Nat stood in just his white underwear and began to dress. First, he pulled on his tights that were pink because his mother could not find red at Montgomery Ward’s. The four-year-old looked in the mirror, they were snug like the costume was supposed to be. Next were red-striped tube socks he yanked up close to his knees.
He looked at his reflection again, then grabbed a white t-shirt. On the chest, he’d drawn a black oval with four black lines on each side with a magic marker that he’d executed perfectly. Lastly, Nat opened his sock drawer and slipped another pair over each hand and arm and tugged them as far past the elbow as they’d go.
Staring into the vanity atop his dresser, he stepped back with his left leg, his right bent at the knee, and extended both arms with palms upward, pinky and index pointed straight forward. “Fftt, fftt,” he said.
“Nat? Natty?” His mom called from the living room. “Let’s see.”
He stuck his head out and looked right and left before pouncing into the corridor. “Nat,” Carrie started to yell again when her little boy bounded into view. “Fftt, fftt,” he went as he sprayed her with invisible strands. “Wow, you look awesome, buddy,” she said, even though his costume was ridiculous. The kid beamed.
“Here, let me get a picture,” his mom said. Natty dropped down into his Spider-man pose while she clicked away. She tried not to laugh–knew she shouldn’t–but couldn’t resist. Nat stood up straight and furrowed his brow.
As his mother stifled her chuckle he imagined a different scenario. There was a giant web, his mom in the middle of it struggling, in the far right corner was a little boy’s head with blonde bangs on a fat spider body. His mother writhed as he neared, sharpened teeth at the corners of his drooling mouth, a menacing leer. “Who’s laughing now?” the spider said to his prey.
“Nat. Nat?” Carrie asked. “Nat!” The boy broke out of his daydream and looked at his mom. She was still smiling at him. “Come here and give me a hug.” The web crawler slumped his shoulders and skulked over to her open arms. “You are so cute,” she said, as the spider devoured the bug.
The tree hid the child. Enveloped in its green oval leaves, he sat on one of its branches. No one could see him, not his father or his friend, but he could vaguely make them out if he tilted his head the right way. He could also hear them, their laughing and loud voices. A stereo played something that sounded familiar but was too faint for him to tell.
He’d only been out here for a few minutes, seeking solace and sympathy in the foliage after his dad had told him to leave him alone, “just for a second.” The child was only trying to ask for a drink of water, but if he was really being honest he’d admit to being jealous of his father’s affection for someone the child had never even met.
“An old friend,” his dad said, which seemed fine enough in the car. He was always intrigued by his father’s interest, but when they’d entered and his dad drifted to this old friend, the child felt abandoned and compelled to assert his place in the order of things. Rebuffed, he slunk out to this tree that stood by itself in the side of the yard, as neglected as he felt.
Behind the leaves, the child hugged the tree’s trunk as he heard his father call for him. He stayed on his perch, content to be by himself and make his dad search him out, at least for a second, just like he’d said.
His father yelled for him again. The child watched his dad twist his head, scanning the backyard for any sign until he spotted some color through the leaves–some red and blue, a Captain America shirt?–that didn’t belong in a tree. The child pulled his legs up, as his father stomped toward him.
“Get down right now,” he nearly shouted, and his son eased down. Grabbing him by the waist, the father planted him firmly on the ground. “What were you doing up there?”
The child looked down as his father stared into his face. “Huh?!” His eyes met his dad’s.
“You told me to leave you alone,” the child said in a calm, reasoned voice. Chastened, the father’s anger evaporated. He picked his son up and carried him inside where he sat him down on the kitchen counter. He asked his friend for a cup, filled it with water, and handed it to the child who took a long drink. The father watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall, grabbed his own glass, then turned to his friend. “So, what were we talking about?”
That familiar feeling: things are starting all over again. The wife and oldest son going off to school. Me, I’m not going anywhere, neither is 2yo G. We are going to play, read, eat snack, I’ll do a little housework, at some point go upstairs and get dressed, but then get trapped building train tracks. Finally, we’ll make it to the car and drive around until G falls asleep.
That’s how it went today and will go by and large until mid-June when the old lady’s school year ends. It’s an amazing gig–my job is to literally keep my toddler entertained all day and sometimes it’s really enjoyable. There are sweet moments like when G sits in my lap and we read his little books.
There are of course frustrating moments, like every time he throws a fit. Also frustrating is the lack of activity coupled with the knowledge that the rest of the world is busy out there, commerce is going on, holes are being dug and filled, buildings erected, lives saved and lost, books written, stocks traded, etc. I am part of none of it, barricaded in this little box with my tiny son.
These are the thoughts that run through my head, even while we play, but then G–with his blond bangs and blue eyes–will smile at me or give me and hug and the doubts and uncertainty temporarily vanish. I chose to do this largely because I couldn’t stand the idea of having a stranger raise my kid, at least not just yet. Soon enough, we’ll both be on our own, out in the world, trying not to be devoured.
As my oldest son has grown into his fourth year (and is now nearing five), I’ve thought more and more about what lasting memories he is now developing. Most of my vibrant recollections are from the time he currently occupies, somewhere around three or four years old. And most of them involve my father.
There was the time my dad accidentally hammered his thumb in our backyard in Fayetteville, AR, and then screamed and cursed. Or the time he smashed the car door on his ankle and cursed and screamed. There’s also an odd one. I’m standing in the living room (again in Fayetteville). It was a neat old house on Meadow Street right near the university. My father is sitting on a couch that faced a wooden staircase that led up to an unfinished space where he had an office.
My dad is young (27 or 28 at the time) with longish curling black hair (he was a bit of a hippy) and a face that still carried some baby fat. In my memory–vibrant with rich colors out of a Polaroid–he is smoking something and then offers it to me with a smile on his face. Before I can even consider grabbing it my mother runs in yelling “No, Johnny!” and tears it away from his hand. (Both my parents vehemently denied this ever happening.)
Finally, there is one great memory that is as sweet as the smell of marijuana my dad was pretending to give me that day. We live in Dallas, TX, I am the age my son B is now, and it is very sunny in the living room. Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run is playing (to this day, still my favorite record) and my father is lying on his back with his legs extended toward the ceiling and I am resting on his feet as a ceiling fan twirls behind my head. He is pushing me up into the air, I think we were pretending we were a helicopter with the fan as the blades, and I am laughing and so is he, my blonde bangs billowing in the air with each push.
So what will my sons remember of me? Unfortunately, I scream and curse after incurring physical pain. Just this past Sunday, we were at a playground and I was walking under part of a play set when I stood up too early and smashed the top of my head into a platform. It hurt like hell and so I screamed a couple of times, then cursed. Both of my sons just looked at me (sadly, they are used to this). Will this stick with them? Maybe not this specific incident but surely one of the times I let loose.
Thankfully, there are many moments like the one from Dallas for me and my two boys but I can definitely try to make more by being more invested in their daily lives. Too often, I brush off their requests to play Transformers or color with crayons.
Actually, there’s another incident that has just popped into my mind. I am around four-years-old again and at my grandparents in Illinois. My father and I are wrestling, he is really letting me beat him up, and at some point I push him and he rolls down a set of steps, collapsing at my granny’s feet. She hates this and yells for us to stop but I love it of course.
Now this I can easily do and so yesterday I put on Band on the Run and then crouched on the floor and let B kick and jump on me for half an hour. It really hurt at times, especially the stomps on the back of my head, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, all in the service of good memories.
One of the most enduring stories of my childhood–one that my parents liked to tell regularly all through my life–was that I breastfed until I was two-and-a-half years old. My father would always finish the story by saying that he knew it was time to cut me off when I started walking up to my mom and saying, “I want to nanny-suck.” My parents always laughed at this point, sometimes whoever was listening would laugh, too, sometimes they just got a queasy look on their faces. I usually just sat there smiling, I didn’t really see any harm in breastfeeding that long, why not?
Now that I have a 19-month-old that is still breastfeeding I have two reactions to this story. First of all, I don’t think it was exactly true. I may have said that and that may have been why they decided to stop but there’s no way I was a full year older than my son is now when I quit breastfeeding. I know that because my year-and-half old already walks around talking about how he wants to “eat boo-boos” all the time. Occasionally, this involves my wife sitting on a child’s chair with her shirt hiked up while G stands and feeds.
It’s a strange sight (and not the strangest, but I can’t and won’t go into it) and a little unseemly and has us both thinking about when and how we are going to move G on. Quite honestly, I don’t’ see how my parents could have taken 30 months of breastfeeding. In fact, I don’t see how any parent could because it’s starting to get weird around here.
Sometimes I do the exact opposite that a parent is supposed to do. This morning, for instance, I made myself some toast with butter and strawberry jam and had just taken the first bite when I felt a tug on my leg. There was baby G demanding some toast. I offered him a bite but he didn’t want one. Of course not, he wanted my whole piece of toast. I offered him another bite but that didn’t work, so I tried to divert his attention but he was steadfast.
All I wanted was for G to leave me alone so I could eat. Then I spied a piece of plain toast sitting on the top of our oven–I have no idea what it was doing there–and handed it to him. He accepted it and took off, walking around the kitchen and living room, occasionally eating off it and spreading crumbs everywhere. He even took it upstairs when we went to grab some clothes. At some point, he put it down and as I was writing this I realized I had no idea where it was.
So I went looking and just found it upstairs and gave it back to the kid and now he’s walking around with it once again, dropping crumbs all over the house. It may seem sort of delinquent to let G do this, but it’s allowing me a little space, and honestly, the time to finish this blog. So maybe it’s alright?
I don’t know the answer to this one but I’m trying to figure it out only because I have people frequently tell me that I am one when they find out that I stay at home with my kids. “What a great dad,” they say, if only it were that easy. Just sitting around with them in no way makes me great. I could easily just be tweeting or simply begrudging every minute of it. Not to say I don’t do those things at times, I do.
What makes someone a great dad, though? I would never say I’m great, I think I’m alright at it, even good at times, and I confidently say that not out of any egotism but simply because I put a lot of effort and thought into it. Through all of that, I think I know what it takes to be great, recognizing that I frequently fall short. But I digress…
Being great means when you’re downstairs washing and stacking dishes from the dinner you just made and you’ve spent all day with your kids and it’s Sunday so that means you’re going to spend the next five days after this one with your kids, and the oldest one who stayed up too late the night before and so has been cranky all day and just a couple of hours earlier told you that you are “freakishly annoying” and meanwhile the younger of the two who is only 17mo is upstairs chanting “poop on daddy, poop on daddy” in what may be his first ever complete sentence, when all you really want to do is turn off the tap, quietly slip the car keys off the key ring and slide outside and into the car and just head down the road, and maybe not come back at least for a week, but instead you dry your hands off, and trudge up the steps to the baby who wants to defecate on you and the naked 4yo waiting to take a shower with you who is frantically running around screaming, and you take that shower, maybe you yell at that kid a little you’re in there which is not so great, but then you get out, get dressed and then go sit down with the 17mo and admire the wooden train track he is so proud of and then when he wants the Spider-man toy you were trying to play with you hand it over and then when the 4yo comes over and wants the other Spider-man and the Wolverine action figures you were going to make do with you let go of those, too, and turn your attention back to the 17mo and the train tracks, and then when Mama says it’s time for bed you plead for more playtime, even though it really is bedtime, and then you help the 4yo brush his teeth and then give both boys multiple kisses before heading downstairs to collapse on the couch in front of the football game which thankfully is going into overtime. Well, maybe that’s what it takes to be great, as in epic, as in you gave all you had, or at the least it should qualify as being pretty good, if just for that section of the day.