Fatherhood is mythical and spiritual and hilarious and heartbreaking. Being a father is heavy. Sometimes I expect my time with my children to feel extraordinary, and then it just isn’t.
It’s a lot of telling them not to pick up that bowl of Cheerios, and then telling them not to shake it. Then it’s a lot of telling them to pick up the Cheerios, every last one of them, because I’m sure not going to clean it up when you did it on purpose. It’s a lot of reminding yourself that when you were 3 years old, you didn’t know how to pick up a floor full of Cheerios, either, and you spent most of the time crying and then forgetting all about it and lying on the carpet and eating a few of them here and there.
The other day, my family and I went out to dinner to celebrate my son finishing kindergarten. It was supposed to be an extraordinary time, where we could make memories …
Grant: I want pizza!
Grant is 3. He thinks the waitress can only hear him if he cups his hands around his mouth and yells.
That’s my wife sitting across from me in the booth. Jackson, 6, is the man of the hour. He hands me a crayon.
Jackson: Want to play tic-tac-toe?
Grant: I need some salt.
Jackson: You can have the orange crayon.
Grant: (licking his finger) I like salt.
Brian: (taking the salt shaker away) Stop!
It’s times like these that try fathers’ souls. “Do not lick the salt shaker” is not something anyone should have to say in life.
Jackson: Bendy straws!
Grant: What is this?
Grant takes a sip and grimaces.
Brian: Don’t you like it?
Grant: (gasping) Yes.
Brian: Why are you making that face, then?
Grant: I almost don’t like it.
The waitress brings a bottle of ketchup, and Jackson snatches it out of her hands.
Jackson: Look what she gave me! She is nicer than any store I’ve ever been to.
Hailey: It’s not a store, and you can’t keep the ketchup.
Grant: I am Buzz Lightyear.
Now comes the semi-serious husband-wife discussion while the children are occupied with their food.
Hailey: When we get back, remind me to make muffins.
Enough of that. Back to the kids.
Grant: Dad, you know what? If a turtle bites off a leg of a salamander, it grows a new one.
Hailey helps the boys learn about a new animal every day.
Grant: But Dad, a salamander can survive a bite to the head.
Brian: How does it grow back its head?
Jackson: The brain. That’s right inside where the bones cover.
I nod, swallowing a piece of pork, and push aside a bone.
Jackson: What is that bone from?
Brian: A pig.
Hailey: You’ve eaten a pig before.
Jackson: (frowning) I’ve never had a single piece of pig.
Hailey: You’ve had ham.
This sounds like a great teaching opportunity. Son, we’re all part of the circle of life, and one animal gives its life for —
Jackson: Why does it say 57 on the bottle?
— but he has already moved on to reading condiment labels.
Brian: 57 varieties. Heinz. See?
Grant: (wiping his mouth, then holding up a napkin) Whose is this?
Hailey: It’s yours.
Hailey: Because you used it.
We’ve been in the restaurant for about 30 minutes, and I’m just starting to feel relaxed. Meanwhile, the boys are losing all sense of public etiquette. When I was 3, I tell you what, I never crawled underneath a table at a restaurant …
Jackson: (returning from underneath the table after fighting with Grant) I won.
Grant: (panting) Tie. We both won. I got 5, you got 30.
Jackson: Good. I won.
Grant: Who got 30 lost.
Jackson: In normal games, whoever gets the most, wins.
It was time to go home. In the parking lot, I reflected on this outing to celebrate Jackson completing his first year of school. There was nothing extraordinary about it. On paper, it was pretty disappointing. And yet, I realized that the boys had no expectation for anything extraordinary or memorable — just the opposite. The boys needed this whole experience to feel ordinary, to know that stress-free family time was the rule, not the exception. They needed to feel safe and important. Their bellies needed to feel full, and they needed to know that their parents loved each other and loved them.
This is on my mind often, but particularly because Father’s Day is just around the corner. I hope it’s a memorable day for all you fathers out there — memorable and ordinary.
This column was originally published Thursday, June 17, in The Palm Coast Observer.