Ten years ago, when my oldest was eight, she asked completely out of the blue and apropos of nothing, “Daddy, what’s the ‘F-word?’” I nearly swerved off the road. But in a sense, I was pleased that she had apparently been shielded from so many crude and vulgar things. This foolish belief came to a halt just a few days later when, while stopped first in line at a railroad crossing for a train, every imaginable vile, filthy, and degrading profanity appeared in large graffiti-style lettering on the railroad cars moving slowly before us. I looked back and saw her eyes behind her glasses moving back and forth eagerly tracking the words. After the train disappeared, I asked, “Well, what’d you think of that?” She said, “I already knew all the words. I had just never seen them all together like that.” So much for sheltering! Apparently, she had sheltered me from her knowledge. She is now eighteen and, thinking back over the years and that experience, I suppose the train was a rolling metaphor of sorts.
Parenting is a funny thing. It’s about so many different and, at times, competing efforts and concerns. It’s about being patient when you’re tired, and understanding when you’re angry. It’s about the tedium and monotony of day to day to day living: laundry and making school lunches and picking up the house. It’s about saying no again and again and again; particularly when it would be easier to simply cave and say yes but by saying no, parenting, rather than giving in and in today’s terminology, friending.
In a profound way, parenting also compels us to look back in time. And, of course, I selfishly wish that my children could have grown up when I did in a world of neighborhoods and not activities; where closest friends lo and behold just happened to be closest geographically rather than, as is so often done today, by common interest. But we do what little we can to recreate that mostly lost time and place. We give them the books we read then and the best ones from today. The same goes for music and movies all in the endeavor to make their world larger. And, time and again, we turn off the electronics and push them out the back door to play. At eighteen, we change their direction and push them out the frontdoor instead. The oldest recently went without reluctance; the others likely will too, leaving memories to fill the quiet. And coming back to me in the new quiet is a final story, just a fragment really, and one which I don’t pretend offers any great lesson or meaning.
In the course of having three children in five years, many thousands of diapers were changed. At times they would be so filthy and stinking they couldn’t remain inside the house overnight. Some nights – particularly in winter – I would be too tired from the day to go down the stairs and out the back door to the garbage can to dispose of the mess. Instead, I’d open the bedroom window which looked out over the backyard and toss the offending diaper to the brick patio ten feet below to be retrieved and properly pitched the following morning.
Once, on a very early morning as winter was turning to spring, I found a lost diaper emerging from a melting snowbank. It was frozen stiff. And since the garbage can which stood perhaps twenty feet away didn’t have its lid on (as was often the case due to an enemy raccoon), I hurled the diaper through the air and across the driveway toward the awaiting can. When it actually went in and I didn’t have to scrape it up a second time, I lifted my arms in celebration.
This final scene, then: a middle-aged man alone in his backyard throwing his child’s months old frozen and filthy diaper at a garbage can; the same can he would later haul to the curb for pick-up before going back inside to the early and still morning quiet.
Samuel Z. Kaplan is a Toledo attorney and president of the city’s Civil Service Commission.