I remember my two older brothers making a game of jumping from the roof of an old horse shed. I must have been six at the time. I watched for awhile, wondering how they could throw themselves off that impossibly tall building, all the while shouting and laughing, landing surefooted without a single tumble, only to climb back up, and do it again. Looked scary. Looked like fun.
“I wanna do it!” I called to Steve.
“Well, come on up then!” Steve was three years older, and at the age where a girl wasn’t worth anything if she was timid.
I climbed to the top of a rickety fence and reached up, not quite tall enough to touch the sheet metal roof. Steve leaned over and hauled me the rest of the way.
Walter was only a year older than I, and hadn’t yet learned to be as unforgiving as Steve. “Now watch what I do,” he said. “And do it exactly the same way.”
He jumped. Steve jumped. Then both scrambled up the fence and to the roof. I stood back awhile, watching the rotation continue, my brain working overtime.
“Why don’t you fall down?” I asked.
“Because we land on our feet,” Walter explained. “Try it! It’s fun!”
I walked to the edge of the roof and straight into space. I landed hard on both feet, pain shooting up my legs and spine.
“You did it!” both boys exclaimed.
“But it hurt!” I shouted, tears sliding down my cheeks.
“You gotta bend your knees!” Walter said. “Didn’t I say watch me?” He jumped again, and sure enough, for the first time I noticed his landing, knees bent, feet flat on the ground.
I scrambled, and was hauled, back to the roof. More determined than ever, and still sniffling, I walked to the edge, bent my legs a few times as a test, and jumped as both boys watched.
This time I slamed my chin into my bent knees. I spit out a mouth full of blood and a tooth. Walter looked distressed, and asked me to watch one more time as he demonstrated a bent knee landing, with knees apart!
It was no good, I was all done in and crying uncontrollably. Steve look disgusted as both he and Walter walked with me back to the house. The boys got a whipping for letting me do something so dangerous for a girl my age. I was exempt from the whipping only because I could easily produce a mouth full of blood.
It took me a few years to realize why Steve didn’t want me around.
There was the time I got a splinter in my behind on Easter Sunday from sliding down a perfectly good, old board that the boys had been using for more than an hour. The splinter was so deep that Mom had to pile us all in the car and meet our family doctor in his office. I actually had stitches, and the boys got a whipping.
And the time I went sailing out of a swing while trying, on a dare, to reach as high as my brothers. I was banged up and bruised. The boys weren’t allowed to use the swing set for a week.
I can’t remember how old I was when I joined them in a game of Nazi-hunting, only to find myself left behind as they ran after our imaginary foe. It seemed we’d wandered pretty far and I hadn’t a clue in which direction was home. After some time Steve found me and promised to take me home, if and when I quit crying.
Misfiring slingshots, digging holes in sliding mounds of gravel as tall as a house at the town water department, hide ‘n seek games in old refigerators, being lowered into a storm drain to retrieve a dime before the rain got any worse.
We all can remember similar moments of excitement and pain. And we learn along the way how our childish ignorance kept us from knowing just how often we were close to real catastrophe.
Those moments with my brothers came back to me last weekend while I was teaching my grandson how to use grass sheers around the flower beds.
My son Cliff stopped mowing and hurried over to us. “Mom! Why are you letting Furio use those? He got stiches in his hand from plastic scissors he used at school!”
Cliff has only one child. He suffers from a vast pool of limited perspective.
“He’s ten!” I said. “You gonna wait ’till he’s 20?”
“He almost cut our internet cable!” (Ah! The real issue!)
“Which is why I cautioned him to pay more attention to what he is doing.”
“He was six inches from cutting it!”
“He was a good twelve inches,” I quibbled.
To avoid further panic I redirected my grandson to trim around the flagstones.
As I washed my garden tools, I thought about how closely I’d watched my son grew up. I had one child. My mother had seven. Maybe after an unknown number of bloody noses, skinned knees, childhood diseases, doctor visits, piles of dirty laundry, teenage angst, broken hearts, and the occasional police officer ringing our doorbell with one of my brothers in tow – maybe Mom understood that she could only do so much. Maybe she had to let go a little.
I never thought I did enough, although I really like the man my son has become.
I don’t think he’s figured out yet that there is a limit to what a parent can do. You teach, admonish and guide, and then you trust your child and Providence to make it safely through the day. You pray they reach adulthood. And then you pray you die before they do.
Then tomorrow you do it all over again.
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