.

The next morning, before school, he asked me again. He came home from school asking about the wishbone. It was dry by then so I let him pull it with me. Using all the structural physics he has learned up to Kindergarten, he deftly twisted his end upward so the greater stress applied to my side. My end broke, leaving him in possession of the larger part, and the right to a wish.

Winner! Winner! A day after the chicken dinner!

“I wish for a tower of candy!” he announced without hesitation.

I had hardly disposed of my losing sliver of bone before he began asking when his candy would appear.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “That’s the thing about wishes; sometimes they come true and sometimes they don’t.”

He furrowed his brow. “What good is a wish if it doesn’t come true?”

“If all wishes came true, you could have everything you ever wanted,” replied the man without a handy tower of candy. “And we know that isn’t the way it goes, don’t we?”

Reluctantly, “Yes.”

“We’ll just have to see if this wish comes true. But you have to be patient. Even wishes that come true can take a long time.”

He inquired about his tower of candy for a few days, then moved on to other concerns. I almost forgot about too, once he quit reminding me every 20 minutes.

At the store, some days later, I recalled the wish. For about $5 and a few pieces of tape, a modest tower of candy was assembled and left where he would find it.

Not quite the Swiss Colony tower of chocolate, but for the price of a broken chicken bone, not bad.

I expected him to be disappointed at its size. I imagined him envisioning a tower taller than himself. He said not a single word of complaint. He was happy to have the candy, but he was thrilled that his wish had come true.

It wasn’t about candy; it was about magic.

I made sure to remind him that although this wish came true, it doesn’t happen all the time. Soon enough he will be wishing for a car, and I can’t patch that together with tape.

Seeing his wish come true was a precious moment, but it didn’t stop us from switching to smoked pork ribs. We need to steer clear of animals with wishbones before I’m overcome by wishes.

You can depend on the Tooth Fairy – eventually

Our Tooth Fairy has always been flaky. She was unreliable when she first started calling at our house, and she’s unreliable still.

Poor Big Man had to have a tooth extracted. He took the news better than his big brothers would have. He didn’t cry or have to be dragged kicking and screaming. He was stoic about the entire procedure.

At five years old, I’d have faced such a procedure as impending doom. When I was eight, it took six medical professionals to hold me down to take blood, and that didn’t leave a hole, so at five I would have fought gum and nail over my bad tooth.

Big Man’s courage amazed me. He faced the dentist with aplomb. He even asked to take the extracted tooth home.

He wanted to examine his tooth as soon as he got home. It was saved in a tiny treasure chest, and he revered it like a treasure. Seeing my child’s tooth, complete with roots, not at all resembling the nub that would eventually have fallen out on its own, made me feel guilty for the operation he had endured.

The name of this chest seems a little ironic for the holder of a tooth that couldn’t be saved.

Big Man showed no regrets. He was fascinated by his tooth. He turned it over in his fingers, pointing out interesting features to me. It was all very clinical.

Except it wasn’t, really.

Big Man gets attached to odd things for brief periods. He instantly became attached to his separated tooth. He carried the little chest around the house with him for days. He fretted over losing it. He even wanted to take it to his soccer game.

We talked about selling the tooth to the Tooth Fairy, but he wanted to keep it for a while. He wasn’t ready to give up such an interesting specimen.

Until he was, suddenly and without notice.

Four days after the extraction, when I woke him for school, he reached under his pillow and pulled out his treasure chest. “The Tooth Fairy didn’t give me money,” he announced with disappointment. He was more upset about this than having the tooth pulled in the first place. “I want my money!”

The attachment was over, but our Tooth Fairy didn’t get the memo. “You have to tell your parents when you put your tooth under your pillow,” I told him, “so the Tooth Fairy knows it’s okay to take it. That’s the rule.”

“No it’s not.”

“How do you know? Did you even go to the library and ask for the book of Tooth Fairy rules?”

“No. But that’s not a rule.”

“Let’s test it. Put it under your pillow tonight and the Tooth Fairy will know it’s okay to take it.”

This was far from satisfactory, but it was better than sleeping with a tooth he no longer cherished night after night. He waited another day for our unreliable fairy.

It was a special tooth from a brave boy, so the next night the Tooth Fairy made amends by leaving a little extra.

The case of the missing chicken, and other family conspiracies

If you know children, you know people who aren’t very good at keeping track of things. Our boys are always asking if we know where their wallets and piggy banks are. After Big Brother’s last baseball tournament, Buster and I had to walk from the parking lot all the way back to the farthest diamond to retrieve some LEGOs he’d left on a picnic table. Even such precious things are difficult for children to keep.

On Friday, Buster had a baseball game. My wife brought home chicken tenders and burgers for a quick dinner before we went to the park. Everyone ate all their food, but after the game Buster came home thinking he had saved a strip of chicken for himself. He was distraught to find no chicken awaiting him. His disappointment turned to tears, then anger, as he accused everyone he found of throwing his intended post-game feast into the garbage.

On Sunday, Big Man went grocery shopping with me. He had a birthday dollar and was allowed to spend it on candy. He picked out a little box of those taffy strip type things. He ate some after lunch, but soon lost track of the remainder.

Meanwhile, proving she can also be a kid at heart, my wife looked for some leftover biscuits she’d made the day before. She wanted them with dinner, but couldn’t find the dish. “Did you guys eat all my biscuits?” she asked us.

“Don’t you remember? You served them at lunch,” I reminded her. She never loses sight of her piggy bank though.

After dinner, Big Man remembered his candy, but he could not find it. “Somebody took my candy!” he announced.

“I think I saw some on the floor by the coffee table,” I told him.

He went to look but came back just as much a crime victim as when he left. “It’s not there. Somebody stole it!”

Before this turned into a courtroom scene between him and his brothers, Mommy went with him to look again. They came back with the remaining candy, retrieved from under the coffee table.

Mommy shook her head. “You kids always think somebody’s taking your stuff, when you just can’t keep track of it. Buster thought somebody threw out his chicken. You think somebody stole your candy.”

Big Man folded his arms and gave her his best Too-Big-for-my-Britches look. “And you think somebody ate your biscuits.”

“Did you hear what he said to me?” she asked me.

“Yup,” I replied. “He nailed you on that one. As the boys would say, you just got roasted.”

You got Roasted! (It’s a more literal definition for chickens.)