The prodigal

When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.

 

Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.

 

When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.

 

For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.

 

This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.

 

We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.

 

Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?

 

This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

 

I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.

Birthday Wishes

Per our family’s tradition, I asked our soon-to-be 7-year old son where/what he wanted to eat for his birthday. With our other kids, they’ve picked special home cooked meals with elaborate desserts or Chinese buffets followed up with frozen yogurt sundaes. It’s their once-a-year chance to make the family’s dinner plans without any input from siblings. (Disclaimer: Our daughters have actually made their choice together. It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of being twins.)

 

So I asked our youngest what he would pick. He thought for a moment and said, “Where is the place we eat in the morning when we drive to Mimi’s house (Knoxville)?”

 

“McDonald’s?”

 

“Yes. That is what I want for breakfast.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“And where is the place where you can walk up to get a hamburger? It is close to church.”

 

“Burger King?”

 

“Yes. You never take me there. I want to eat there for lunch.”

 

“Okay. I bet you have a plan for supper. What do you think?”

 

“I want to eat at the taco place.”

 

Now we’re talking, I think. Please pick Chuy’s. Please pick Chuy’s. Please pick Chuy’s.

 

But he further explained, “The taco place with the bell on the sign. You never take me there either.”

 

“Taco Bell?”

 

“Yes!” He answered excitedly, “That is where I want to eat supper!”

 

It promises to be a day full of indigestion! I thought.

 

His choices reveal a limited understanding. Picking three fast food meals when we’ve offered him all that’s available seems foolish. I know part of the appeal of his choices is that they appear somehow forbidden. These are the places mom refuses to bring him so they must be something extra special. I’m assuming that one day he’ll understand there’s food more remarkable than Egg McMuffins, Whoppers, and Taco Bell Grandes.

 

I wonder if this is sometimes how it looks to God when we pray. We have no idea the glorious riches He wants to offer us. When Jesus instructed his disciples how to pray, He reminded them that “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!”

 

As a part of my New Year’s resolution to pray more, I’m going to try to remember to leave room for God’s plan in my petitions. I’m going to ask Him to meet my needs and consider my wants, but I’m going to add a default clause that goes something like this: “But You, Lord, are wiser and know better than me, so feel free to alter anything I just said.” Amen.

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.

Yeah. I’ve done a little modeling…

When Ezra, our African-born son, was struggling with his new language last year, we signed him up for speech lessons. At first it was difficult to determine if his issues were basic language acquisition (getting his words) or physically articulating them (saying his words) or both or something else entirely. We needed help!

 

His speech lessons were a worthwhile way to spend all those mornings last spring. Not only did he get hours of focused attention for his speech issues, but I also got a sounding board for many of my questions. For instance, I solicited their professional opinions as to how often I should correct Ezra’s verbal mistakes.

 

By the time we started the lessons Ezra had been in America for about a year, so it wasn’t that he was having a hard time speaking English. He was naturally replacing Lingala words (his native language) with English words. The last holdouts were words like lipa (bread), bongo (others), minga (thinking? We were never 100% sure about that one but he said it often).

 

His most consistent errors were things like leaving out words or ungrammatical subject/verb agreement or incorrectly using pronouns. In other words, he sounded like a caveman. So I asked the director of the speech clinic if I should correct him when he used “me” instead of “I” as the subject (Me sad. Me sleepy. Me lovee bacon.) because he did it constantly and I didn’t have the heart (or the stamina) to tell him he was wrong all day long. She said that I should model the appropriate pronoun and he would catch on eventually.

 

That day when we got home from speech, as if on cue, Ezra said, “Mom, me hungry.” Remembering what the director told me, I said, “Ezra, I am hungry.” He paused for half a second and said, “Well, eat something.”

 

Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our kids is often easier said than done. It takes consistency and thoughtful introspection and time. I feel confident that Ezra will eventually use the correct pronoun when he’s referring to himself, though it hasn’t happened yet.

 

But it isn’t just parents who are role models and it isn’t just kids who need them. Moms of Newborns need the advice of Empty Nesters. Pre-teens need Responsible High School Seniors to look up to. Newly Hired Employees need Seasoned Veterans to guide them through the first months of a new job.

 

To put it plainly, most everyone can be a role model to someone else. Look around and see if anyone is looking up to you. You might be surprised (or even a little scared) to know that others are watching and taking mental notes. Be the leader they deserve.

My vegetable peeler

I feel like I lost a good friend this week. My vegetable peeler broke. To the untrained eye, this kitchen tool looks like any other, but I know there was more to it behind its commonplace, functional façade.

I wish I could remember who gave us our kitchen peeler, but I am pretty certain it was a wedding present. I can recall adding it to our registry as we scanned with abandon various items in the “Home” section of Target.

 

For just shy of 20 years, I have used that vegetable peeler to prepare food for my family. I peeled potatoes to make mashed potatoes, quartering the naked spuds and boiling them until fork tender. Then mashing and buttering and creaming and salting until they tasted just right.

 

I peeled apples for many apple pies, attempting to keep the spiraled apple peel intact before slicing them, adding heaps of brown sugar and cinnamon and dumping all of that sticky apple goodness in a pie shell not quite as good as my mom’s. Is there any smell in this world as gratifying as the smell of an apple pie baking?

 

My dearly departed vegetable peeler wasn’t flashy but it was dependable. It helped me make comfort food that filled the souls of my people. It symbolized a labor of love for those I cherish and serve most every day. It also was my companion through my early cooking trials, the pies and side dishes that didn’t turn out so great and the occasional, accidental whittling of some knuckle skin while trying to peel a fruit or vegetable.

 

As we approach Thanksgiving and all the preparations for the big meal, I think about what it means to feed my family, particularly a special dinner with all the trimmings. I’m much more chill when it comes to timing the dishes and the turkey and the desserts and doing as much ahead of time as possible, but those first years I hosted Thanksgiving I was a wreck. It’s hard to live up to the hype.

 

But as long as I can be the human equivalent of that trusty little vegetable peeler, I can get it done: One swift movement at a time, pay attention to what you’re doing, make it special because you take the time, relax and breathe.

Fall Break 2017: New England

When our family of 6 recently toured New England, we learned a lot about history, geography, and regional customs, but we also learned a lot about ourselves.

 

We learned that some of us are like junkies looking for our next hit when it comes to searching for sweet tea at a restaurant. (This especially applies to taverns where George Washington ate.)

We learned that the White Mountains National Forest is impossible to improve upon. It is breath-taking and awe-inspiriting, even without the snow.

Along those same lines, we learned that my husband likes to stop at vistas when driving through beautiful landscapes. There’s something so adorable about how many pictures he took of trees and flowers and distant mountains.

We learned that the highway signs in New Hampshire have a profile of the Old Man of the Mountain, a natural formation that used to jut out the side of Cannon Mountain until it fell off. Apparently they were pretty proud of it.

We learned to fall in love with a cannoli, and we learned that Ezra prefers his meatballs to be bite-sized and not, in his words, “as big as my face.”

We learned that none of us are good at imitating a New England accent. We all come off sounding like a bad impersonation of the guy from the Pepperidge Farm commercials.

We learned that the first week of October is a great time to travel to New England…if you are over 65. We saw very few other children. This wasn’t a deterrent to our fun, and as a side bonus when my kids held the door open for all the grandmas and grandpas they got a lot of “aren’t you a sweetheart?” kind of comments.

 

We learned that the Newport Cliff Walk is one of the coolest places to take a stroll. On one side it’s pounding waves on a rocky shoreline and on the other side it’s palatial mansions and imposing college buildings and lush green spaces.

We learned that the sand in New England is different from the sand we’re used to in the Gulf. (My son said that when he stepped on the Kennebunkport beach it was like his foot was cracking through a layer of Magic Shell on ice cream.)

We learned that the insides of a lobster can be pretty gross.

 

We learned that a good tour guide can make anything interesting—burial practices from the Colonial period, how Ben & Jerry clean out their ice cream machinery between flavors, or even baseball.


  

We learned that walking across a pedestrian bridge with Boston traffic whizzing by is not for the faint of heart.

We learned that when our 6-year old sees sailors from the US Navy in their white uniforms, assuming they are karate ninjas, he bows to them as if he’s just entered their dojo.

We learned that the Trapp family (think The Sound of Music) settled in Vermont and built the cutest Bavarian lodge with just the right amount of schmaltz.

We learned that our son Ezra says “Nemo” instead of “Uno” when he has one card left.

We learned that covering 5 states in one week with 4 kids isn’t easy, but bucket list items are supposed to be a challenge, right?

Migrating of our herd

When our family takes a vacation that requires a lot of walking, we have an unwritten rule about how we line up. Whether it’s Disney or Dollywood, hiking the Chimney Tops in the Smokys or strolling along the Cliff Walk in Rhode Island, Boston’s Freedom Trail or touring the Coca-Cola Museum, Graceland or Biltmore Mansion or the White House or the security line at the airport, we have an assigned order.

 

My husband—the leader, the trip planner, the trailblazer, the guy who has an innate sense of direction—is always at the front. He may have his cell phone out with a GPS app guiding him or a map with detailed landmarks to watch for or maybe he uses the stars…I’m just not totally sure. It’s all mystifying to me.

 

Me, on the other hand, possess a different skill set than my husband. I bring up the rear. I chant phrases like: “Let’s catch up with Dad” and “Put the rock down” and “Well, I have to hold your hand because you’re walking so slowly”.

 

The kids that span the distance between my husband and me rotate according to their whims, but mostly I am at the back with the youngest and/or whiniest of our children. It’s up to me to create games to keep their minds off of all of the walking (oh, the humanity, so much walking!) we’re doing in some of the most fun (theme parks), most beautiful (mountains), most important (Washington, D.C.) places they’ll ever visit.

 

I tell them stories. I hum songs for them to guess. We play games. (Side Note: Ezra plays I spy like this: “I pie with my little bit eye.”) We keep a running count of the dogs we pass. Whatever it takes to keep their little legs moving.

 

I don’t question the left turns and right turns our Line Leader chooses as we cross busy streets or get off at subway stops. And he doesn’t glance behind to make sure I’m not slacking on my job, letting our smallest, most vulnerable members of the herd lag behind. This is how our herd migrates—sometimes in single file, sometimes two-by-two, but always with a clear-eyed leader and a dedicated closer.

 

When our children are grown, I hope they will remember these family vacations, the inside jokes and the amazing sights and even the not-so-great moments of car sickness or nearly missed flights or constant bickering that turns fully rational adults into sitcom-style parents who say things like “So help me I will pull this car over!” These are the stuff of family legend.

 

But I also want them to remember how we moved as a unit. How we relied on each other and played to our strengths. How he stepped up to shoulder the community backpack full of snacks and water bottles. How she volunteered to give her little brother a piggy back ride when he just COULD NOT GO ON. How they made the best of something difficult and tried something new.

 

Because you don’t get to pick your family, and for better or for worse, this is our herd.

Middle Child Syndrome

I have the fortunate distinction of being the middle of three daughters. I can find the fortune in it now that I am an adult with healthy relationships with both my sisters. I love going out with them; hearing people comment about how much we look alike. I am accustomed to the way we compensate for each other like a three-legged stool—balancing each other without enlisting Sister A to gang up on Sister B. Sisterhood can be a fragile ecosystem.

 

Now that we are adults (40 is grown up, right?), we are comfortable with our roles, but growing up was a different story. If I had understood the predicament of the middle child better, I might not have been so upset upon finding a copy of Raising the Sensitive Middle Child—dog-eared and underlined—by my mother’s bedside. Now I appreciate the irony of the scene: “What does this mean?!” I moaned to her through clenched teeth. “Are you saying I’m sensitive or something?”

 

To the casual observer, my sisters and I held equal places in our mother’s affection. She relied on the wisdom of humorist Erma Bombeck to explain her diverse feelings about us. Hanging in the upstairs hallway were three framed tributes to our respective birth order. Each began with “I’ve always loved you best…” Erma’s attempt to placate all the feelings of her children is admirable, but the words of those framed keepsakes mainly confused me.

 

Each passage ends with a parting thought. To the oldest child: you were the beginning. To the baby: you were the culmination. But to the middle child: you were the continuance. In other words, you were the not-as-great sequel to a blockbuster, or you were just there to get us one step closer to the big finale. The part that particularly rubbed me the wrong way as soon as I could read was “you drew the dumb spot.” I never finished reading the thought. It said: “You drew the dumb spot and it made you stronger for it.” I just focused on the fact that it said dumb and assumed it was calling me names. Again: Am I sensitive or something?

 

The greatest curse/blessing of being a middle child would have to be empathy. I experienced persecution from the maniacal brain of my older sister. (For example: “Abby, you can go first on our homemade zip-line. Just climb up this porch pole and grab on the rope. Come on, don’t be a baby.” After the failed zip-line… “It’s just skin. After your hands stopped bleeding, it’ll grow back. Stop crying, cry-baby.”)

 

So when it came time for me to join in the initiation of our younger sister, I was robbed of the joy so evident in my older sister. To say that I experienced no enjoyment in seeing our younger sister scurry to do our bidding just because we said “If you don’t, the bug is gonna get you!” would be a lie, but it was an empty happiness I swallowed as I drank the juice she brought us as we watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

 

Now that I have children of my own I understand how difficult it is to make every one of them feel special every day. No matter how carefully I craft my praise for one, the others feel slighted. If I say, “You’re really good at drawing pictures of butterflies” to one daughter the other daughter assumes I think her butterflies stink. My one consolation is that I don’t really have a middle child. My firstborn are twin girls. My older son Knox came three years later, and we adopted another son six years younger than Knox.

 

You could argue that they all “drew the dumb spot” in the family in some way. Being compared to a twin sister in everything you do has been problematic for both of my girls and being the little brother to two strong-willed, older sisters has not been a picnic for my older son. (Knox used to shoot baskets in the driveway alone a lot. Maybe he really liked basketball or maybe he was trying to avoid playing “house” for the thousandth time.) Our youngest has his own set of unique challenges, although he does have the advantage of being our baby with three older siblings to spoil him.

 

My prayer for my children is that they will receive the blessing I think I have finally learned to appreciate: being inconvenienced by your siblings and making compromises for your siblings and showing lifelong loyalty and devotion to your siblings will eventually create compassion for people who are not your family. In other words, it will make you stronger. Thanks, Erma!

Summer Time (and why it shouldn’t be wasted)

Yesterday my 15-year old daughter approached me in the hallway of our home and asked me a question. With utmost sincerity and concern, she said, “Mom, are we having money problems?”

 

“Money problems? No. We’re not having money problems,” I answered. “Why are you asking me that?”

 

“Because I noticed that this week you keep turning off all of the lights in the house.”

 

“Like in the rooms that no one is in…in the middle of the day?” I asked with utmost sarcasm and cynicism. “Of course I’m turning them off. IT’S WASTING ELECTRICITY!”

 

I couldn’t believe she had asked me that! I mean, she’s lived with me for 15 years so even if I had only said, “Don’t leave the lights on. That’s wasting electricity!” once a week for the entirety of her lifetime that’s 780 times! And I know I say it more than once a week. (It’s from my Mom Playlist which is on constant rotation. Others hits include: “For the love of air conditioning, close the door!” and “Why are there so many shoes in the living room?” and “This is my drink. Get your own.” and for our youngest family member: “Are you wearing underwear?”)

 

There’s just something hardwired in me that can’t stand to waste things—electricity, water, food. It feels so extravagant (not in a good way) to dump half of a casserole in the trashcan because you forgot it was there and now there’s a gray fur growing on it. So much time and effort and cream of chicken soup to be discarded as if there aren’t starving people all over the world! It bothers me to no end.

 

Even Jesus saw the value in leftovers after He fed the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. He told the Apostles to wander all over their mountainside picnic area and collect what wasn’t eaten. I’d like to think every bit of the contents of those 12 baskets were eventually eaten and savored for the delicious, miraculous leftovers they were.

 

Now that I’m in the slow, sweet days of summer break—a place that really only feels different from the rest of the year if you’re a teacher, a student, or a parent of a student—I feel extra motivated not to be wasteful, and I don’t want my kids to waste this time either.

 

I want them to play in the rain.

I want them to catch lightning bugs.

I want them to lose track of time while they read good books.

I want our family to do things after 8:00 pm on weeknights: start a movie, go get ice cream, play Frisbee or freeze tag or some game we invent on the spot in the backyard and commit to it until it’s too dark to see each other’s faces.

 

We are so often warned to be good stewards of all the blessings we’ve been so graciously given. Perhaps the most abundant yet most wasted gift is time. I will try—starting with the months of June and July—to make the most of what I have.

Brothers

When our Congolese son Ezra came to live with us—me, my husband, our twin daughters, and our older son Knox—he entered a family who welcomed him with open arms but were firmly established as a distinct entity. My husband and I had already been parents for almost 14 years at the time. We had traditions and memories. We had a secret language, a shorthand, created over years of spending time together as a family of 5.

 

Then, along came a sweet, precocious, complicated 5-year old boy. He came to America on a cool April Saturday, and by Sunday he was walking arm in arm with his new big brother, a boy six years his senior.

Now that we are more than a year into this adventure, Knox and Ezra are solidly devoted to their brotherhood. Always one to enjoy spending time with younger children, Knox took to his role quickly and easily. But this wasn’t an hour working in the church nursery or an evening helping his sister babysit. This was a 24/7/365 job and he approached it much the same way he approaches everything he cares about, with determination.

 

Their initial connection came through a shared love of sport. Though this love began on different continents, they both held an almost obsession with the game of soccer. In that first week Ezra lived in America, I made several videos of the two brothers in the backyard, kicking the soccer ball and diving to block goals. The videos were blurry. I took them through windows, standing at a distance not to disturb the beautiful scene unfolding before me.

 

Knox would be the first to tell you that being a big brother has not always been easy. Especially at the beginning, watching as Ezra copes with his fevered emotions, tangled and tripped up by his lack of language skills, has been painful for all of us. I’ve tried to give Knox breaks and strategies for slipping away. We’ve told him that he can tag out when he hits his “playing-with-a-little-kid” limit and we’ll tag in. But for the most part and in spite of those frustrating afternoons, Knox has been the best big brother Ezra could’ve asked for.

 

When I watch this almost 12-year old son of mine as he loves on and cares for his little brother, I think about what we expect of boys. I’m not talking about grades or sports or “manly” accomplishments. I’m thinking of the lesser discussed but far more important Fruits of the Spirit quotient. How high is the bar set when it comes to their evidence of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control? Let’s stop excusing bad behavior from them because they’re “just being boys” and imagine a world where these boys are raised to honor and protect. A world where we expect them to be responsible and compassionate.

 

If we tell boys that we expect them to strive for these characteristics above their efforts to make straight A’s or make the All-Star Team, then those other things will fall in place or fall away but either way, we will be raising better fathers, husbands, friends, teammates, employees, bosses. Better brothers.