It first hit me at Halloween. My son Ezekiel announced he wanted to be a garbage man, specifically a BFI garbage man, and that he would also be needing a truck for his costume. An actual truck. He told me this about a week before the event, and since I had other things I was required to do, like drive him to piano lessons, take something to a potluck, work on a school fund-raiser, plan and cook seven dinners, wipe out his lunch bag for five afternoons, show up to work on time and hand in two or three pieces, to say nothing of sleep and shower, this sent me into a panic (he and his brother each had birthdays soon to come as well, but let's not even go there).
OK, if he wanted a truck, he'd have a truck. He'd have an impeccable truck, one any BFI employee would be proud to cram with recycling bags and legless chairs. I made a note to look up trucks at the library, mentioned the request desperately to my husband (hoping he might produce said truck and I'd be off the hook), and the days went on in their usual way. At night, in the few silent, clear moments I had to myself, I fretted that I would disappoint Ezekiel. I tried to envision his consummate vehicle - who manufactures BFI's trucks, anyway? - and came up with nothing.
"My mother would spend weeks sewing my costumes," a friend remembered, as she and I commiserated about this particular parenting pressure. "And she was always hurt when I never liked them." Those costumes, of course, were about the mother's investment in her own work, even as she tried to give something to her daughter. In fact, they deprived the child of the thing she wanted.
The life of a child is so magically tethered to the attention he receives. My son doesn't feel that attention in novel DVDs or games, however forcefully he argues for them, or in his piano lessons that we remind him cost money. He feels it in the manner I shut the car door on the way to the piano lesson. He feels it in our curiosity about his new songs, in our good mood fighting the traffic back home after the lesson has ended. He may not know, or ever know, the energy we excavate in order to have this good mood, how we push back that battle fatigue of parenthood so that we may give up our best selves. He's not going to remember, in 10 years' time, what this Halloween truck looked like. He will remember what it felt like.
With two days to go, we sat down at the kitchen table with a wine-store box, some blue paint and a roll of tinfoil. Unaccustomed to craft work, I had no idea where to begin, what would produce the best results, but now I knew that he didn't need me to know. We started with the thing that looked fun, of course, the messiest activity, painting. For the next two hours, we drew and painted, sliced and shaped. While he applied a second coat, I cut B's, F's and I's out of white cardboard. We carried the box up to his room, where I settled on the floor atop a heap of discarded clothes and listened to his chatter, both of us still cutting and gluing. When my husband walked in after work, he found us buoyant and gleeful. With excitement, our son proudly showed off the flap he had devised himself that could lift up at the back to make room for tin cans and other debris.
I don't know what that truck looked like. Blue, yes; boxy, white-lettered. As we worked together, pausing to guide the younger boy away from his cheerfully destructive curiosity, my image of the perfect truck evaporated, replaced by this enchanted texture of our family. What we had created at the kitchen table, on the bedroom floor, shone a light on one of those rare moments in my education as a mother - this is the right thing. My children felt the buoyancy and the glee, the warmth, safety and confidence of a parent's efforts, regardless of the outcome. At Halloween, Ezekiel hefted this ungainly blue wine box out into the night and felt like a garbage man, was a garbage man. Please, please, I prayed to the patron saint of parenthood (whom I suspect is John Sommers-Flanagan), let me remember this lesson when it's time to pull out the Christmas tree ornaments.
Susanna Sonnenberg is a Missoula writer and mother of two children. Her column will appear every other week on this page.