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The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love
Wednesday, September 3, 2014 • Posted September 4, 2014

When Leret, the youngest of my three sons, was about five years old, he and his brothers were getting rowdy in the back of the Suburban on a road trip. I’d called them down several times, and the other two settled down some, but Leret was too wound up.

This is why parents need more than one child to get the full effect of parenthood. With one child, there’s no one for the kid to fight with, so things go a lot smoother. And even with two children, they’re fighting part of the time, and getting along part of the time. But with three there are always two that are having it out. Trying to maintain peace with three kids is like asking Israel and Palestine to play nice. An armed truce is about the best you can hope for.

Finally I told Leret, “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to come back there and hit you over the head.”

Leret thought for a minute, and then asked, “How hard?”

This was pretty much Leret’s MO. He weighed the costs and benefits of doing a particular thing, and if he decided he wanted to do it more than he wanted to avoid the punishment, he did it. And it’s pretty difficult to argue with that reasoning.

When he was in kindergarten, Leret was chosen as a crown bearer for the annual Mason High School Queen’s Coronation, so we had to rent him a tuxedo. Getting most five-year-olds to wear a monkey suit would be almost as pleasant as pouring hot butter into a bobcat’s left ear, but Leret was all over it. He even went with his mom to order the tux, and leafed through the catalog, pointing out the ones he liked.

The coronation was on a Saturday night, and Leret seemed to have no problem carrying a pillow with a crown on it in front of five or six hundred people. And posing for pictures afterward. And then he got up Sunday morning and announced that he was going to wear the tux to church. We didn’t have to return it until Monday, so why not?

On Monday morning he started to put the tux back on to go to school. His mom explained to him that she had to take it back that day, and she couldn’t do that if he was wearing it. He said, “But Mom, the girls really like it.” Five years old.

Mark Twain once said that, when a boy turns thirteen, his parents should put him in a barrel and feed him through a hole, and when he turns sixteen they should plug the hole. Unfortunately, there are laws against that now. I checked.

Just in case anyone is thinking about calling child welfare, that was a joke. I think Twain was joking, too, but I’m not sure about that. Besides, Leret is nineteen now, and has left home, which means my wife and I are what society refers to as ‘empty nesters.’ This is considered more politically correct than calling us ‘sad, lonely, old people.’

When Courtland, our oldest, left home, we realized this was coming. It was a painful thing. Our lives had revolved around kids for eighteen years. I felt like Flick, with his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole on the playground, watching his friends go back into the school, calling plaintively, “Dow weave me! Come baa!”

And then Paden, our middle one, left. We were doing OK with that, watching him pack, until he sat down and his mom asked him if he had everything he needed. He said, “I don’t know. I never left home before.”

And now the last one has escaped. And they aren’t coming back. Not for good. And my wife and I are left standing on the playground, with our tongues frozen painfully to the flagpole, wondering what comes next. Not literally, but still.

My favorite Bible passage is Proverbs 127:3-5. It says that children are a heritage from the Lord. A blessing. Many times during the past 24 years I’ve wondered if God might have over-blessed me a little bit. And now, looking back, I realize it went by way too quickly.

Leret has grown into a fine young man, and his mother and I are proud of him, and he needs to leave home and get on with his life. But if I could shrink him back down to fit that little tuxedo again, I think I’d let him wear it to school on Monday.

The old Mel Gibson song says, “When we’re young we want to get away, when we’re old we want to go back, and we spend our lives replacing all the things we leave behind.” But some things can’t be replaced.

A friend once told me he wouldn’t take a million dollars for any of his kids, but he wouldn’t give fifteen cents for another one. Now that mine have all left home, I’d give a million dollars for a chance to go back and do it all over again.

There used to be a commercial for the army, or navy, or something, that used the tagline, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” I think that fits parenting even better than it fits the military.

If you still have little ones at home, give them a hug. And then give them another one for me. Because before you know it they’ll be leaving home, for good, and trust me, your arms won’t be long enough . . .

Kendal Hemphill is a sad, lonely, old outdoor humor columnist and public speaker. Email him at jeep@verizon.net

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