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.