by Julia Buckley
My boys and me, about ten years ago.
I read a Thanksgiving issue of a magazine this weekend. It was filled with recipes, time-saving ideas, decorating tips, even Thanksgiving prayers to say at the family table. One idea on the list suggested that a month before the holiday a family should leave out a basket and slips of paper, and every time a family member felt grateful for something, they could jot it on the paper. Then on Thanksgiving the family could read together what they had been grateful for in the past month.
That sounded neat to me, so I got out an autumn colored basket and persuaded my youngest son to help me make computerized slips that said "I am thankful for . . . " which we cut up and put beside the basket. I jotted a few to get things going, then explained the concept to my newspaper-reading husband and my sarcastic thirteen-year-old son.
My youngest boy, ten, was excited about it, and began jotting down his thankful thoughts right away. His older brother watched him, lip curled.
"Graham is just going to write stupid things," he said. This is one of the nicer things he's said about his brother in recent days.
"Why don't you fill out a slip about how much you love Graham?" I suggested.
"I'll fill out one about how I love ham," he said. Then, fueled by this hilarious thought, he stopped his lounging long enough to write "ham" on a piece of paper and flick it into the basket.
I sighed. This is a typical exchange between me and my eldest. He has little tolerance for anything or anyone around him, and in the process he becomes intolerable.
Later in the day I heard him mocking his brother, something for which he is constantly in trouble but which he cannot seem to restrain. I called to him from my post at the computer. "Ian, leave your brother alone!"
Not surprisingly, his response was wrathful. "Graham was just being a jerk to me!" he yelled. "And you only take his side because YOU LOVE HIM MORE."
That's right. He played the love card. It wasn't the first time, either. My son is outrageously smart and generally wise about the world, but he doesn't see the folly of this argument--not even when I attempt a rational discussion of it.
The fact is, my son has begun his journey into the blind years--the ones we look back at later and say, "Oh, I was a real pain back then." He is a pain. But he's funny and clever and talented. He's fearless with his words and creativity and therefore a much better writer than his mother is. In another ten years he'll be a nearly perfect human being.
Right now, though, he's in the formative stage. He has to test his limits and torture his brother and accuse his mother of not loving him every time she holds him accountable for his behavior. He has to smirk and pretend that he doesn't love anyone and crack jokes to avoid looking emotional. He refuses to walk the dog that he promised to walk daily and he pokes the old cat that doesn't like to be touched. He spends happy hours on the phone with friends, then hangs up and treats us to hours of moodiness.
But then, boylike, he'll perk up and act as though none of his misanthropy had ever happened. He'll stand with his brother in front of the microwave and watch the marshmallow they put in there balloon up to five times its size. "It's a monster! May God help us all," he jokes, doing his best sci-fi movie scientist.
And then he and his little brother eat hot marshmallow together, their generational rift forgotten and their bond of brotherhood acknowledged.
Meanwhile his father and I are nursing headaches from scolding him all day. But we take the marshmallow he offers as what it is--a gesture of love. When a boy is thirteen, he doesn't say "I love you," and you can't expect him to.
However, he does have a ritual which I think is the closest I'm going to get: when I leave each day, he says, "Don't get in a car accident."
And I smile with the knowledge that he cares.