by Robert P. Barsanti
Recently, we entertained a very old confirmed bachelor, my Uncle Oswald. He babysat the kids, played in the surf, and read them stories at night. Oswald gave them airplane rides in the backyard and shoulder rides in the waves. In short, he was a wonderful houseguest for two busy parents. But he had no desire for kids of his own. None. Now, he will have an obituary that many of us would envy. He has a law degree, a teaching degree, can order drinks in four languages, and has been on a ski patrol in Switzerland. Uncle Oswald performs in local theater, plays violin in a local orchestra, and rides a horse for relaxation. He is comfortable enough in his own skin to laugh at his own eccentricities.
He hates the ice cream truck. It drives through his neighborhood every afternoon and never at a regular time. The truck plays the familiar, loud, tune over loudspeakers that calls the kids to come running. He has had long, ranting tirades with the driver, he has complained to the police, he has written letters to the paper, and he has tried to get the neighborhood to sign a petition. Still, it comes.
As a parent, I laughed at his jokes, drank his bourbon, and knew that I spoke a language he couldn’t understand. His kids wouldn’t run out the front door for a Firecracker Popsicle. They would never draw the ice cream truck on scrap paper, nor would they remember that annoying song fondly for decades. Nor would he ever walk out to the ice cream truck, hand over the exorbitant sum, and wish, somehow, that you could hold that moment, and that popsicle, frozen in time.
Having children is like drinking champagne every day. Sometimes the champagne is tremendous, sometimes it is gutter swill, and it is there every day. You get used to it after a while, and you don’t really notice the taste, until you get an odd moment of clarity and you think “My God, I am drinking champagne.” Then, you also know that you will never drink from this glass again, and you may never remember this brief shining draught.
One day, recently, my two boys and I went to Children’s Beach. As is true in July, the parking lot was full, the beach was crowded and the water still, tepid, and murky. Both boys ran to the water, jumped in, and proceeded to splash each other silly. Then, they joined up with another boy and gave each other rides on a boogie board. One would pull, one would ride, and one would try to trip them up. The boy with the boogie board went in for a snack and another boy, smaller and more reserved, joined up with my two ruffians for their “Rescue Swimmer and the Shark” game. I stood on shore and watched, hoping that everyone would keep their bones unbroken and their lungs free of seawater. I was joined on shore by the boy’s mother, who wore a full, brown burka. The two of us shared very few cultural codes, but we did share a bond of parenthood. We both wanted to go in the water and calm them down, but we both knew that we shouldn’t.
My children make me be a better person in ways that don’t come naturally. They make me hold me tongue, wash my hands, sit up straighter, and wear a seatbelt. They pull me out of my comfortable, cynical shell and leave me singing and dancing around in a circle. With the same eyes that mooched free donuts, my youngest got me into the circle around Susan Salidor. We sang, we danced, we hopped up and down, and we clapped as the song called. My wife was in hysterics; yet the youngest wanted Daddy to sit with him. And so I did.
My children believe that miracles happen every day. It becomes my duty to insure that they do. When we were at the beach at Quidnet, my oldest asked about the skate egg cases that were enmeshed in the seaweed. I told them that they were Mermaid’s Purses. So, promptly, they started breaking them open to see what sort of money mermaids used. Later, as they were attempting to create a sand castle, they discovered sand fleas. They collected them in the moat of the castle, then bid them good sailing as they got swept out to sea on a vigorous wave. In the last dip of the day, my youngest lost a toy in the waves. Clearly lost forever to Davy Jones’ Locker, we consoled him on his loss. As we left the beach, however, an older gentleman jogged up behind us and returned the toy to us. The wife and I were stunned, but the boy was not. Miracles happen to him every day.
To be a parent is to perform in front of an audience every moment. This audience has a phenomenal memory and yet may not remember anything from this moment twenty years from now. Every step and mis-step contributes to his character, but you have no idea what it will do. You just hope that it keeps his attention on you and not on Sponge-Bob. I give the hunt lecture at the Whaling Museum on many afternoons. A father and son came up to me after one of the talks when I didn’t drop the harpoon or flub my lines; he complimented the talk, saying that it kept his son’s attention for the full forty-five minutes. I told him that I hoped his son would grow up to be a whaler.
When I think back on my life as a father, I think that so much of my time is designed to build the bricks of good memories. I know that they will never remember my dancing to “The Backwards Song” or the lost beach toy or even the primary diet of sperm whales. But I hope that each one of those memories becomes a brick in the foundation of their house. It will be up to him to build a good house, but if we can build a good basement, he will be well on his way.
Some of the most heartbreaking items in the whaling museum come from those whaler’s who spent years away from their children. Unlike my Uncle Oswald, they can speak the language, but they have no occasion to do it. In the scrimshaw room is a miniature ivory bed, complete with springs and an elaborately decorated headboard. Some whaler, in the middle of the Japan Grounds, sat on a deck reeking of dead whale and carved the ivory into a delicate doll’s bed. He knew he couldn’t give his gift for years, he knew he might die before he gave it, that she might die before she received it, or that she might break it or not be interested. His daughter may have been four when he left and may be eight or nine when he returned. Yet, he still carved a toy for her. He wanted this brick for her basement. Even though he wasn’t at home, he wanted her to know that he loved her.
What that whaler knew, and what my Uncle Oswald doesn’t, is that we measure our days in Cheerios and Popsicles. The only things that matter are the bricks that get built into a child’s foundation. Whatever we value, whether it be Schubert or the Simpsons, will not last unless we somehow preserve it in the minds of our children. The bells of that truck will outlive the chimes of the Vatican.