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.

The opposable thumb of our family

Buster and Big Man got into a debate, separate and apart from the many outright fights they have over LEGOs, somebody calling somebody else Butt Cheek, or the billion other potential provocations. This debate involved no hitting or kicking, probably because I intervened before it had a chance to run its normal course.

The debate revolved around the fingers of the hand as they related to our family structure. We happen to be a family of five, which means each person gets to be represented by a digit on the standard human hand.

They agreed that Daddy was the middle finger, because of its relative length, not because of its proclivity to become rude when left unattended. Mommy was the ring finger, because in our family, ring fingers run slightly taller than index fingers, just like Mommy is still slightly taller than Big Brother. Conversely, Big Brother was the index finger.

The point of contention was over which of the debaters was the pinky finger and which was the thumb. Each boy claimed to be the pinky finger and relegated the other to the distant position of the thumb.

The thumb is set apart and stands on a lower pedestal than the rest. This is what they saw when they looked at their hands. It was different and apart. Nobody wanted to be either of those things.

Our family hand print as debated by Buster and Big Man. Image Credit: Buster’s right hand.

They went on casting each other in the role of thumb, without a thought to its uniqueness or value.

Because the debate was becoming annoyingly monotonous, somebody had to step in and tell them who was right and who was wrong.

“You’re both wrong,” I told them. They looked at me with incredulous faces. How could they both be wrong? There were only two positions in question, and between them, they had all the possibilities covered.

I held up my hand and pointed out the fingers. Daddy was the middle finger. Big Brother was the ring finger. Buster was the index finger (although there are certain properties of the middle finger that suit him best). Big Man was the pinky, and Mommy was the thumb.

They stared at me dumbstruck. How could Mommy be the lowly thumb, the digit nobody wanted to be?

How little they understood the miracle of the thumb, the digit that brings all the fingers up to their potential.

“It’s true,” I told them. “Mommy is the opposable thumb of this family. She’s the one who makes it all work. She is what separates us from the animals. Without her, we might as well be a family of skunks.”

Somebody farted.

Well, Mommy does her best to differentiate us from a family of skunks, but she has her work cut out for her in this house full of stinky boys. Sometimes I think she should move away to someplace nice and let us revert to our natural state, but a good thumb never abandons the hand.

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.