“Come on, dad!” they’d whine in anguished contortions. “We’ve heard that story about a bazillion times already!”
I am not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in the past few weeks, some cosmic switch was flipped and these same children suddenly became utterly fascinated by all-things-daddy. They are especially interested in how the things I experienced when I was a child compare — or do not compare — to the things they are experiencing. Did I watch cartoons? Did I like going to WalMart on the weekends? Which video games were my favorites? Was I any good at baseball? Did I like school? Who was my favorite teacher? Did I play a musical instrument? What kind of pets did I have, and what were their names? Did I fight with my brother and sister? What happened, if I did?
When I tell them that there were no WalMarts or video games when I was a child, they stare at me with expressions of pure bewilderment. Right before their eyes, I am transformed from a man into a relic, a living page ripped out of a moldy history book. I might as well be Abraham Lincoln, or Hamlet, or Moses, since we all come from times and places equally and utterly incomprehensible to them.
“Well, what did you DO then?”
“Well, I did go to Roses over in Galax once in a while with my Aunt Lillie and Mamaw and Elgin,” I said. “And all of us kids played outside all the time, even in the rain, unless it was lightning. Then we had to come in and Lillie would make us a giant bowl of popcorn and we’d eat it and sit at the window and watch the storm. We would count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder so we would know how many miles away it was.”
All of this they absorbed for a moment, letting the picture of it materialize on the canvas of their imaginations, as they framed the next set of urgent questions.
“What is Roses? Why would you stay out in the rain? What can you do in the rain?”
I told them that we would do just about everything in the rain that we did when it wasn’t raining. We would just get wet doing it, very wet, so wet that when we came in from playing, we would have to take turns wringing our clothes out in the bathroom, shivering and dripping until Lillie would bring us each a huge terry cloth beach towel and a dry change of clothes. It was glorious.
“But you were NAKED?” they exclaimed, perhaps overburdened by the image of their dad wringing out his soaking clothes in a bathtub.
“Well, yes, that is generally the way of things when you have to take off your clothes,” I said. “Then we’d all dry off and drink lemonade and watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”
Now, every night after dinner, the kids want to watch an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” before bed. If they’ve done their homework and taken their baths and brushed their teeth, this is a request I cannot really resist. They’ve even seen enough episodes by now to have favorites.
“Let’s watch ‘Citizen’s Arrest’!” yells Kayden, “You know, the one where Gomer gives Barney a ticket.”
We’ll watch it and then take turns repeating our favorite lines from that episode on the way up to their bedrooms.
“Andy, he called me a ‘boob’!”
“Citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest!!”
I get them all tucked in, but they want another story of my childhood, which is, for now, a nightly ritual that has at least temporarily replaced Alligator Theater, a “variety show” performed by three stuffed alligators, Bob, AJ, and Mrs. Jones. If you ask me, the alligators need some new material anyway, so I’m glad enough for the reprieve.
“Story time, story time, story time!”
I get them settled and launch into a story about my very first dog, Bubbles, who was so mean that we could not come anywhere near her, even to pet her. We had to push her food in her direction, and then run like crazy to avoid her snarling lunges. I go on for a bit with a few anecdotes that I felt captured Bubbles’ unprecedented meanness. The kids double over with laughter, punching each other in the arm, comrades for the moment.
“Did you ever get to pet her?”
“Not even close,” I said. “She would have bitten my hand off.”
Downstairs, a scrawny cat claws at the screen door, mewling for attention. She’s a new arrival, having appeared on the scene just days ago, though Kayden is doing her best to coax her into staying. For reasons that make sense only to her, she even used her brother’s only suit jacket to fashion a bed for her on the front porch, at least until we discovered it and insisted on more traditional accommodations. She is calling the cat ‘Wisdom.’
I can’t help wondering whether Wisdom will find her way not only into our home, but into her own story, for another generation of wide-eyed children. I sure hope so.