Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Treasure Hunt

Where a boy's jeans are, there will his heart lie also

By Margaret Renkl

MARCH 1, 1999:  Only one of my children is old enough to have developed a genuine private life. The other two still wear their hearts on their sleeves. Unlike the truth-in-advertising babies of the family, however, the 7-year-old is a ponderer, a quiet student of the world, a secret collector of artifacts and theories, and he does not always choose to divulge the innermost workings of his heart.

My husband and I first noticed this freeze-out on information when our firstborn was not quite 4 years old. After a lifetime of refusing to leave our side, of trotting happily behind us and maintaining a running monologue as we moved from upstairs to downstairs, from house to yard, our small shadow suddenly wanted to spend some time in his room. Alone.

"I'm going into my room, now," he would announce.

"What for, honey?" I asked the first time it happened.

"That's private," he informed me. "I'm going to play a private game."

If, without thinking, I ever walked into his room during the private game, my son would pointedly stop whatever he was doing until I left again. Then he even more pointedly closed the door behind me and pushed hard, until we both heard the tumbler click in the keeper.

"Next time, knock," his muffled voice would order. "This is private."

"What's a 4-year-old boy got to do that's so private?" I asked the boy's father.

"He's probably lying on the bed, playing with himself."

I was inclined to ignore this typical guy response--the child was 4, after all, not 14. On the other hand, he was also a child who'd only recently emerged from diapers. Maybe he'd begun to appreciate his new access to body parts previously locked away. Guys do seem to spend a lot of time checking on themselves.

So when my little fellow mentioned a desire to invite one of his neighborhood friends--a girl, as it happened--to come over and play the private game with him, I thought it wise to find out more precisely what that kind of privacy involved. I went into his room where he was playing with Thomas the Tank Engine and Thomas' cars, Annie and Clarabelle.

"Honey," I said hopefully, "is this the private game?"

"No," he said. "It's not private if you're in here, too."

"Can you tell me what the private game is?" I began again. "I'm not asking to come in while you play it or anything; I'm just curious to know what it is."

He shrugged and clicked Thomas' magnet onto Clarabelle's magnet. "I don't want to tell you."

"Well, then, can you just tell me if the private game involves, well, if the private game involves your, um, penis?"

He looked at me in astonishment. "My WHAT?"

It was not my most insightful moment as a mother.

I truly am not, I promise, one of those parents who regard their children as miniature extensions--and reflections--of themselves. From the moment each one of my sons was born I was struck almost forcibly by their extreme otherness, their separateness from me. For one thing, they're all boys, and I have never been nor wished to be a boy. But for another thing, each one just seemed to spring into the world as a separate, peremptory little self, complete with a premeditated and complicated agenda.

I tend to regard myself as rather like a front-row member of their audience, and not as a behind-the-scenes playwright who scripts their lives. I am, it's true, intensely curious about how this play unfolds; every twist in the plot, every little murmured aside, fascinates me. I sometimes feel I could spend my whole life shouting "Bravo!" and clapping until my hands are raw.

But though we do talk to each other a lot, my boy and I, I'm fully aware that there is much on his mind which never rises to the level of articulation, at least not while I'm nearby. So I try these days to take a more subtle approach to discovering the truth of my little boy's heart. Like Hamlet I seek by indirections to find directions out.

I'm not saying I spy on him. I never spy. I don't even lurk. There's a baby monitor in the room he shares with his brother, but I don't turn it on, and I don't hang around outside the door, either. If I'm honest, I have to admit that ignoble thought has crossed my mind, but the fact is I'm too busy to spend a whole lot of time studying any one of my children.

Instead, I keep alert for random clues, watch for impromptu signs. I practice the ancient art of augury. When the lunchbox comes back home still mostly full, I know my normally hollow-legged son was having too much fun in the cafeteria to bother with eating. "Who'd you sit next to at lunch?" I ask, a question which usually inspires the recounting of an entire first-grade comedy of errors he'd never have thought to mention otherwise.

I learn a lot from the laundry. Sometimes I find something crucial in his pockets--once it was a crumpled, misspelled message from the girl who sits beside him at school--and when I return it, safely rescued from the maw of the washing machine, he might tell me why he held onto it, why he wants to save it forever in the treasure box he keeps locked up in his closet, far above his brother's reach.

Just the condition of worn jeans can reveal important truths to an archaeologist of the laundry room. If the knees are muddy but the seat is relatively clean, I figure my budding naturalist has spent some part of the previous day digging intently in the dirt. So I ask if, say, he's discovered a new anthill in the yard. Usually I guess wrong and it's some other treasure he's found--Indian money, a rusty key--but the question prompts a conversation we'd never have had if his muddy jeans hadn't conjured a possibility.

If I happen to be nearby driving the hookup or washing dishes during their afternoon snack, I listen when my son talks to his friends or explains something to his younger brothers. I just keep my mouth shut and go about my business, and he rarely lowers his voice or waits for me to leave before he finishes what he started to say. It's almost always some innocuous observation about the Atlanta Braves or an inexplicable knock-knock joke he made up himself, but sometimes I stumble on a truly existential conversation.

"We don't go to church," a neighborhood child mentioned one recent day while she and my son were sitting companionably together in the warm sunshine on our back steps. "We don't believe in God."

Picking up toys on the screen porch, I paused to hear my son's reply.

"I hate church," he agreed, "but I believe in God." He was leaning back on his elbows, absently twirling a dried leaf between his fingers, his face squinting up at the blue, blue sky. "If you don't believe in God, who do you thank?"

"Who do you thank for what?"

"I don't know," he answered slowly. "Everything, I guess." He gestured in a vague way to the bare tree branches in the clear sky, to the dog lying curled up on the brown grass.

Standing silently on the porch, listening to the murmured philosophy of children and watching the way the sunlight ringed their shining heads, I understood what my son was saying. I wasn't allowed to say a single word, but I knew just exactly what he meant.

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