As 2014 ambled into view in a good-natured manner with relatively balmy temperatures, the neighborhood kids gathered to compare Christmas notes and expend excess, pent-up energy from too much family time.
They congregated in the alley, strolled along the sidewalk, bounced on the trampoline and climbed on an ancient, rusting metal swingset. The girls sat high on the monkey bars in what looked every bit like a natural assumption of gender roles, alternating between laughter at the boys’ antics and appalled facial expressions at their… boyhood.
The three boys yelled, wrestled, tore off shirts, provoked one another and teetered on the brink of my comfort level with their rowdiness, but I resisted the urge to interfere and folded laundry nearby. I was separated from them by thin curtains and even thinner seeming windows, the last bastion in our 109 year old home that is not airtight. Unbeknownst to the kids, this also means that most of their yelling and alley conversations are clearly heard from indoors when helicoptering is in order.
While this isn’t often for me as a pretty hands-off parent, the approaching teen years for so many of these kids we have watched play together since they were around five years old makes me anxious – a mix between protective and riveted, interested and concerned. I’m not sure what it is I think I’ll do at the onset of foul language – I haven’t got a magic cloak I can toss over their virgin ears to protect them, and I’m not sure that’s even particularly helpful. C’est la vie.
Most interesting of all to me, though, is the tall redheaded boy. He appears irregularly in our cast of neighborhood characters during occasional visits to his grandfather’s house. I’m secretly fond of him and have a very soft spot in my heart for him, which I’m sure would surprise him and the others who I think assume I am some sort of overly strict meanie due to my unwavering firmness on many subjects.
While I don’t consider myself some sort of warm encouraging Mother Theresa figure, even I am sometimes surprised by how harsh I appear when it isn’t always the language of my heart. And now, of course, I’m very sympathetic to my own Mom, who I adore but consistently butted heads with during my growing up years. She was likewise considered overly strict, and only now do I know that was the similarly thin window covering – a delivery mechanism for her deep love, with tough parenting being the way she expressed it. I’m immensely grateful for the close relationship we have today, and I appreciate her during her tough parenting years for it.
And on the subject of mothers: I know this is part of the reason for my soft spot for that redheaded boy. Not long after he started appearing, we learned that his mother had recently died. He would hang around talking with – or at – us while we did chores in the yard, alternating between random chatter and sharing snippets, factoids and observations.
This boy is deeply fond of animals, and I often see him walking away from the kids to pet and visit with a cat or standing with a bewildered look on his face near our fence line after working our dogs to a near frenzy that they are separated from him – a real live boy – by mere inches.
Not long after his first appearance in the neighborhood, he was out playing in the front yard on a frigid day in a t-shirt. “Go get your coat!” I insisted, with a tone of fretting that was foreign to me. He replied that he didn’t need it.
With what I hoped was a friendly but firm tone I told him that as a mom, I couldn’t watch him playing outside without a coat that day. “I don’t have a mom,” he replied matter-of-factly. “My Mom died. She’s an angel now.” In the pause, all I could think of to reply to this boy I wanted to hug – but knew I could not – was that I thought she might want him to wear a coat, too. Resigned, he went home to get it, giving me the chance to slip inside teary-eyed.
A summer or two later, he would occasionally spot my husband or father playing a game of chess on the front porch with our daughter. He enthused, and revealed that he loved to play chess. They invited him to play a few times, and it made me happy to see the redheaded boy smiling, a young boy on the one hand, betrayed by his rapidly-growing, fidgety, goofy-boy feet in white sneakers under the table.
One day I saw him standing at the base of a tree while our oldest daughter swung monkey-like from the branches, cajoling him to join her. He looked conflicted and perplexed as he stared at the low-hanging branch, and said he’d never climbed a tree… and then – decidedly – that he did not want to climb it. “Of course you do,” I told him, verbally coaching and firmly pressing him to do it. After several attempts and as many assertions that he didn’t want to, he finally mustered the arm strength to heave himself up onto the branch, and he looked exceptionally pleased. It’s one of my private, favorite moments.
When the kids play in the neighborhood, I do the bare minimum checking to ensure all is well, but I’m hardly watching their every move. Once in a while, though, I seize a quiet moment to stare out the window and watch the years progress and the traditions of a close-knit clan of kids with all their individual oddities and differing personalities playing outside, climbing trees and growing up together in a neighborhood that has seen dozens of generations before them.
And on this day as 2013 ebbs away and 2014 graciously edges its way in and stakes claim to another year of their lives, I can’t help watching the wolf pack as they play and laugh and bicker and wrestle and tumble along. The redheaded boy walks away from the group, and he has grown tall and gangly. He is wearing all black and carrying a giant toy gun in one hand, which stops my heart for a moment in an odd way. A day later, he is chattering with my husband carrying an enormous, sword-like knife.
But on this particular day, he walks away from the kids and the laughter and boy-wrestling. He has spotted the stray cat who adopted our family’s porch a couple of years ago as she emerges from a sheltered nap to soak up the last rays of an uncharacteristic warm December sun. He had christened the cat when she first arrived at The Good House. I hated his selection and was certain I had far more clever contributions (do we ever outgrow the delight of naming a pet?), but resigned myself to his pick due to that aforementioned soft spot.
The redheaded boy stops in the middle of the alley and paces back and forth for a minute, looking conflicted between the laughter and wrestling and chatter of the kids and then glancing forlornly back at this endearing misfit of a cat, who decides it for him by looking straight at him and letting out a pitiful, croaking meow. He sets down the day’s play weapon of choice, turns his back on the other kids and kneels down so that his face is inches from the cat’s wide green eyes. He scratches her chin, strokes her back and carries on an extended conversation with her, and she is responsive and encouraging. I’m pretty sure that misfit cat is giving him all the parenting and life lessons he needs in this moment, and my own heart is warmer at being witness to it all.