Family, Home, Reading

We Call Home

My boy is sad today. He can’t, or won’t, tell me why. He lets me put my arm around him as we walk to the car. “What should we do tonight?” I ask. It is the middle of the week. He has given up (mostly) on asking to play games on his tablet.

“I don’t know.” He climbs into the back seat. We lurch along route 123, Taylor Swift matching the pulse of brake lights.

At home, he kicks off his shoes and heads to the couch. He bunches the blue blanket up around his legs. “Do we have any books in this house?” he asks.

This house? Framed in spines, insulated in ink? He must be blind to the floor under his feet. I carry a stack from his room. He opens Toot and Puddle and pulls the blanket up over his lap.

It’s cold enough for a fire. The wood I bought is piled halfway up the wall. The family who split and sold it called it seasoned. The pop and spit of our first fire suggested otherwise. It doesn’t matter. I build a tipi of logs, tucking into its folds a handful of sticks collected from walks around the neighborhood. We have no forest here. Shrubs and maples dot the path that crosses the park and weaves around the AT&T complex. After gusty nights, I gather kindling, cracking limbs across my knee. Cars hum past on their way to the interstate, mothers push their babies in swings. Like a latter-day homesteader, I wobble through the warren of townhouses and condos, bending low to add another purple-gray branch to the bundle spilling from my arms.

Damper open, wind hums down through the cold throat of the flue. I roll up leaves of the Sunday sports section to help things along. With a crackle and low groan, the pulped, broken trees burn back to life.

I should start dinner. From the couch across the room, clunk, flip, flip, clunk. Bug skims then discards. After a few moments, silence. With the iron poker, I press a knot of classifieds under the grate. The ends of the branches flame to orange, blacken, curl. Log grains catch.

These things we call fallen, they burn.

I feel him next to me. I pad to my room and drag the turquoise fleece cushion from my bed out to the warm floor. Our Christmas tree, fatter than it has any right to be, twinkles purple, green, blue. I click on the tea kettle. Bug has carried over three books. A graphic novel, a Magic School Bus, a re-take on The Nutcracker. He leans against me.

“Hey buddy. Do you want me to read to you?”

“No, I just want to be close.” He sprawls on the cushion, face on my leg. Popping embers. Rising steam. The water is ready but I’m not. In the orange glow, he turns pages.

The heat works its way down to my sternum. Into my bones. This is what it is to unfurl. It is drinking light. We’re a year and a half in, and still, I marvel. We actually made it here, to this spot on this golden bamboo floor in our own home. Half a decade ago, I couldn’t even fathom what we’ve now mastered. My boy learned to ride a bike this year. He can already stand in the saddle, legs pumping to climb the big hill to Bob Evans. He can sink a shot from the foul line. Draw zombie comics. Approximate the square root of 11. Make breakfast burritos on the stove from scratch.

My boy can read. Beyond making sense from syntax, he can really read. On a Thursday evening in January – now or 2035 – he opens a book and finds tucked into its pages a nest made just for him.

Bug sighs and turns to look up at me. “Can we have extra reading tonight?”

“Of course, baby.” Stories fill our corners, swathe our sofa, clutter our coffee table, carpet our floor. Stories, ours, all of them. The ones we read.

The one we write.

These things we call buried, they thrive.
 

Children, Parenting

Turning Rite

A rattling on metal. Something like gravel on the roof of a train. It echoes down four stories and then back again through the flue reaching above mine and the one above that, all the way out to night. The fire is a mere whisper of its former self, a glow in a carpet of gray. I reach in with the hook end of the poker and creak down the damper. Rain gushes down outside, washing away the remains of dozens of exploded snowballs, our frantic footprints, the tiny snowman with the stick features we built in the first dusting on the basketball court. It will melt away the ice that has already canceled school for tomorrow, carrying it down curbs, into sewers, away to the Chesapeake bay.
 
At dinner tonight, we slurped soup and talked of rituals. Tea ceremonies and such. “What’s a ritual?” Bug asked. Our guest and I tried our best to puzzle out a definition. Like a habit that you do over and over, but with more meaning. Sort of. And like a tradition, sort of. “Like brushing your teeth every night?” Bug asked. We pulled out the Oxford dictionary. We looked up both “ritual” and “habit.” The former is marked by its regularity and invariability, and it often has a religious and ceremonial quality to it. We tried to come up with our rituals. Are the three books and three songs every night a routine or a ritual? Where do our prayers and passages reside? Do we have a sacred fixation?
 
My boy sleeps now. Out through a reflection of green-pink-everycolor lights, the street below is a river. Ice-tipped peaks and silvered trenches first soften to hills then flatten to black.
 
Our last book at bedtime was a new one from the library: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It is the true story of the feat of one Philippe Petit who, in 1974, snuck a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center as they were still under construction. He walked it, danced it, and even lay upon it as the sun rose over New York City. The book tipped me vertiginously too high and too far behind all at once. Dizzy, I had to catch my breath. Those towers are gone and Bug wanted to know why.
 
This question was going to come. Even with this certainty, I knew I would never be prepared. Shutting the book and setting it aside, I scooted down close to him. “There were some people who wanted to hurt America,” I explained. “They hijacked airplanes and flew them into the buildings. The buildings fell down. People died.”
 
True to his engineering mind, he actually wanted the how, not the why. I filled in the gaps easily. Too easily. It is all as fresh as if I am watching it now on that giant screen, the same silence choking us — bound as I am to the anonymous, forever Us of that moment — in a university lounge just a few miles from the Pentagon. Bug asked one straightforward question after another. “Did they fly into one building then out and into the other?”
 
“No, baby, there were two different planes. And a couple of others.” I kept it simple. In the spots where he plunged the shovel of his curiosity, I elaborated. We meandered around that day, finally making our way to the moment the passengers on board the last plane stopped the bad guys by crashing into a field. After Bug found where to place his period at the end of the story, he leaned his shovel against a tree, slid down into the bed and asked me to sing.
 
It is legend to him. Ancient history. No frisson shivers through a spectator with quite the intensity it does for a player. These are lines on maps and pages in books. When you are here and now instead of there and then, you trace them with your finger. You maybe imagine visiting. Normandy. Vietnam. Manassas. In other places, too, shadows of what was human made and human razed streak the land. The ones who remember delineate the shade. Those who don the mantle of memory after the last survivors are gone then call those phantoms back again and again until ghosts knit to earth like a skin under the now. Library of Alexandria. Berlin Wall. Twin Towers.
 
It should come as no surprise that Bug is not frightened by the story I tell. It is no different from any other history lesson. People work. Build things. Invent and discover. Go to war. Lead and follow. Make art and families and cities and revolution. Hurt each other. He’s learned already that villains are real. That heroes help. That people can come together to change what is into what could be.
 
That danger lurks and courage grows.
 
My boy’s classroom doors have little black accordions of paper clipped up high in the windows. He tells me these are for when the bad guys come in. While the kids hide, a teacher can unclip the little curtains to block anyone from seeing in. Bug told me this on the way to the car and then asked if I’d brought a snack.
 
My son sleeps. Rain rattles against the damper then dulls to a hum before finally falling silent.
 
He asked for extra songs tonight. Tiny lights glinted from tree branches in the living room. A velveteen Santa sat on a side table with a key silent in its back, having earlier tinkled down its wordless version of what we’ve all learned to know without even trying. I curled into my boy and called from memory the first few verses of the old standbys. Silent night, holy night. . . My voice slowed and and thinned as his eyes drooped. Christ is born in Bethlehem. . . Planted in the furrows of my brain, these hymns. As Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in the morn. . . I settle my child to sleep with the lyrical story of a God we do not worship in an ancient land that is not ours. Born is the king of Israel. . .
 
The evergreen outside the window sheds its silver husk. Boughs that protected a soft patch of snow from the freezing rain earlier now dip and shudder in the downpour. Inside, an ember pops. The scaled lip of the last log glows for one fulgent moment before turning to ash.