Saturday, January 07, 2006


In Which There Are Little Prides and Big Ones...

As some of you may know from reading the latest Art Lad, Thomas started the new year in a new seating configuration at school, ending up with all boys at his table (apparently he was too distracted when he was seated with girls). One of the boys at his new table is a young fellow named Luis, who speaks only a few words of English. Sadly, my son's school is not as diverse as I'd like, both in its student body make-up and its curriculum. And it occurred to me it must be very hard to be the only kid in the class for whom English is a second language. To his credit, Thomas took it upon himself to try to learn some Spanish via Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer. I was really impressed with the effort.

Obviously so was his teacher, since this week she handed Thomas a coveted "Caught Ya!" award. As in "Caught Ya Doing Something Good!" They're just little coupons the teacher hands out when the kids show good character or good manners or good behavior without being told. If they get enough of the coupons, they can redeem them for prizes.

When Thomas displayed his Caught Ya certificate, Her Lovely Self and I naturally made a big deal and told him how proud we were. Being his father's son, Thomas wasn't content to rest on just that one laurel and he wanted to know what else about him made us proud (his innate humility and modesty, for example). So we thought of one or two other recent examples and it was a general Art Lad lovefest over dinner.

The Brownie was quite taken by the little Caught Ya certificate (and probably even more taken by the idea that they could be redeemed for a prize, much like a gift card). She was uncharacteristically silent through dinner, and more than once picked up Thomas' certificate and simply looked at it.

But when I put her to bed that night, she finally said what was on her mind. "Daddy, when I go to Thomas' school next year, will I get a Caught Ya?"

Quickly shunting aside the idea of my baby actually riding a bus to school next year and being one more step farther from being my baby any more, I answered more or less automatically, "Of course, honey. I'm sure you'll earn them."

She was silent for another moment. Then she said. "Do I do good things now that you and Mom get proud of?"

"Of course. Just because Mom and I don't hand out Caught Ya's doesn't mean we're not proud of things you do."

"Like what? Tell me."

"The basement," I said almost instantly.


And of course, even though she was there and knew exactly what I was referring to, she wanted me to recap the moment. As I'm sure one or two of you do too. So, dear reader, we must return to my in-laws where, despite having a lovely time, there were still some skirmishes and immature behavior from the louder, more excitable, shriller members of the family. And sometimes the children were unruly too.

In this particular instance, the Brownie, Thomas and my nephew Gregory (brother to the lovely, recently adopted Grace) were running around the house like crazy people and were told to go play in the basement and that's where the trouble started. The two boys are very much alike, although a year separates them in age. The main characteristic they share is a certain anxiety of, well, everything. I've mentioned before how Thomas can regularly get anxious about being by himself, entering a dark room, or any of a number of common childhood situations that can leave him literally standing in one place, quivering like a Chihuahua. Gregory is just as bad, although he acts the tough guy.

At the grandparents, they didn't like to play in the basement by themselves because, even though there were two of them down there (three, counting the Brownie), they were still scared. My in-laws addressed this issue using the old-school method of trying to humiliate them in front of a living room full of friends and relatives.

"A couple of big tough boys like you, scared to play in the basement?" my mother-in-law asked in mock incredulity. Oh yeah, I thought, shaming them into being brave. That'll work. But I can't exactly blame her. In fairness, I have to admit, even I get impatient with Thomas' seemingly unending anxiety. And there have been times--to my unbearable chagrin--when I've become exasperated with him. Granted, I've tried never to humiliate him in front of others in an effort to get him to get over it, but still.

And after all, I was a pretty anxious kid myself. I was scared of the dark and I was often frightened by things I saw on TV, especially TV commercials featuring elephants (don't ask). I also had an unreasoning fear of the actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who starred in The F.B.I., a program I was never allowed to watch, but once in a while I'd catch snippets of it, and it always sounded like awful things were happening. Once, I remember an episode about a child being kidnapped and for years afterwards had a fear of being abducted. Though he played a good guy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. came to stand for every bad thing that could happen to a little kid like me.

Compared to that kind of anxiety, being nervous about being alone in a strange basement didn't sound all that unreasoning to me, although it was curious. Understand, my in-laws lower level isn't exactly a root cellar. It's a proper basement, partially finished, with carpeting and beanbags and a TV and boxes of toys. It's a bit cool in the winter but the finished portion is actually quite comfortable. In fact, it was built with kids in mind.

Nevertheless, this area also contains two doors that lead to two unfinished portions of the basement. Both boys had seen in to the gloomy depths beyond the doors. And it spooked them to know that so much darkness was just being held in check by a simple door or two. The more they thought about it, the more their fear grew and in short order, here they were, back upstairs with the grown-ups. All they wanted was for one of us to sit down there or maybe even play with them. But the assorted grandpeople and aunts and uncles were too busy with their own affairs.

At one point when attention in the room shifted to one of the baby grandkids--my 18-month-old blur of a nephew had just attempted to climb the Christmas tree, I believe--Her Lovely Self hunkered down by Thomas and said, "Is there something specific about the basement that bothers you?"

"There might be scary things in the dark part of the basement," Thomas finally admitted, to accompanying sober nods from the Brownie and Gregory, who were nearby.

"Well," I said, "What if we go down together and turn on all the lights and check all the places behind the doors? Would that make you feel better?"

They allowed this might and so, armed with a small flashlight, the two boys, the Brownie and I went down to the basement together. We searched the far side first and, under the bright beam of the flashlight, and some overheard bulbs, the boys saw there was nothing behind one door except for a desk, four boxes and a ping-pong table.

We were walking to the other side of the basement, to the set of doors that leads to my father-in-law's workshop, when suddenly, from somewhere on the other side of that door we all heard something shift and make a loud noise. There seemed to be a skittering sound too, although it was hard to hear because Thomas and Gregory let out simultaneous shrieks and bolted up the stairs.

"Hey!" I called, but they just slammed the door above, leaving me and the Brownie alone in the basement.

"Are you going in to look and see what made the noise?" the Brownie asked nervously, pointing to the doors.

I nodded. "I should. If it's a mouse or something, Grandpa will want to set traps. But it might only be that something just shifted and fell, like a box. You want to come with me and see what made the noise?"

The Brownie stared at me, clearly aghast. "That's one of those questions where you already know the answer, isn't it?" she asked, trying to recall yet another of the 10-dollar words I've been poisoning my children's minds with. "That's an adorable question, right?"

"Rhetorical question," I corrected. "And I bet the answer is no, you don't want to come."

She looked pained. "Maybe I'll just wait up at the top of the stairs and you can call me once you checked it."

"Okay, then go on up," I said. Hey, I couldn't blame her. When I was 4, when I was 7--heck, when I was 17, I would have been spooked by a strange noise in a dark, unfamiliar space. But I figured I'd be fine--so long as Efrem Zimbalist Jr., didn't suddenly show up or something. With that, I turned on the flashlight and opened the door to the dark space beyond. There were no overhead bulbs here--or if there were, I couldn't see them--so I stepped into the gloom with my flashlight.

The noise seemed to have come from the farthest, darkest corner of the basement and slowly, not wanting to trip on anything, I shuffled over to the dark corner.

Halfway there, I suddenly felt something brush the inside of my hand. I jumped a little and whirled around, shining my flashlight on my hand. Clutching my palm was a tiny little hand. And it was attached to an arm, which in turn was attached to a person who looked remarkably like my daughter. Who had walked halfway across a darkened room to join me.

"You came with me!" I cried. "What made you change your mind?"

She smiled weakly at me, still a trifle nervous. "Well, it was two things. Wanna know what they are?"

"That's an adorable question, honey. Of course I do."

"Well, the first thing--I didn't want you to be all alone and scared by yourself."

"Very thoughtful of you," I answered. "And the second thing?"

She whispered, "I forgot that I am a wild animal."

"That's right!" I said, remembering her love of certain Disney movies involving anthropomorphized animals. "You're Sabor, the killer leopard from Tarzan. You eat people and baby apes!"

The Brownie shook her head. "No. Today I am a girl lion, like in Lion King. And girl lions are braver than anything!" With that, she clutched my hand. "Let's hurry up and find the noise. Going into dark rooms makes me want to pee," she added.

And of course the source of the shifting and falling noise did indeed turn out to be a box of odd bits of hardware--tools, doorknobs, ball bearings of some kind--shaken from its perch by the vibrations of the washing machine running directly over it, up on the first floor.

Satisfied, we made our way back across the gloomy room. Back in the finished part of the basement, Thomas and Gregory peered down at us from the top of the stairs. "What was it?" they asked.

"Nothing!" the Brownie roared up to them. "Dad and I checked and it was just a box. Come and play. This instant!" she said, stamping her foot. "Let's play animal tag. You guys can be laughing hyenas." They liked this idea and came down.

As they did, the Brownie turned to me. "We'll be the chasers. You can be the Daddy lion. I'll still be a girl lion." Then she roared and rubbed her head against my arm. "We'll be our very own pride of lions," she said. "We'll just be a little pride, though."

She was wrong, of course. Because right then--and even right now--my pride was anything but little.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Your kids make me want kids. They're so great. I'm sure you and HLS are to be held responsible for that!
Haha I was JUST going to say that!
Your daughter's got such a big heart.
After reading Shane's post a/b his kid, I was very worried that I was going to be sobbing after this post too. But instead, I was left with a warm fuzzy in my heart.
I haven't commented in awhile - I find that I often enjoy the story so much I just close the book like any other, forgetting I can directly communicate with the author here and now. But I must admit to nodding my head at the many similar in-law type experiences you've been describing of late. And the stories you tell about your kids continue to help me get through the sleepless nights with my own 5 week old, as I'm reminded that the end of this chaotic tunnel will mean a little person capable of unending amazingness. Thanks MM.
The Brownie sounds ferocious! Shame on her grandparents for trying to bully that amazing imagination out of her (and Thomas, too).
How is it that you make me, a self-described toughie, end up in tears and oohing and aahing over all of your stories? I LOVE the wonderful, strong-willed little Brownie she is, and you as her dad who has actually nurtured this by not being over-protective when every instinct has probably told you to be. She's a wonderful girl, fuelled by 100% clean burning girl power...
I am truly and totally smitten with your children. When I worked for the golden arched place, I implemented a program like the "Caught Ya!" award at the local school. I gave every teacher cards to give to students who might not ordinarily get recognized. The kids could then turn them in at the arches for a food prize. It didn't cost us much, but the kids and the teachers loved it.
I'm with Alissa.... I'm not sure if I want kids or if I don't want kids.... but when I read about Thomas and The Brownie, I always want kids.
I don't believe great kid just happen. The more I read here, the more I'm filing away mental notes for a time in which I may be raising children of my own.
Wow -- go, The Brownie! I'm kinda freaked out by dark basements and I graduated from elementary school a LONG time ago. In any case, I think my favorite part is that she didn't want you to be scared alone.
"I forgot that I am a wild animal."

*heart melts, forming a small molten puddle on the floor*
Wow, The Brownie absolutly ROCKS!!! Having been shamed by adult figures for the majority of my life, I love that you stick up for your two AMAZING kids...Teach them all the 10 dollar words, cause hearing a "kid" talk like an adult is PRICELESS!!!!
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