The Boy woke up at six this morning, ready to go. He’d been worried since Wednesday when he came home with a fever: “Will I be okay by my party?” he asked. Certainly. So this morning, he had his materials packed — cars and guns and other toys stuffed into the book bag Nana and Papa gave him for his birthday earlier in the week — and by the door by half-past-seven.
Later in the morning, he was packing his goodie bags for his guests, filling them with the Polish sweets he and K had chosen at the local Russian store (of course it’s called “Euro Market” or something similar, but like most Euro Markets, it seems, it’s a Russian owner). I sat down and glanced at the “Time Machine” links just at the bottom of the page as is my Saturday morning custom, and there was a post about holding the Boy when he was just a few weeks old.
Long gone are the days when you can hold him in the crook of your arm. Now it’s difficult to pick him up. When he falls asleep in Mass, it’s always in K’s arms, and I almost always end up holding him during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which means figuring out a way to kneel and hold a sack of concrete.
By the time it was actually time to head to the party, the Boy was more than ready, all nearly-fifty pounds of him.
The party itself was bliss for him. Many of his friends from pre-school came, as well as neighbors and kids from the Polish community. K brought some games for everyone to play, including a sack race, but in the end, what was most successful was what was simplest: E’s toys.
The Girl, though was sick, which accounts for her absence as well as Nana’s and Papa’s.
L’s First Communion was two years ago. So quickly have those two years melted away than I still find it somewhat surprising when I see L lining up for communion. It’s one of those milestones in life — your own and your children’s — that we all remember it.
The Boy still has three years to go. When he first lines up in the communion line, L will be at the tail end of her seventh-grade year.
And at that point, I’ll likely be writing about how it’s incredible that it’s been five years since L’s First Communion.
Saturday is always busy. This time of year, the lawn always needs a trim, and hedges often need their season’s taming. Tomato plants are starting to blossom, literally and figuratively, so it’s time to stake them. All fairly common late-spring Saturday work. Today, though, was a little different because of timing: tomorrow we will be going to a friend’s First Communion, so the Mother’s Day celebration had to be rescheduled.
Since I’ve neglected K’s vehicle the last few weeks, the Boy and I decided it was time to clean Mama’s car — well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it sounds better that way. So the first thing we tackled today was the interior of the car. Every surface was exposed to an area of low pressure — e.g., vacuumed — and then wiped down. The Boy to the windshield rag and wiped down the parts of the exterior that, concealed by closed doors, never really get clean from normal washing. And of course, with the two of us involved, there was a bit of playing as well.
Afterward, the lawn got its weekly trim and the Girl prepared her Mother’s Day present for Nana.
Our Mother’s Day celebration isn’t the only thing tomorrow’s First Communion throws off, though. Tomorrow is the Boy’s birthday. “I’ll be a five-year-old tomorrow,” was a common refrain today.
So after dinner came presents. It’s a sign of his growing maturity that only a couple of the presents was a toy: a small jeep and trailer set that he took to bed with him and a Lego set that he will put together with Papa on Monday. The rest of the gifts were practical, useful even. A backpack — an appropriate, camouflaged design — will get its first test in a month when we head off to Poland. “And I’ll use it in K5 for all those big books!” he explained excitedly. A new cycling helmet to match his new bike. A flashlight so he doesn’t have to keep borrowing mine. “Daddy, I just need to…” So perhaps more than a couple of toys.
I sit writing this and glance down at the clock: five years ago, we would be leaving for the hospital in about an hour. It was Sunday night, and I was just about to drift off to sleep, some time around eleven, when K woke me and said we had to get to the hospital. A couple of hours later, we were holding the Boy in our arms. And now, in a few hours, he’ll be the same age — year-wise — as L was when he was born.
In another five years? The Girl will be almost old enough to begin learning to drive. She’ll be in her second year of high school. Entirely new worries, concerns that are now non-existent, will likely consume me. Boys will no longer be icky. A moment of inattention could result in more than just a broken glass. Her grades in school will no longer be of little consequence.
Five years used to seem like such a long time…
We get our shoes on and head down to the swing. Mama has kicked us out: she can only do two things at a time, and she’s currently baking and helping L with something, so we’re on our own.
We play around a bit, here and there, but a hard-workin’ fella can play only so long before he grows restless. He’ll pick up any sort of tool he can find and get to work, because what’s the point of doing otherwise?
You might protest and suggest, “You’re just a kid. Take it easy!” But you’ll get a protest in return.
Eventually, I manage to get the hard worker to take a break and play a little bit. We go exploring, looking for more honeysuckle. It’s all dried up. We head to our favorite spot in the creek. But nothing’s really satisfying.
We head to our hideout to spy on our neighbors, but they leave soon and we sit there.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” he responds.
“Whatever you want to do. I just want you to be happy.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
What makes us both happy for a time is to carry on with such silliness, but it’s getting late, and soon, the Boy will need a bath. Tugging off his shoes, he notices how dirty his ankles are at the sock line. Smiling, he repeats his favorite saying: “It was a good day.”
K is still baking when we get back in the house. The cake didn’t turn out as she wished, so she’s doing it again. She’s like that. A perfectionist. I’d probably just go buy something, but not our K.
In the house, the Girl is being silly. I take the camera and snap some closeups. Instantly, the silly faces appear.
A satisfying Thursday evening.
“Do you think I’ll catch a Clownfish?”
We were eating breakfast when this question came up. A typical Sunday morning: breakfast around half-past eight. The Girl off to choir practice at quarter past nine. The boys off to Mass about an hour later. That morning promised to be our normal, comfortable ritual. The afternoon, though, promised adventure.
“No, son. Clownfish live in the ocean. They’re salt water fish.”
“Plus,” added L, “they live in reefs.”
It only took him a few minutes to get the hang of it, and for a while, he was casting beside the Girl as she practiced with her new archery set.
A few bites later, he had another thought. “What if I catch a shark? I’ll have to be strong if I catch a shark.”
“I don’t think you’ll catch a shark.”
“Oh, right. It lives in the ocean.” He thought about things for a few more moments, then added, “All the fish I know are salt water fish.”
Planning for the afternoon fishing trip really began on Christmas Eve, when our children following Polish tradition were opening their presents. Our neighbor, who goes fishing often, had bought the Boy a beginner’s rod and reel set, complete with a small tackle box. He was thrilled, and he was even more excited when I found a casting weight in my old tackle box downstairs and explained that he’d be able to practice casting in the backyard.
A few days ago, when our neighbor was packing up his gear and hitching his boat to the truck for a morning fishing trip, the Boy informed K that his rod and reel were, in fact, for nothing. “They’re not for decoration,” he explained. And so she told me when I got back home that afternoon, “You must take him fishing this weekend.”
I haven’t been fishing in probably close to thirty years. I can’t remember ever going fishing with my father — not because I asked and he refused. Fishing was simply not something we did in my family. My mother’s brother was very much a fisherman, and during one visit, he gave me a handmade graphite rod with a very sturdy reel with a tackle box filled with every imaginable worm-like, grub-like, and fish-like lure one could imagine. I was twelve, I think. I probably used it no more than half a dozen times, if that many.
In thinking about taking my own son fishing, I had a whole list of concerns. Some were reasonable: what’s the best type of bait to use at this lake when fishing from the shore. Some weren’t: what if I can’t remember how to tie a hook? But with muscle memory, that latter worry disappeared. But the bait? When I saw the lake, I realized that it really didn’t matter: we weren’t going to go onto one of the fishing piers because the Boy, having no practice casting with an actual hook, might cause disaster. (In fact, he caught my shirt once, but fortunately only my shirt.) Since the lake was so shallow with a gentle slope out to the deeper water, I knew he’d never cast far enough from the short to catch anything, so we tried a number of lures.
He caught nothing but my shirt. But he begged to go back tomorrow after school.
Today is the last Sunday of the month, which means Polish Mass. It’s not much of a Polish Mass as much as it’s an English Mass with responses in Polish. Finding a replacement Polish priest is not all that easy, it seems. Yet L’s recent involvement in the children’s choir has energized and interested her: she doesn’t want to give it up. So we went to Mass in the morning, the three of us, and K went in the afternoon. Kind of like we used to do when one of us was sick: one stays home with the kid then goes to Mass later in the day.
It’s been a real benefit to the Girl, children’s choir. It keeps her focused in Mass for thing. It’s hard to fidget about when you have to pay attention and be ready to sing. It’s also helped her make new friends with girls who seem to have their heads looking forward and their priorities straight. It’s a constant worry we have: what kind of friends is she making at school? What kinds of behaviors are being modeled at school? We’ve met her best friends, of course, but she comes into contact with so many other children that it would be impossible to keep up. And so we’re happy to have some more positive influences in her life.
After lunch, it’s the same old Sunday tradition: exploring. The Boy and I headed to the other side of the creek to the neglected, overgrown portion of the lot of the all-but-abandoned house. The owner of the house died in his backyard a few years ago — we heard the cries of anguish in our yard when they discovered him — and I guess they moved his wife into assisted care or something. At any rate, someone comes and mows the yard a few times a summer, but the long triangular off-shoot of the lot has been completely neglected. There is now a stand of Sweetgum trees there that just makes me shudder.
But we were after something else, something sweeter.
Honeysuckle. When I was a kid, finding a fine of honeysuckle was a rare and wonderful treat. Our neighborhood didn’t have any wild areas, and I don’t think many people cultivate honeysuckle.
Later, in the early evening, E and I went back down to have another snack. The Girl joined us, bringing a small bowl to bring back some blossoms to enjoy during the movie.
I love the simplicity of that.
It’s been raining since Saturday night. It’s rained so much that our sump pump, installed well over a year ago and never actually in use, got a chance to kick in. Granted, that’s because there was a bit of water in the basin, though not enough to raise the float and trip the switch, and so I manually pulled the float and it hummed on.
I’d thought about it on and off today, wondering how it might work after so long of just sitting there. While doing our kitchen remodel, I added an outlet for the sump pump on its own dedicated breaker for extra security. The last thing I wanted was for it to happen to throw the breaker and flood the crawl space again.
When I got home from work, I knew the Boy would want only one thing: time in the puddles. Much to my surprise, he wanted first to take a bunch of random pictures with my phone.
He’s asked for a camera a couple of times, and this of course thrills K and me endlessly. I’d like to let him use one of our digital cameras, but unfortunately, they’re a bit on the too-expensive-to-let-a-kid-touch-without-immediate-adult-supervision side.
But some things are free and unbreakable, like puddles.
We first headed to our backyard theoretically to check on the level of water in the creek, but in reality, to explore for puddles.
I still don’t get what’s some much fun about splashing about in gum boots in dirty rain water. I’m sure at some point in my life I loved it too, but I watch E and think only one thing: “I’d hate to have my pants partially wet like that.”
We also headed over to the low point of the creek behind our neighbors’ house to see how it was flowing. It’s at this point that it first jumps the banks when it’s a real flash-flood-inducing deluge like it did a year and a half ago and three years ago and four years ago. By then it was already subsiding, though, and with the rain supposed to stop before the evening’s out, it looks like we won’t have to worry about a serious flood.
That didn’t keep us from checking the neighborhood to make sure, though. E armed himself with his plastic assault rifle and out we went, searching for puddles for him to walk through.
Toward the end of the adventure, he found a stick at the edge of a puddle and stomped on it to break it. Water went everywhere.
“We have to go in now,” I explained.
“Because I told you not to stomp in the water, and you just did. You disobeyed, and what’s more, you’re wet now.”
We began walking back up to the house, and he said, “That was a good idea.”
“No,” I corrected, “that was not a good idea.”
“No, I mean the idea I just thought of.”
“What was that?”
“I should have taken it out before I stomped it.”
“That was a good idea.”
One: Alone Together
The Boy wanted to get into the Girl’s room; the Girl wanted some “alone time,” which we all do from time to time. With the two of them, that conflict is a frequent occurrence. As parents, K and I must balance the two opposing factors:
- The Girl needs to learn that she can’t be by herself all the time. She needs to have a relationship with her brother.
- The Boy needs to learn that he can’t play with L all the time, that she needs some privacy.
I feel like we need to be keeping score of the whole thing: one time forcing L to let the Boy in her room; one time getting the Boy to understand that the Girl needs some privacy from time to time.
The Boy was looking for his Bugatti (toy, of course).
“I last saw it on the counter downstairs,” I tell him.
He thumps his way downstairs, wanders around a while. Then I hear him ask K, “Mommy, what’s a counter?”
Three: Special Music
During the announcements at the close of Mass, Fr. Longenecker pointed out the fact that the text of the communion hymn dates from the twelfth century and the music from the sixteenth. At that moment, several thoughts that had been swirling randomly in Mass coalesced.
First, at one point, I was thinking about how different a Roman Catholic Mass is from the church services I attended in my youth. All the smells and the bells have no correlation with the staid services we had. And yet there was a certain similarity: each service was identical in its format just as each Mass is identical in its order of liturgy. I suppose that’s true of all churches.
Still, our church being Protestant (though its members then would have begged to differ most vociferously), liked to suggest that if it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t do it. I found myself in Mass briefly wondering about the liturgy (for lack of a better term) the church followed: it’s no where in the Bible. I believe the pastor would have suggested it’s one of the traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2.15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
Thinking about it further, I remembered the little distinctives of our service. We had a short warm-up message called a sermonette. Google shows that other denominations use the sermonette format, but it’s certainly not a common feature. After the sermonette were announcements, followed by something called special music, then the sermon.
The special music was always some kind of choir performance or solo piano performance. Choral numbers were always selections from sacred music (but we had to be careful about that text!), but instrumental music was often some kind of classical composition. I choked down a laugh in Mass thinking about that, wondering if it was “special” music if it appeared every week.
Four: Divine Mercy
The first Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Since this particular celebration began in Poland, it’s a pretty big thing for the Polish community. At our church, we have a newly-consecrated shrine to the Divine Mercy with relics of St. Faustina and St. Pope John Paul II.
Not bad for a little Catholic church in Greenville, SC, home of Bob Jones University — probably the most virulently anti-Catholic school in the States.
I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.
This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.
It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)
On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.
So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”
It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.
But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.
And time to play guitar with your neighbor.