When I tell people who don’t know me that I have five kids, I think they get a very different mental image of what my home is like these days. Our older three, within the past fifteen months, have started their own married lives, scattering along Colorado’s Front Range. The next oldest, Peter, at nearly 19 years of age, still lives at home but is pretty independent with his own set of wheels and a job and school and such. Nate, our youngest, turns 16 today, and is himself on the the cusp of driving, getting his license in February. That’ll be good, because he, too, is often at swim practice or elsewhere, and we’ve been racking up the miles in our KIA Forte – purchased a year and a half ago and the first non-minivan (besides my work trucks) since the mid-90’s, due largely to shuttling Nate around. A self-described extrovert, no doubt once he’s driving, we’ll see even less of him ’round here.
Consequently, I will disabuse people by letting them know that frequently, it feels like my wife, Nan, and I are already empty nesters.
For instance, two nights ago: Peter and Nate were hanging out at one of their older sibling’s homes while dad and mom, holding down the fort, hung out on the front porch, where the neighbors have undoubtedly noticed that we’ve spent a decent amount of time this summer, putting our new porch swing through its leisurely paces.
In the morning, with Nate over at a friend’s house and Peter at work, Nan and I were again footloose and fancy free, and decided to ride our bikes on a nearby trail for about an hour and a half, after which we had breakfast downtown, then ran down to Old Towne Bike Shop, there to look for a more comfortable seat for Nan’s bike.
While we were at the bike shop, we ran into Neil, a local artist we’ve known from way back when Sophie was perhaps a year or two older than his daughter, who, at seven months of age, was propped on a front pack while Neil shopped for a new inner tube. Neil’s wife works from home and while she’s the primary bread earner, he, an artist, also stays at home as a “Mr. Mom” to their daughter. It’s a role I know well, having done the same for seven years.
Seven years. In the midst of them, they didn’t seem to go that fast, but now, looking back, they did.
We chatted for a while, and at one point before parting, my wife, a sucker for babies, with a hint of wistfulness, said, “Enjoy it – it really does go by fast.”
Yup. So fast it’s scary.
Our youngest, Nate, who was born in this house in 2003, turns 16 today. Made me think of this post, originally written in 2013, reprised a few years later, and offered again to you today, with similar emotions swirling.
For clarity, I’ll include some [Ed. notes] to update ages and such.
Last evening I asked my youngest, Nate, if he wanted me to read him a book. Nate’s nine years old, and although he can read, he enjoys being read to, and after saying “Sure” he left the living room and, moments later, returned with a Richard Scarry book.
Now, if you aren’t familiar with Richard Scarry’s books, I won’t describe them to you except to say that they’re great and if you have a kid anywhere from the age of a year old to, say, eight or nine, and you don’t have any of his books, you really ought to.
I still remember a big story book of his, called The Best Storybook Ever, that my siblings and I read so much that it completely fell apart.
When my eldest, Sophie, now 21, [Ed. note: make that 28] was young, I found a new copy of the book in a store. I purchased it, and it, and numerous other books Scarry wrote and illustrated, became just as much a staple of my kids’ early years as they had been in the home I grew up in a generation earlier.
As I opened the book last night, however, I immediately was hit by a notion, seemingly out of nowhere. It said that this might be just about the last time I’ll be reading a Richard Scarry book to one of my kids. Just as quickly, a lump began to form in my throat. I was able to get through the whole book just fine – no quiver in my voice – but that half-formed lump was there throughout, just daring me to stop focusing on the words and contemplate that the end of an era was nearly upon us.
The Richard Scarry Era.
In a flash, Nate’s reading interests will not include picture books at all. Books by Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman and the plethora of others whose books were, at one time, opened so often that I could read them with my eyes closed will gather dust on the bookshelves and eventually, regretfully, be slipped out not to be read but to be placed in boxes labeled “Keep for the grandkids” and stored in the basement. (May the boxes gather dust there for a good, long time. Can I get a witness?) [Ed. note: still no grandkids on the way, far as we know. All I wanted was to make it to 50 before becoming a granddad. Check!]
Now, I’m a fairly balanced guy, emotionally. I might briefly well up with tears at a few poignant moments in some particularly moving films, such as at the end of Life Is Beautiful, when Joshua cries out “Mama!” from atop his perch on his prize tank, but I think the last time I cried – cried deeply and openly – was at a memorial service for a dear friend a couple of years ago. Prior to that, it was when I came back home and looked into the eyes of a grieving family after leaving our 4-year old black lab, Pai, at the vet’s for good. And before that, it was maybe the day Steve, the homeless man who I’d met in front of a grocery store and lived with us for three years, took his last breath with Nan at his side in Memorial Hospital. That was fourteen years ago. [Ed. note: twenty, I believe] I’ve no doubt that there have probably been, oh, as many as a half dozen more times the floodgates have been opened in that time, but that’s being generous.
So last night it wasn’t all that difficult to hold myself back from falling off the precipice and into the running waters. My wife is another story.
The other day I was in a similarly reflective mood, I suppose, when I took a look at the photo of Nate as a two-year old that we have had on our refrigerator for years. These days, Nate likes the family barber – a.k.a. dad – to cut his hair short; nearly a buzz cut, but back when that photo was taken (I just refilled my mug of starter fluid, removed the magnet holding the photo of Nate, and both now flank the laptop) he had beautiful, dark curls that, when soaked in the tub, would travel in thick bands nearly halfway down his glistening, slippery, baby seal back. He’s a real cutie pie (who wouldn’t appreciate me calling him that to y’all) but in the photo, with his chubby cheeks, long lashes, curly locks, and that smile, he was gorgeous. Check it out: I took the following photo after the sun, and our son in question, got up today.
Now, being married for as long as I have, I should have known better, but as I looked at the black and white photo the other day, my wife passed by and I asked her a stupid question.
“How much money would you pay to be able to have one full day with this little boy?”
Without hesitation, Nan responded with a brief, squelched sob, turning her face away. She doesn’t enjoy producing such public displays of emotion, even within the privacy of our own home, any more than I do. Her involuntary reaction was enough of a reply. If she were given the option of losing a digit in exchange for one day with any one of her brood at any of the various younger stages they zoomed through on their relentless journeys to adulthood, she’d be finger-less and toe-less in no time. And that would be a problem.
I think I know what brought last night’s question into my mind, as I began to tell the story about Speedboat Spike to Nate for what could literally be the thousandth time. Yesterday at the wood and metals shop where I work [Ed. note: where I worked until resigning in 2016 to be a full time artist, moonlighting as a shuttle driver] I was visited by a woodworking friend who lives nearby. In his arms, wearing a bike helmet, was his cute little boy, who was soon happily playing “roll the masking tape across the floor” with me as his dad and the sculpture professor, himself a first time dad with a son roughly the same age, talked fatherhood. Sleepless nights, mainly. [Ed. note, today both of their sons are around 10, and one has a two more kids, the youngest being about the same age as Neil’s]
As they did, I smiled inwardly but didn’t want to gloat about the fact that my wife and I are well beyond the years of interrupted sleep. Our bedroom is in our home’s attic, with its steeply pitched walls designed for head bangers like me running the length of it, and the kids sleep in their various rooms on the first floor. When we made the move upstairs, nearly two years ago now [about eight years now], it was only with great reluctance and arm twisting that I convinced my wife, who wondered if she’d hear the younger boys calling out in the night, to give it a try. With time, and with nearly no such occurrences at all to change her mind, she’s come to the point where no talk of switching rooms with any of the kids can dislodge her from our sanctuary. Me, either. Except this blog, which dislodges me every morning in the wee hours, that is.
If not a digit, I, too, would gladly cut my sleep even shorter if it meant I could walk into their rooms at will and lie down next to their tiny sleeping bodies. But I wasn’t so inclined, not much, when I had that chance. Early risers that they all were, they would visit our bed often, and dad would pretend he was down and out to keep the bundles of energy as contained as possible, but he rarely returned the favor. Big regret.
I have to admit to you that, unlike when I asked the question to my wife the other day, as I typed it out a while ago, and off and on since, my eyes have been welling up and I even had a brief but genuine sob, out of sight and earshot of all but my younger B & W image of Natey Boy and my aide de camp, Mr. Coffee, who seemed to respond with a percolating sob of his own.
So, what does any of this have to do with art, Andy? Good question. I guess I could say something about how, with the right perspective, illustrations of Mr. Fixit Fox making a mess of someone’s home can be just as powerful – can elicit emotions just as easily – as can Life is Beautiful or Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. (Especially if you own a nearly century-old home like we do, and consequently spend as much time fixing things as I do).
About how so called ‘low art’ can attain heights of feeling that rival, and even surpass, that of ‘high art’. From the proper point of view.
[Ed. note: perhaps it also has to do with what I recently wrote about in Beauty Nested in Aspiration) – how, for me, there’s an integrated beauty in my artistic “life” and my home “life” – as if the two could be separated.]
Mainly, though, I just wanted to say, to all of you current or yet-to-be Sleepless in Seattle types: relish it. As I’m fond of saying to those in the middle of that period when the days, and more to the point the nights, are unendingly long, and the future looks to promise nothing but gray days, bloodshot eyes, and bleakness to the end of time, ad infinitum, ad nauseaum – it really is a brief window.
One day soon you’ll agree with me: they passed by so fast, it was Scarry.
Last night, after saying goodbye to Evita, Kevin, Josh, Brice, Reed, Drew, and Haley (Will and Hannah staying overnight to help celebrate Nate’s big day today), Nan returned to the kitchen to prep her also world-famous caramel French toast, a breakfast mainstay for our kids’ birthdays.
This morning, I awoke around 4 am, a bit later than usual these days, quietly slipped out of bed and downstairs to the dining room, again attended by our faithful dog, Ruby. Then, what do you know, joined, a bit later, by son Will, and his MacBook. Will’s a web developer for Rocky Mountain Forest Products by day and, in his off time, including some 5 am starts, builds websites under his shingle “On Site Co” (despite being a web dev, he doesn’t have his own website yet).
At present, with Ruby sleeping at our feet, we both sit in silence, save the sound of typing at either end of the table which has seen so much, including Nan’s dad, as a 3 year old, hiding his cigarettes in a cavity below the top!
It’s early yet. A new day. A new season. It’s like a new chapter.