Their toys look like erect and circumcised penises. The bubble wands absurdly so with a dorsal vein running the length of a long ribbed shaft and a helmet-shaped glans at the tip. There is even a little uretha-like sphincter where the plastic was poured & pinched off. The boys grip their bubble wands. “Blow for me,” they command.
I am sitting in the blow-up kiddie pool reading an essay by Kelly Jolley on Thomas Merton’s Cables to the Ace. The boys are in the pool with me, standing. They bend to load their water guns, nosing the water with their barrels and sliding the handles back. “What’s the rule?” I intone. “Don’t get your papers wet,” the boys reply automatically. They blast each other in the belly.
My papers get wet. But not very. It’s fine. Everything is fine. We are on my husband’s family farm in Northern Kentucky, gathered here to pay our last respects to Uncle Jim, and to clean out his cabin, his lean-to, and two sheds, to pull up the carpet where the dogs defecated and gave birth, to divvy up his paintings, and rewrite the deed. There is a red fox in the back woods, and Kelly’s essay is wonderful—moving the way thought moves through questions of how to recover a right relation with words.
“Who’s that” the youngest boy asks, pointing to baby Jesus on the back of page 19. I printed the essay on recycled pageant scripts at the church where I work before we left for the farm. This page features a woodcut of the nativity scene. “Who do you think?” I ask. “Baby Gabriel?” he guesses. Gabriel is his big brother. “Kind of,” I answer: “He’s like baby Gabriel.” “Baby Bryce?” he guesses again referring to himself. “Like baby Bryce,” I say. His parents are not religious. No one in my husband’s family is. I wonder if any of the boys could identify the baby. Perhaps Taylor, the oldest of the second cousins at 16. I name the child, “That’s baby Jesus.” “Baby Jesus,” Bryce repeats. He points, “And mommy, and daddy,” then stops, “Who’s that?” “That’s a shepherd,” I say. I begin to tell him how shepherds tend sheep, but he has rediscovered his water gun and is blasting a partially deflated beach ball, making it bob and spin on the surface.
“Popsicles!” the boys’ grandmother, my mother-in-law, calls from the porch. She is dispensing individually wrapped popsicles in red, white, and blue. The boys thrust the popsicles through the sealed plastic membrane of their wrappers. My mother-in-law likes to be the bearer of sweet things, bubble wands, and water guns. She gave them bowls of ice cream after lunch, and these will be their third popsicles today. “Just checking on you,” she calls out to me as the boys return to the pool, their mouths wrapped around the heads of their popsicles in sticky red, white, and blue o’s. I look up at her in acknowledgment and give a little wave.
She and I have the same exchange several times a day. “You’re not watching them.” “I am.” “No, you’re not. You’re reading.” “I’m doing both.” This morning she rejoined, “Well I guess it’s different when you’re a mother.”
Later in the barn I vent to my husband, “I do watch them, but sideways. I don’t interrupt them. I don’t make them look at me. I let them get absorbed.” My husband nods. He is inspecting the tractor lift which got stuck in the last log haul. I exclaim, “How are they supposed to develop an inner life if they never have any privacy?” For this little speech I am rewarded with a smile and a kiss. I get the hint and laugh. “I’ll be in the pool.”
Back in the pool Bryce asks “What’s that on your arm?” I inspect my forearms. “No, that!” he points to my armpit. “That’s hair,” I answer. “Why you have hair there?” he asks. “Because I’m a grown-up,” I answer. “Your mommy and daddy have hair there too. Your mommy shaves hers just like your daddy shaves his face.” Bryce stares at me, serious. His brother, Gabriel, is practicing swimming under water. “Watch me!” he demands before taking a deep breath and plunging. Bryce has a thought and brightens. “Daddy has hair on his titi,” he announces. He pauses for dramatic effect, “And on his butt!” He appears to fall apart giggling, but his eyes stay on my face. I smile warmly at him, granting permission. Under water Gabriel nuzzles my knees.
Later, I sit reading in a lawn chair beside the pool. Bryce sidles up to me. He pokes the soft flesh around my hips before stroking the roll my tummy makes just below my belly button. I am not ignoring him. I am not interrupting him either. He presses his hands into my thighs, belly, breasts, climbing up into my chair. I do and do not yield to him, shifting only slightly without taking my eyes from my essay. He tucks his knees and lays his ear against my womb. I turn the page and let my hand fall on his head. His eyes are open. He looks out.