Windows and mirrors

Illustration of a boy playing with a stick.

I was watching my son through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his.

Image: © Jing Jing Tsong/

© Jing Jing Tsong/


Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure. —Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Drip. Drip. Drip. A Familiar sound. Today it’s not rain on stone, but a leaky kitchen faucet. I wish I knew how to replace the cracked gasket, but I don’t. We have been waiting for weeks for a second plumbing problem that would warrant the plumber’s $100 minimum fee for a visit. The monotony of the constant drip is driving me nuts. I put a folded towel under it at night, but I can still hear it—even upstairs in bed. Carol says I’m imagining it, but I don’t think so.

I had planned to go to the cabin today for two days of writing, but Bennett has a fever and can’t go to school. And Carol has an all-day conference. So I’m working on the laptop in the family room and listening to the drip, while Bennett plays on the floor at my feet. In spite of his illness, he is happily lost amid a couple of gallons of Legos and has no sense of how slowly time is passing. Nor does he hear the dripping faucet. We just found the Legos at a garage sale, and their newness, the infinite possibilities, enthrall him. He sits rapt on the carpet inventing and quietly talking to himself—as if conferring with another seven-year-old inventor.

Every fifteen minutes or so, after he has clicked a few more of the red, blue, and green plastic pieces together, he shows me something.

“Look, Daddy. See this guy? He’s driving the ship.” Then a bit later: “Look, Daddy, I put a coffeemaker on the main ship. But I put a lemonade maker on the shuttle.”

“Which is the shuttle?” I ask, now understanding it is a rocket ship, rather than a sailing ship.

“Here. Look!” he says, unhitching a red matchbox-size platform from the main ship. A driver sits in a little chair, and I assume a green thimble-size cylinder attached to the back is the lemonade maker. He flies the shuttle completely around the sofa, making a whooshing noise all the while and pausing twice to fire imaginary machine guns at a couple of Hot Wheels cars below him. Then he lands it on my thigh. There he takes the driver out, straightens his legs, and walks him to my knee, which is now clearly a precipice looking out on an alternate universe. An inch tall, the plastic, square-headed man surveys the messy terrain of the family room.

“He’s an explorer,” Bennett says.

“What kind of explorer?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Like a Power Ranger, or maybe an Indian.”

Well, I wasn’t expecting Meriwether Lewis, but the odd contrast of cultures fascinates me, as does the power of Bennett’s raw imagination—all that he sees and discovers in a pile of discarded plastic Legos. He is the explorer who most impresses me.

Last week he brought me a red truck to repair. He broke off its wheels while “driving” (bounding) it down the stairs and then left it on my workbench in the basement. The cracked wheels were plastic and couldn’t be glued or replaced—a lost cause. Or so I thought.

“That’s OK. I’ll keep it, Daddy,” Bennett said as he carried it back upstairs to the playroom. I see it now on the carpet—a red plastic sled hitched up to a three-legged horse with a Star Wars character riding in the flatbed. Luke Skywalker seems to be lashing the horse with his lightsaber. I’m still not sure why the horse is standing upright despite its disability, or how Bennett knew that it would. I just don’t see that way.

This feeling, this inability to see, is not new. I used to get it each day when I dropped Bennett off at the preschool at the college where I teach. Because it was a lab school, there was a long one-way teaching mirror in the front hallway. Students and parents could look in at the kids without them seeing us—our window was their mirror. But it took me several days to even notice this. I was often in a hurry. After the sign-in sheet, the hug, the nod to his teacher, I usually bolted off to my office with my briefcase to do important things.

Yet one day, on the way out, I paused for a moment and caught a glimpse of my distracted self in the window. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The kids are supposed to see themselves on the other side. But when I took two steps toward my faint, self-absorbed reflection, it disappeared. My “I” yielded to my eye, which suddenly saw through to the world on the other side, the world I so often just walked by: children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocence—working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity, and I was thrown into their childhood, and my own, so abruptly that I found myself in tears.

What was it about this window?

I could see the kids, but they couldn’t see me. If they tried to look back at me, all they saw was themselves and their own world: four-year-old Maggie, in glittery pink slippers and a baggy green velvet dress and two strings of white plastic pearls, stirred a pan of air on a little wooden stove with a rubber spatula and intently adjusted the dials until the temperature was just right. Then James came running over with a little snake he had rolled from a ball of blue Play-Doh and popped it in Maggie’s pan. This perturbed her at first, but soon she began to stir it in and to readjust the dials. Bennett, who wore a black-and-silver stethoscope, sat cross-legged on the carpet next to Maggie and diligently checked the heart rate of the stuffed green dinosaur he was cradling. Then he tucked it into a wooden crib and whispered something to it—perhaps a bedtime prayer.

How odd it was to see Bennett but not be seen by him, to be in the same room with him, yet not. When I got up to leave for the office, and was several feet away from the window, I again turned it into a mirror, again caught my dim likeness in the glass. It was then that I finally saw the obvious: I was watching Bennett through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his, the known against the unknown. That’s a hard thing for parents—to stop seeing ourselves in our children. And to stop waiting—consciously or not—for them to demonstrate that one attribute or flaw that marks them as part of us. As they get older, I wonder who will be blessed with a modicum of musical or athletic ability, and who might inherit my impatience or depression.

But thankfully, the dimming mirror is also a sparkling-clear window.

And I think that paradox was the source of my tears and confusion that day at the lab school. I saw myself in the presence of those little kids and wanted to crawl on all fours back into their world, to dress myself up in their total surrender to the now, and in a kind of vision that could turn Legos into spaceships and Play-Doh into edible blue snakes. When, I wonder, did I first begin to lose my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a faucet that never stops dripping, like a sprawling to-do list?

Like me, my own dad sometimes struggled to see life’s blessings amid its burdens, and to shift from the “I” to the eye, from self to world. He too could get overwhelmed by work, and the future, and struggle to get back to the present. Or at least that’s how it seems now, in the shadows of memory. But that was all a long time ago. Dad and Mom are close to ninety now. And though they have sharp minds and still swim most days, their bodies are wearing down as they approach the deepest mystery of all.

Yet it was just forty years ago that Dad was my age and I was a little kid. And he sometimes picked me up at the lab school in Ames, Iowa, where he was a young pastor with a large church and four sons. I can see him leaning on the chain-link fence on the edge of the preschool playground, watching me play freeze tag on the blacktop with my four-year-old friends. And there, I imagine him, in his sport coat and slacks, waiting and watching us for a few slow minutes before calling my name, before waving me in—before hugging me, zipping up my open coat, adjusting my hat, and taking me home. Just a minute or two of pause, of revision, before returning to real time.

Maybe it’s because I’m now almost exactly between my son and my father—forty years older than Bennett and forty years younger than my dad—that these small moments seem sacred. This morning I’m wondering how my dad found such moments along the way—amid the chaos of family and church, amid all those sermons and meetings and potlucks. But I’m hoping he did sometimes, while lingering on the edge of that playground. Hoping that my little friends and I, in our crazy games of tag and kickball, could—like Bennett did for me—somehow loosen the grip of time, giving him a moment of presence, of prayer.

By midmorning Bennett is still lost in his Legos. I tell him I’m going into the kitchen to clean the floor. He says, “OK,” but after about ten minutes, he calls in to me, “Where’d you go, Daddy?”

“I’m in the kitchen,” I say.

“OK,” he says, again seemingly satisfied. A few minutes later, he carries in an armload of Lego spaceships and shuttles and sets up shop on the kitchen table. Soon, he is sailing off to other galaxies and planets while I scrub the floor on all fours. It is not long before he flies one of his Lego spaceships over my head and dramatically ejects the pilot into my pail with a soapy kerplunk! and a squeal of laughter.

“He can’t swim! He can’t swim!” I say. Bennett laughs.

The rest of the morning seems to pass quickly, or I barely notice that it’s passing. Bennett keeps drawing me back into his play, and then I return to cleaning. I know this is called parallel play, and that I should be fully engaged with him rather than trying to finish my work projects. But this is the best I can do today. And he seems pretty happy. Later, when I get out a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a can of 7 Up, he looks both excited and thankful for the simple snack.

“I like staying home with you, Daddy,” he says as he starts to make lean-tos and little towers out of the crackers.

“Yeah, I like it too,” I say.

That night, after everyone is in bed, I sit up, as I have for the last few months, and read a few pages of Walden. I escape for twenty minutes into Thoreau’s isolated life at the pond in search of words that might still inspire:

We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.

These words get me thinking about Bennett again, and a question he asked tonight at bedtime—out of the blue:

“How did somebody know that there was a carrot growing beneath the leaves on top? How did they know it wasn’t just a regular root? Who figured that out?”

“Do you mean, who discovered the carrot?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“I don’t really know. But I know that the Indians and other people who lived before they had electricity and grocery stores had to figure out what to eat in order to survive. So they ate animals that they killed, and experimented with all kinds of plants and roots as food.”

“But how did they know the first time that carrots would taste good?”

“They probably didn’t. They probably just tasted them. Maybe they had eaten other roots and the smell and color and snap of the carrot root told them these were good ones, too.” I was just getting warmed up, just about to tell him all that I knew about carrots as a staple food in Africa and Asia—

“OK,” Bennett said, meaning that this answer was enough and he didn’t need any more info. Satisfied, and tired, he reached over, flicked off his lamp, and then said what I usually say: “Lights out.”

I smiled, tucked him in, and walked down the hall to our bedroom, thankful for the moment, for all of these moments.

Excerpted from Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild, © 2011 by Tom Montgomery Fate. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.

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