My wife Cynthia occasionally interviews our kids, jotting down their answers in little journals. She asks questions like, What was your favorite part of our trip? What was your favorite meal?
This started before our children were even saying much. When our firstborn, Maddy, was not even one, Cynthia wrote down her favorite food, milk, and recorded her favorite song, which was “You Got the Belly, I Got the Rub,” a goofball number I had invented on the fly during bath time. Apparently, my daughter didn’t mind that it made less sense with every line: “You got the belly, I got the rub. You got the bathwater, I got the tub. You got the appetite, I got the grub.”
I had forgotten about the song, and can only quote the lyrics because Cynthia wrote them down and read them aloud a few nights ago in a terrifically cute recital as we celebrated Maddy’s tenth birthday. After some more saccharine lines, including “You got the mama bear, I got the cub,” Cyn and I made a little show about, awwww, how much we love-love-love each other and our whole wonderful family—smoochy, smoochy—until the kids rolled their eyes and said what happens to be, currently, their favorite word of disapproval, which they actually caw like a crow: “Awkward! Awkward!”
The next morning, I woke up early to do some reading and then roused the kids for breakfast. As usual, we were running late. As usual, there was a fight, over what I can’t remember. A needed piece of clothing that was sitting in a pile of dirty laundry. Whether or not the kids were to buy lunch at school or take sandwiches. The clock ticked dangerously closer to 8:00 a.m., but somehow we got out the door, all three kids and I. Only two are in school, but the third likes to come for the walk.
On the sidewalk, Maddy, irritated at our general slowness, sprints ahead. Her brother Ben asks if I will carry his backpack, and because it’s about half the size he is, I always say yes. He hands me the bag, then runs after his sister. The youngest reaches for me and says, “Uppy, uppy,” but I say no, explaining that he insisted on coming, so he has to carry himself.
The temperature is just above freezing. I begin jogging so we don’t fall entirely behind. Halfway down the block, I look around. The low-slanting light of winter is flooding the rooftops, an almost powdery kind of light, washing over us, washing over the neighborhood, washing over the whole world, perfect and innocent and beautiful. And I think this, right now, is what I don’t want to forget.
Hustling the youngest one along, we catch up to the other two at the corner where the crossing guard is standing and the familiar faces of our fellow stragglers line up. It’s always the same people who are running late, and it’s always the same people who have arrived just two minutes earlier and are returning childless from the school entrance as we race past them. On the rare occasion they see me walking back earlier, they check their watches and shake their heads, as if to say, “Look who decided to get out of bed, Mister Early Riser.” But not today.
The crossing guard blows her whistle and throws her fluorescent-gloved hands in the air to halt the cars that race down Commonwealth Avenue; if drivers get impatient, she gives them her death stare; if their cars roll even a little bit while children are crossing, she yells at them. A newspaper did a story on how much crossing guards make, suggesting it was a cushy gig. But I don’t think this woman is overpaid.
We walk the last block, always passing the same two middle-school girls and lately a band of seven or so boys a few years older than my own. I know one of the boys. He wants to be a writer when he grows up, but he doesn’t seem comfortable saying hi with his friends there.
I look at my son’s crazy red hair as I hand him his backpack and think, not for the first time, we’ve got to teach this kid to use a brush. My daughter’s already up the steps, a wave goodbye flung in the air like nothing. The boy lets me give him a squeeze and say, “See you, buddy.”
I start to walk back with the littlest one saying “uppy” again. I say no again, and think, well, yeah, it’s a minor thing but this routine is one of my favorite parts of being a parent.