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Castles in the Sky  

 A hammer, nails, and wood — it must be the magic recipe for silence because it’s blissfully quiet now

           

You ask for nails.

Not the kind that extend from the tips of fingers and need to be snipped or periodically get covered in Essie’s Ballet Slippers — those nails I can deal with.

No, you want the nails that serve as breeding grounds for tetanus. The kind that rust over the winter, then poke someone in the spring, the kind that show up right before a visit to the emergency room.

And because you’re a ten year old boy, the thought of you doing anything remotely constructive with small pieces of pointy metal is unfathomable, so obviously you’re planning something dangerous or nefarious, and Hashem knows we need to limit the dangerous and nefarious things around here which is why I threw out the saw when you weren’t looking.

But you’re insistent in that ten-year-old boy way, positively dazzling in your nagging. You wear me down all day, then carefully pick the right moment to break that last weary thread — when I’m on the phone with my sister and feeding the toddler chicken while taking the potatoes out of the oven.

Snap.

Fine, fine, fineeee. I’ll take you to the store. We’ll get your nails.

You ask me for nails but you don’t ask if you can take the old cabinets stacked by the dumpster and bring them into the backyard. That you do without permission and honestly, I’m okay with it. If you want to schlep garbage cabinets down the street, go for it. There’s worse mischief a ten-year-old boy can get into.

 

A hammer, nails, and wood — it must be the magic recipe for silence because it’s blissfully quiet now. For a long time. Maybe a week. Not that you’re such a talker to begin with (or listener for that matter) but somehow you manage to make a whole lot of noise without saying much.

Now, with your little project underway, you come home, go straight to the backyard, and pound. Sometimes you bring friends, and they’re quiet too, and I’m too busy and far too grateful to really investigate what you’re up to cuz no one’s needed stitches yet, which means we’re good.

Except that’s a half truth, a partial lie. Yes, a part of me is loving the quiet but the other part berates myself incessantly. What kind of mother gets her son nails and lets him use a hammer without supervision, and who on G-d’s green earth lets their child drag the Goldfarbs’ kitchen cabinets in from the curb? You’re a failure.

What you should be doing, “mom,” is creating a color-coded schedule for the afternoon filled with enrichment and structured extra learning, approved athletics, and educational activities. That’s how you push a child ahead, that’s how you set him up to achieve, that’s how you turn a little boy into a successful man.

And so we live together, the scolding voice and the happy mom and the quiet boy.

Until one day when I get curious and come outside, brave the brambles and bits of scrap wood and a whole bunch of bent nails to find you in your corner under the large magnolia tree. Except you’re not there. You’re many frightening feet above me, perched in a full little house, patched together from mismatched boards and old wooden crates and laminate doors with their hinges still on.

The structure is supported by the weight of a massive cabinet door and the thick branches of the tree. You’ve nailed stubs of wood into the trunk as a ladder. It’s big, spacious enough for you and four friends to hang out in. It’s the ugliest, most beautiful tree house I’ve ever seen.

I stand, openmouthed and abashed. Somehow you’ve graduated from Magna-tiles and I was too busy to realize. And also… you do listen. Because once, once, I pointed out a tree house in another neighborhood, far simpler than this one, just a plank of wood nailed up in a tree. “Look how cute.” I said. And you said nothing, only stared. I couldn’t even tell if you heard. But now the game is up. I’ve learned you do listen.

I feel the power of words weighing like a boulder inside me: the heavy ones I’ve said and regret, the light ones I could have said and didn’t.

But what’s truly terrifying is this: If I was a better mother, the mother society tells me I should be, if I hadn’t had that one moment of weakness, I wouldn’t have let you get nails and you wouldn’t be the boy who built a tree house.

If I was a better mother, you’d be stuffed in a color-coded box from the moment school ended until bedtime with spoon-fed activities, legs cramped, arms tied, brain dull, but I would feel like a winner.

If I was a better mother, you’d never know you’re capable of creating something so much bigger then yourself.

I can set you up for achievement all I want, I can let you cheat in Monopoly, and tell you you’re the most talented singer in the history of the world a thousand times a day, stuff cotton candy under your feet so you feel ten feet tall, but nothing can compare to how you must feel right now, suspended in the air on something you built from nothing.

And this is all very confusing, because it means I actually need to use my brain to raise you and I can’t just follow the statutes in the Good Mother practicum, nor can I let society dictate anything at all and that’s so much harder than just being a sheep.

Bahhh.

I can’t believe I almost didn’t let you get the nails.

“You wanna come up?” You ask.

“Absolutely not. I’m scared of heights!” I smile.

The sun shifts and dances through the magnolia leaves, casting shadows over your face and I spot a sliver of the man you’ll be. I don’t know how you’ll get there, which roads you’ll take, which ones you’ll create.

But I do know that if I give you the right words and the right tools and step back just enough, one day, you’ll build castles in the sky.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 705)

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