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In Distant Recollection

childhood is always there, somewhere

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 18, 1994.

I have been taking care of two little boys for the last month, aged nine and eleven. I don't have kids of my own, and I don't regret that much, so it is just about always a wondrous journey back in time to listen to kids before puberty think and grow. All childhoods are alike if devoid of traumatizing events, which is most of them. For those of us who don't get to spend as much time as we would like with children, it is a warm return to good times.

Lewis Thomas had a theory that language evolved, almost spontaneously, among children.

He drew a marvelous story of a group of hominids gathered around the fire when the adult blather of grunts and groans was overshadowed by an increasing din from the children around their own fire. Louder and louder until single, repeated words could be heard, but not recognized as such, by the adults, but the children off the wall with their mutual discovery and recognition. It sounds altogether plausible and valid. Watching any group of children today, and you can see shadows of that big mutual recognition in a spate of smaller ones.

To this day, you can listen to children talk at an early age and realize that half the time they are talking for their own entertainment and not to communicate. They like the sound of their own voices, they like the sounds of their own laugh. Even as they get more sophisticated and adept, the infatuation with voice is with us well outside of toddlerhood.

I used to hate it when I'd turn around and see one of my parents or adult family members looking at me. So it was with some misgivings when I often found myself watching the two kids off in the field behind the house. Sometimes, there'd be only be one kicking a soccer ball, practicing, then losing interest as the mind wandered, then noodling around with the ball, then sitting on it and stretching the legs out. Then in the warm embrace of early evening, there would be only the little boy watching the sunset in shadow as the birds chatter seized up around him and the sky darkened. Mesmerized by the sunset and the deep silences, the boy would lean back on his arms and start snatches of songs from school, peppered now and then with a phrasing from a rap record. He is at total piece with his world and his life, although he doesn't know it. If the brother appeared from inside the house, there would be a quick soccer skirmish, and then, with the unspoken communication, the two would hurtle off into the dark field chattering away, and I could only keep track from the kitchen door by the sounds of their voices where they were. Then silence. The occasional cry to the other to come look. Much laughter. A stupid song.

"Okay troops, time to hit the showers," I'd yell into the dark. Silence. Then the thudding of feet as they approached the house from two different directions. "Did you get it?" one yelled directly into the others ear as they elbowed by me and into the house. "Yeah," screamed the other back as they hurtled through the kitchen and upstairs, leaving a path that looked like they had dragged an old wet blanket behind them. In fact, it was an old wet blanket they had found and dragged in, but I didn't see it until they had swept it through the kitchen, past the washing machine, into the living room , up the stairs, down the hall, and into the bedroom where it was put, as logic dictates, into the hamper. "We left it out when we had a picnic," they explained as if to an idiot. I had been there two weeks and there was no picnic.

Kids start about every sentence with “Um.” It is as disarming with a child as it is annoying with a college graduate. "Um, can we have a snack after a shower. Um, can I have money for a T-shirt for soccer? Um, Mom doesn't fix lasagna like that. Um, homework? Um, yeah, I can do it tomorrow. Um.”

In my three weeks with them, it was not unusual for me to visualize a vat of animal fat and butter, dunking them in it, tying a ribbon around their heads and chaining them to a tree for a deserving mountain lion. In fact, not a few times I checked out one way tickets for twelve and under to Singapore. It was extremely odd for me to find myself so angry for such short periods of time at a kid for, essentially, being a kid. Offset totally by being able to watch them be kids in a household with a television that doesn't work. Finding myself laughing at disgusting songs that were ancient even in my Pleistocene youth, coming close to yelling food fight at dinner and ducking under the table. Explaining Sitting Bull for a homework assignment, and looking stuff up on the computer for a report about Iowa. Watching Stand By Me on the video and knowing the kids loved it. I did, myself.

I had a good childhood, a big surprise to those who have known me as an adult, and it was nice to rejoin it for a few weeks. Childhood is sort of like a camp that's always there even when you aren't. That's how I want it to be, anyway. The sounds of their voices where they were. Then silence. The occasional cry to the other.