Callum is my mealtime boyfriend. Our chairs are side-by-side, and he likes to eat with one foot on the rung of his chair and another foot on the rung of mine. That way he can easily lean over to nuzzle me with his head and whisper sweet nothings in my ear. He tells me that he loves me, that I have soft hair, that the food is dee-wiscious and he is so happy I made it for him. He feeds me little bites from his plate and requests bites from mine. It annoys everyone else (especially Ronan, who runs around from his side of the table to take up the rungs when Callum loses focus and wanders off), but I like it. I’m the hugging type. For several weeks, Callum was not physically affectionate toward me at all, despite frequent professions of love and gratitude. He would ask to “snuggle” at bedtime, by which he meant my lying down about three inches from him and not touching him in any way. I’d thought It Was All Over– he was separating, he was done with hugs, it would just be high-fives and aggressive wrestling from here on out. He’d never been as much of a cuddler as my other two anyway. My eyes would sting with tears as I folded his surprisingly large T-shirts and rolled his once-again-too-small socks late at night.

Then he suddenly got over it. These days he likes me to pick him up so he can look into my face and arrange my hair in different styles, piling it first to one side then the other. Tonight, as I was intently helping him get an arm into a pajama sleeve, he remarked on my pretty eyes and gave me a sweet little pat on the cheek with his free hand. Awww. His shrunken 5T pajamas were getting a little short in the torso. Again. I think of ages two to three as the time when a child turns from a baby into a true boy or girl. At just over two-and-a-half, Callum definitely looks fully boy. His arms may be only the diameter of a silver dollar, but they are LONG. When I wake him in the morning, studying at all those outstretched lanky limbs clad in cute patterns of robots or monsters puts me in the Twilight Zone for a moment every day. How did he get so friggin’ tall? He has the largest feet of all three kids (11T) and, while he used to be halfway between Ronan and Abigail in height, he seems to be encroaching on his sister. He is starting to experience the problem of people expecting him to act older than he is.

Not so sweet Ronan, who is still a little roly-poly and has a funny little skip-hop he inserts into his run when he is on the go. The kids wanted to put on a show for me in the yard yesterday, and Ronan’s contribution was to race-skip-hop around the dormant brown grass at full speed, singing nonsense, waving two fly swatters in the air and then flinging them wildly into the bushes. He is nothing if not entertaining. Though his looks and mannerisms are babyish, he surprises me almost every day with his competence, whether at getting dressed and undressed, successfully sneaking into places he should not be, cleaning up his own messes or fixing things he has broken. He has had a burst of language development and will now carry on at length, especially if his brother is there to jump in with extra words as necessary. I was listening to the two of them play the other day. They’d tipped over their play kitchen and were pretending it was a minibus in need of repair. They decided they needed to call somebody for extra help, so Ronan dug out a toy phone and made this call:

“Conductor! We can’t find our lost batteries! They are too gone. They are too tucked in there and we can’t find them without our minibus.” After some marching up and down the hall in “click-clacks” (dress-up shoes) without making any progress on the battery situation, they decided to call back. Ronan informed the conductor that the minibus was also lost. They needed help to find the minibus, a basket, a mouse, their other click-clacks. “Tell him about the ladder,” suggested Callum. And yes, conductor, don’t forget the ladder. The conductor did not come through. The boys made some partially successful repairs and decided it was too broken to continue work under such unsupportive conditions. “We just have to go to sleep,” Ronan told me. Indeed, it was naptime. I pulled Ronan onto my lap for a story. He was dee-wiscious, the champion snuggler he had always been.

Ronanovitch Petrov felt a fluttering against his breast as he burst into the house. It excited him so; he paid no notice to the tableau of interrupted agony before him. “I got a cricket in my pocket!” he shouted, digging it free and setting it to wander, one leg tragically askew, across the stained wood floor. His sister Anastaysia Catalina threw herself at his feet, her face awash with tears. She clutched his sweet round waist. “Oh, Petri, my darling! Your brother Semyon has taken my sticker and will not return it. He is not a bit sorry and only groans and darts away when I try to retrieve it!”

An indignant Yaroslav Semyon defended himself until he saw the cricket limping his way. “I want this sticker because I want it and– EEEEEEEEEEEEE!” The family cringed before the piercing screech as terror overtook poor Semyon. With strength born of fear, he dragged the faded sofa from the wall and barricaded himself behind it. Anya swiped at her wetted cheeks and seized her moment, tumbling over the sofa and peeling the glittering butterfly from his shirt, securing it instead to her own. Ronanovitch knew he had to act quickly to bring an end to the screams. The poor cricket had just reached the doorjamb; he crushed it matter-of-factly with his shoe and brushed the remains outside. Semyov fell sobbing with relief into his sister’s arms. “I am sorry, dear sister. I won’t take your sticker.”

“Okay,” said Anastaysia. “I have a smaller one that you can have. It’s just as pretty, really.” She affixed it to his shirt, not forgetting one more for her dear Petri as well. She gently patted their chests and they smiled the tiny, secret smiles of the restored as they huddled together behind the sofa. “Now we match!” said Anastaysia. Outdoors, a grackle feasted on the pieces of cricket.

When the cold sunlight woke me, I’d been dreaming of the beach, whose warm sands I’d read about before They stopped pretending this was an actual school and destroyed all the books. It took only a moment for the aches and pains to wash over me anew. Another long day of hard labor lay ahead. But where was I? Not in my usual bunk in the girls’ wing. Somehow, I had ended up curled on the chill floor of the boys’ dormitory, my cheek resting on a corner of an old blanket that smelled of urine. Its owner kicked me in the head accidentally. “I want some milk!” It was Callum. His brother Ronan awoke, begging me for just a little cup of milk, just one! None of us recalled how I had ended up there in the night. I had to get back to my own wing before They noticed. I couldn’t let Ronan and Callum get hurt because of me, even if they made unreasonable demands and peed on their bedclothes. It wasn’t their fault that no one had taught them differently. The boys were young and goodhearted and They hadn’t gotten to them yet. I was determined to protect Ronan’s and Callum’s souls from being ground into the concrete of The School as long as I could, and when I couldn’t any longer, to help them escape. Rumor had it that clever teens had established an outpost somewhere in the mountains; perhaps it was real, and perhaps Ronan and Callum could make it there one day. I was only fifteen but I felt like I was coming up on 40. I knew it was too late for me.

The only reason a girl could be seen with boys was to serve them. I smoothed my hair and rushed to fetch my innocents some milk. Girls, of course, were not allowed milk. We ate the crusts and crumbs off the boys’ plates as we cleared the table and drank the backwashy remains from their abandoned water thermoses. Callum and Ronan were always careful to leave me some decent bites of food, and would even slip little bits into my mouth surreptitiously as they raced off to their next task. They were in the Helpers group, assigned to aid older boys in repairs, woodwork and the like. They were miserably ineffective, sweeping wood shavings across the entire floor instead of into a pile and continually turning screws in the wrong direction. But even the hardened older boys took pity on Ronan and Callum in their eagerness and hid their errors from Them. I wasn’t sure how long it could go on. I did my best to teach them what I could, but I felt the future coming, and coming fast. My boys would be swept up in the changes.

Personal log, Dr. Callum. Planet X. Local Date: month 6, Year 3.

Dr. Ronan and I have been so busy with our scientific inquiry that it has taken me years to find the words to update this log. Our mission: to determine whether and how this new planet is habitable, equipped only with the small set of tools on our landing shuttle. Legend has it that our kind, or something like it, colonized this world long before us. Indeed, the decaying civilization they left behind has consumed our imaginations.

We were dropped off by the Discovery during its years-long exploratory journey through this solar system and we have only sporadic contact with the ship. It is for the best, as the captain is singularly unhelpful, lauding our discoveries one moment and chastising our methods the next. Her orders contradict our prime directive so we ignore them in favor of our own explorations.

Pouring and dumping have proved to be ideal methods to ascertain the properties of any liquids we encounter. Possible food sources are best thrown, piled, dipped,and mixed before eating. We find the tried-and-true method of bashing things with sticks to be singularly effective for learning more about the materials and makeup of items we uncover. This planet’s previous inhabitants, who seem anatomically similar to us but on a much larger scale, left behind some technology. Dr. Ronan specializes in testing it by pushing every button until something happens. Thus we discovered a working music player and now have evening entertainment. Regarding survival, we make do with what we find.

Our task is overwhelming. Many days I cry for thirty minutes at a stretch for no apparent reason. Dr. Ronan will scream and writhe in frustration when faced with a device he cannot activate. Sometimes I fear for our sanity. But then I think of the richness of our life here and I know we will achieve our goal. I have not reported to the Discovery that our shuttle was irreparably damaged upon entry. We plan to make this new place our own, without them.

The lady of the manor paced from window to window, rearranging the tea roses in their vases as the last tendrils of ruddy sunshine spread across the green. The gentlemen would soon return from their romp on the grounds, shoes covered in mud and faces glowing with good health, to wash and dress for supper. Supper was the problem. Of late they seemed to have forgotten nearly all the social graces that were their birthright and their duty. This evening, however, the gentlemen started off relatively well, despite their stomping noisily into the room to join the dining party. They greeted each guest in turn and graciously thanked the hostess for the lovely repast as they took their seats. The lady of the house let her shoulders relax a bit and turned briefly to speak to her husband. Something white flew at him, sticking to his chin whiskers. “Sir Ronan! We do not throw our food!”

The handsome face contorted into a scowl. “I didn’t throw food. It was one rice.”

“You did. Rice is food. Do it again, and you shall be asked to leave the table.”

“It was one rice!” He threw another. His ever-loyal, ever-gallant brother volunteered to fetch it from the floor, diving precipitously under the table and crashing about against the legs of the other guests in search of the offending grain. “I found it!” Sir Callum called triumphantly from below. But his brother had already been sent away. The lady of the house held out hope for them, but if they didn’t become respectable soon, they would never find wives, no matter how distinguished their profiles, how erudite their knowledge of shapes and colors, nor how vast their holdings. Only time and providence could perform their gentle ministrations on the young men.

A hollow-eyed traveler curled bone-thin fingers around a flagon of ale. In the dim light of the inn, she told her tale of woe.

“It was in the days when giants ruled the land. In the realm of Sweetendom, all seemed at peace, for the little people under the giants’ protection lacked for nothing. They feasted upon almonds and string cheese and pomegranate. They arrayed themselves as whimsically as they desired, even with pants flopping on their heads instead of covering their bottoms. They snoozed upon the fuzziest of blankets. But trouble lurked in the darkness. The little people wailed in the night. They coughed and choked and cried. The Giants visited them with strange instruments for sucking out their noses and plied them with bitter draughts. But it was for naught. Each winter, night after night, the weeping and wailing continued. The Giants grew thin and weary. Surely some deep and ancient mischief was afoot.

“So it began, lo, these long years past, and so it continues to this day. We are sore pressed on every side. The little people begin to chafe at their subjugation, or so they call it. For, they wonder, if the giants cannot protect them in the night, why should they lord it over them in the day? The little people have many thoughts how their lives could be better arranged– more nudity! more sugar! less shushing! no seatbelts!– though they know not how they are cossetted day and night. The giants of Sweetendom go wearily about their work, without hope or answer until the coming of The Spring, and only I among them have escaped to tell you.”

I was minding my own business with a cup of coffee when somebody lunged at me from the side, snapping at my cup with a pair of tongs. We tussled. I wrested the weapon away, but my assailant was undeterred. He started swishing his fingers in my coffee, laughing all the while. He laughed like he had nothing to lose. He laughed like he was in it for the fun. His rakishly handsome face was familiar. VERY familiar. I was out of my league. I had to create a diversion, and quickly. I opened a game app on my phone and slid the phone down the table. Its electronic soundtrack distracted my assailant long enough for me to gulp down what remained of my coffee (hoping there was nothing poisonous in it) and sneak away. Knowing him, he’d forget the phone and I could retrieve it later.

I darted down a hallway to change my coffee-stained clothes. What now? I rolled my eyes and sighed as I approached the safety of my room. Someone else was staking out my place, blocking my door with fierce determination. He had the wild eyes of a desperate man. “You can’t go in! Because I want you!” His rakishly handsome face was also familiar. VERY familiar. Another tussle, this one punctuated with sobs. “We can talk about this later! Now is not the time!” I pried him off my pants leg, grateful I’d remembered to wear a belt. I sacrificed my sweatshirt to the fight, allowing my opponent to become entangled. I slammed the door behind me,careful to watch for fingers. I leaned against the shut door to catch my breath. Privacy at last. A momentary relief. My life was full of attractive but volatile guys. I couldn’t say I disliked it.

for Ronan

Mom says
I can’t eat egg from my shoe
Or bang the TV with my tools
Or paint my penis blue.

I can’t give the car a lick
Or pee on a broom
Or bite a butter stick

Like a candy bar.
I can’t dump beans
In the honey jar.

Mom lives by brittle rules
Adults made up
For how things are used.

The oval top of my shoe
Fits an egg exactly
But it’s nothing to you,

Mom! You don’t know
Why to take a purse apart
And you forget
My penis is a work of art.

Sorry-gari: It’s what the boys say when, as Abigail puts it, they are not REALLY sorry but someone is making them say it. They are figuring out some of the subtleties of social interaction. Incidentally, gari is also a food popular among the people living in south Benin, the West African country where I served in the Peace Corps. It is grated, fermented and dried cassava that people sprinkle on beans or drink mixed with water to make their stomachs feel full. It is tons of work to make and the result is so close to nothingness that you almost feel sad eating it. After having not thought about gari for over a decade, it is suddenly everywhere in my house, its slightness and sourness sifting down over many a conflict.

Ronan clocks Callum over the head with a toy train. I give the Level One response: say sorry, plus a hug. “Sorry-gari!” says Ronan. Second warning: say it right, or get a time out. “Soooorrrry!” says Ronan insincerely, with a ludicrous imitation of a hug. Okay, that’ll do for now. Any more violence and we go to Level 3– time out for boy and offending toy. But all the kids are usually satisfied by even the most laconic attempts at apology, and adding the hug somehow sets a social re-set button, even if it is angrily brushed away. Callum shoves Ronan to the floor so he can take his xylophone. “Sorry-gari!” Say it right or pay the price. Sometimes Callum will actually become contrite. “Sorry, brother.” Deflected hug, hurt feelings, another hug, start again.

Both Ronan and Callum have started testing new social skills and roles lately. Callum wakes up cheerful and immediately begins regaling us with happy facts that come to his mind. “Penguins eat fish because they love it. So that’s what they eat– fish!” he lectures, marching in circles in the kitchen. He loves to inform others of… well, anything, really. The family Explainer. He also wants to be the Problem Fixer. If anyone is sad, frustrated, hurt, sick, angry– he is right there trying to comfort and solve. “Oh, I’m so sorry you feel sad. Can I pat you? Do you feel better now?” He is especially proactive if the troubled person is Ronan. One day recently I mentioned that I liked to spend time with Daddy because he is my best friend. “That’s like me,” said Callum. “I like to be with Ronan because he’s MY best friend.”

Ronan, whose longtime role as family comforter has been thus usurped, is suddenly busy resisting everything all the time. He’s always been one to follow his own path but lately he is determined to let me know how seldom our two paths cross. “I. WILL. NOT. BE. QUIET!” he yells each nap time and evening when I lay him in his bed. “I. WANT. TO. BE. LOUD!” Still figuring out what to do about that one, given that he shares a room. Abigail really hurt his feelings the other day by telling him he was a bad Ronan after he destroyed the train track and hit her with a train. He marched over to me, teary but defiant, and with the same one-word-sentence style, declared that he was NOT a bad Ronan. “I. AM. A. NICE. RONAN.” I explained to both of them the difference between doing something bad and being a bad person. They said sorry and hugged. Ronan also really wants to be funny. He makes poop jokes. He stuffs a wedge of apple in his mouth and asks me to take a picture. He does a silly dance and then checks in: “Is that funny, Mom?” He loves to make his siblings laugh and he especially loves to make me laugh. There is a family game called Bumpy Chair in which one of the kids climbs behind me on a chair and I lean back and pretend puzzlement. Why is this chair so bumpy and uncomfortable? What could be wrong with it? And then the kid peeks over my shoulder and announces him or herself. Oh! THAT makes sense! When Ronan is Bumpy Chair he can’t even wait for me to ask why the chair is bad before he shrieks and pops over my shoulder and collapses against me, shaking with the hilarity of it. Funny, funny little Ronan.

On the many times when I feel like no child is interested in listening or obeying, I try to keep these moments in mind. And I reassure myself that no one has ever, EVER tried to say Sorry-gari to me.

Some days I live in an opera. Ronan and Callum are both into singing right now, and they will sing whole conversations just for the heck of it. A recent song-convo had me shaking silently with laughter as I got out the night diapers:
Callum: “It’s time for bed. Go to sleep, little Ronan, go to sleep.”
Ronan: “No, no, NO, no NO! It’s not time for bed.”
Callum: “Yes, yes, yes, YES yes. It’s time for bed so don’t say no.”
Ronan: “I want to say no. Noooooooo ….. no.”

Ronan is still a fully devoted mama’s boy. Last week I asked Dr. G to handle naptime so I could get some extra sleep and try to recover from a cold. Ronan sat outside my closed door wailing for me for several minutes. I heard Callum clomping down the hall to visit. I heard him scramble down next to his sobbing brother and say in the most sympathetic tone he could muster, “I’m so sorry, brother. You are sad. You want to be with mommy.”
Ronan stopped crying. “Yes, I do.”
Callum: “I’m sorry. Why do you want to be with mommy?”
Ronan: “I just want her.”
Callum: “Mommy has to be in there because she’s feeling so yucky. Daddy will take care of us. Is that good, brother? Do you feel better?”
Ronan, crying again: “Noooooo. I just want mommy!”

Callum gave up and clomped back down the hall. I was a little teary over his wonderful attempt. He showed sympathy, validated Ronan’s feelings, invited him to talk about it, explained the situation, offered an alternative. This from the kid who thinks it is really fun to whomp people on the back of the head with a plastic bat. This from the kid who would rather moan through gritted teeth for ten minutes than say aloud that he would like another cracker. What a sweetheart.

Another sweetheart in the family, Abigail, has been wondering lately what God’s plan is for her life. She thinks maybe she will have lots of wonderful children that she can tell about God, or maybe she will be a church. “Not like a building. Because a person can’t be a building. But somebody who gathers people together to talk about the Lord.” I told her I could see her doing either, or both, or maybe even something totally different. The fun thing about the future is we don’t know exactly how it will turn out. I reminded her that God has a plan for her right now, while she is only five years old, as the bible verse she learned in Sunday School said: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I love how that verse takes away some of the complications I tend to add to life. If we see something good to do, most of the time we should just do it. Voila, God’s plan. Love grows as you share it. Abigail was glowing at the thought of being part of The Plan already. She started thinking of people she could be kind to. In fact, like many children her age, she is already generous and thoughtful. We accidentally came to the park with extra juice boxes and she asked if she could pass them out to her soccer team. She had been given money to buy a gift and she added her own money so she could buy two. When she sees me getting stressed out, she asks what she can do to help. Also like many children her age, Abigail is capricious with her kindness and she wails often at the horrible unfairness of her life. But when she sets her mind on doing something nice, she doesn’t count the cost. She will empty her piggy bank or give up her TV show or let her brothers rampage through her room without complaint. None of that is as important to her as doing whatever nice thing she has settled upon in her heart.

I wish I sang more often, and sat on the floor with somebody sad more often, and emptied my piggy bank for others more often without feeling the pinch. Sometimes I wish I were more like my children.

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