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.

Goodnight half moon

If you’re not from Central New York, you may not understand the significance of this little bakery gem.

Not the perfect example, but a respectable effort.

It’s a half moon cookie, not to be confused with New York City’s black and white cookie, which looks similar to the naked eye, but is something else entirely.

Half moon cookies were part of my childhood. There were many shops in the Mohawk Valley that sold them, but they were not all created equal. There was one little bakery in the village of Fort Plain that made the perfect half moon. They made the éclair to end all éclairs too, but we little boys couldn’t get enough of their half moons.

I remember going to the bakery with my mother, before I was old enough for school. The ladies who worked there knew us, and they never failed to offer me a free cookie as they boxed up our order. I was a shy kid, and even though I wanted that cookie like nobody’s business, I always said no to the first offer. They knew me well enough to not take my no for an answer. I always came out with a free cookie, in spite of my hindering bashfulness.

There are no half moon cookies where I live now. For years, a requisite part of any visit back home was a trip to that Fort Plain bake shop. Those perfect half moons were the delicious taste of childhood at a small-town price that was nothing less than a steal. Then, about 10 years ago, the bakery closed down. I don’t know why, but I suspect a fragile, rural economy and aging ownership had something to do with it.

In the years since, I haven’t had any half moons. Any other bakery’s cookies would disappoint me, so I resigned that piece of my childhood to history.

A few weeks ago, I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia for the half moon. I found a bakery in a different part of the Mohawk Valley that would ship a dozen cookies to me. Emotion got the better of me. Even though I expected to be disappointed, I paid more than I should have for the shipment.

I envisioned sharing the experience with my boys, but they had no interest in the cookies. They’d never seen half moons before, and these cookies were too far out of their experience to be appealing. They wouldn’t even take a taste. So I froze the cookies and ate them one by one at my leisure. They were not perfect cookies, but they were better than my cautious expectations (even after a 3-day journey). The most disappointing thing about them was that none of my boys was interested in sharing in them. Some things must pass away with the generations.

In the end, it was my own sweet journey back in time, and another bitter revelation that you can’t go home again. Childhood, after all, is for children. And that’s how it should be.

The beasts awaken

Mommy’s new job means she leaves the house each morning before we four boys wake up. Mommy is the big winner in this new reality, because none of the men she leaves behind wake up pretty.

The first to wake up is Daddy. He is not a morning person, but he has seen enough dawns to realize the world wasn’t designed for night owls, and he must suck it up, even as he bounces off the bathroom door frame, which he walked into sideways.

After Daddy showers and shaves, he wakes up Big Brother. Big Brother is also not a morning person. He knows 7 a.m. is a horrible time to wake up. This makes angriness a constant part of his morning routine. Big Brother shuffles to the bathroom to assemble his many complaints for the day and do an inventory of all the aches that, in a just world, would keep him home from school.

Next to rise is Buster. He is less of a non-morning person. This is not to say he won’t be in a bad mood in the morning, it’s just that he is equally likely to be nudged into surliness in the afternoon or evening. Buster often wakes up by himself. He gives Daddy a nice hug, and it all goes downhill from there. Making him brush his teeth could be the thing that sends him into a funk. Or it might be the criminal lack of donuts for breakfast. Asking him to write out his spelling words before the test is a surefire way to send him into a spiral of grunts and foot stomping.

Children who study their spelling words can win handsome plaques. Or maybe it’s for clean teeth. Probably not a donut-eating award. Image: Harris & Ewing

Big Man is the wild card. Sometimes he wakes up early and sometimes he pushes sleep to the limit. Big Man is unlikely to be angry. He’s just very sleepy. Even when he gets up early, he often drags his blanket downstairs to curl up on the floor. He likes to stay in his pajamas, regardless of where he needs to be. He takes his time about getting around to breakfast. Big Man’s saving grace is that when he puts up a stink, at least he argues using English words instead of grunting his rebuttals like his caveman brothers.

Of the four, only Daddy shows any urgency about getting people where they need to be on time. The poor, hopeless man struggles against the current of chronological apathy every day, and every day it comes near drowning him in tardiness.

It is a maelstrom of his own making. Who gave Big Brother a nature that recoils from the rising sun? Who gave Buster the expectations of a prince in the robes of a pauper? Who gave Big Man the English language, to spout in endless explanation of why it’s not yet the right moment to put his shoes on, instead of just putting his damned shoes on?

I don’t know. Maybe it was Mommy.

Focus on the good guys

After I get all my hugs and kisses, I go to the garage and get into my car, ready to drive to work. This morning Big Man came to the door as I was about to leave. “Wait! I have to tell you something!” he yelled from the threshold.

I rolled down the window. “What is it?”

“If you see somebody, and it’s a bad guy, tell us. Call us!”

“Okay, I will,” I answered.

There was no particular impetus for this request that I know about. It’s not as if Big Man lives his life in fear of bad guys, but he doesn’t like to let his guard down either.

Big Man and Buster like to keep the family protected from bad guys. They don’t always have a sharp picture in their minds about who these bad guys are, but they have little doubt they’ll know ‘em when they see ‘em.

Whenever they build forts, they make sure the entrances are well-protected so the bad guys can’t get in. They keep plenty of Nerf ammunition behind the ramparts in case the bad guys are foolish enough to try them.

Big Brother is not as interested in erecting fortifications throughout the house anymore. He fights his bad guys in Fortnite. He does his best work for the forces of light from the couch, a game controller his only weapon.

One evening, Big Man barricaded the two of us in the back room so we could watch TV together without being bothered by any bad guys. In that instance bad guys might a have been a euphemism for big brothers. I’m not sure. All I know is I had to dig myself out of the room when I wanted a snack. Next time, put the barricades on the far side of the fridge, General.

Looking out for bad guys

Build your fort, look out for bad guys, and most importantly, don’t barricade the path to the ice cream sammiches.

Clearly, these boys don’t have a consistent picture of who the bad guys are. That’s understandable. Lots of people have trouble identifying bad guys. The world changes its mind about who the bad guys are all the time. I’m not worried about that.

What’s more important to me is these boys know what good guys look like. I’d like them to know who they see in the mirror.

I have many aspirations for our boys. I want them to be happy and successful. I want them to find their talents. I want them to form healthy relationships. High on the list of things I want is this: I want them to be, in the big things and in the little things, good guys.