I do love my boys, but in the last few days before school started those feelings of love were located at the very back of the filing cabinet of my heart, behind “Please Quit Practicing the Drums For a While; I’m Getting a Migraine,” “No Rollerblades in the House,” “No, I Haven’t Seen Your Tennis Shoes and It’s Not My Job To Keep Up With Them,” “Who Poured This Glass of Milk and Then Walked Off and Left It on My Clean Kitchen Counter?” and “Please Just Leave Me Alone and Tell Your Brothers That’s What Mama Said.”
The day before school started, we had a particularly difficult trip to the grocery store, during which Finn ran over my foot with the grocery cart and then bumped into a pregnant lady, Porter came up with a novel argument as to why we should buy Cookie Crisp cereal (motion denied) and Drew bumped into a light bulb display and broke two floodlights because he was trying to walk through the whole store backwards.
When we loaded up the groceries in the car, I let loose.
“You three acted like wild dogs in there,” I said in exasperation. “You know that one person pushes the cart at a time, and we always watch out for other people while we’re pushing,” I said, glaring at Finn.
I turned toward Porter. ” We will never buy Cookie Crisp cereal while you are living in my house. I don’t care if people on TV eat it or Mark Andrew eats it or the President eats it. We don’t.”
“And Drew,” I continued, staring at him menacingly, “we walk through the store frontwards, on our feet, and we watch where we are going. Does everyone understand me?”
“I thought the house was Daddy’s,” Porter said.
“I read something that said the President eats eggs for breakfast, not Cookie Crisp,” Finn remarked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Drew said. “Only I’ve walked through the grocery store backwards before. Daddy let me.”
“Yeah, I like going to the store with Daddy better,” Porter agreed. “We get to run and we buy stuff that’s not on the list.”
I grit my teeth and did not say a number of things that came to mind, all of which involved the boys being grateful I fed them at all.
When we got home and started unloading the food, Finn was still in the back of the car, dawdling.
“Finn, get out and help us put up the groceries,” I yelled as I carried a bag of vegetables inside.
Drew came in behind me, carrying the cereal. “Mom, what does ‘crotchety‘ mean?” he asked.
“Is that what Finn called me?” I demanded.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“It means I’m in a bad mood, and he’s right, I am crotchety,” I said. I went outside to verbally whip Finn into shape.
Later, we did our final school preparations: setting out clothes, going over the morning routine, getting baths and showers. I noticed Finn’s basketball shoes in the living room.
“Finn, put your basketball shoes in your room,” I hollered.
I heard a faint “yes, ma’am” from his bedroom.
Thirty minutes later, as I carried a load of clean, folded towels to the linen closet, I saw the shoes still there. The sight so repulsed me you’d have thought I’d seen a bloody rat carcass lying on my living room rug. I heaved the towels into the closet and stomped into our room to find Bill.
“Honey, did you hear me tell Finn to put up his shoes?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said absently, typing intently on his Blackberry. I grabbed the Blackberry from him and held it in the air.
“Look at me!” I implored. “I need some backup! Your oldest son is incapable of following through on anything he’s told to do. He’s going to fail the fourth grade and then he’ll never get a job and he’ll have to live with us for the rest of his life. Please, I beg you, get up and help me straighten him out! I just can’t take it anymore,” I wailed.
“Lighten up, Frances,” Bill said, and he ambled into the hall and called Finn.
“Finn, your mother has told you to put your shoes up. Do it,” he said quietly.
“Yes, sir,” Finn said.
“Finn, we had to tell you twice, so you are going to be punished for this,” Bill added. He looked back in the bedroom at me. I was sitting on the bed pouting and listening to the whole exchange.
“Got any punishment suggestions?” Bill whispered while Finn was in the living room.
At that, I sprang into action. “I certainly do. Follow me,” I said, as I strode dramatically into the boys’ bathroom and gestured at the sink and counter.
“He needs to clean all offensive material from the counter and the sink, ” I decreed.
“What is all this?” Bill asked, peering at the counter. It was covered with smudges of toothpaste, dirt, dried toothpaste lather and baby powder.
“Your boys are bad spitters,” I replied, “and when they come in here to wash their hands before dinner they leave about an acre of dirt every night. The toothpaste that they don’t rinse dries into hardened globs which must be peeled off the counter. You may not believe this, but I clean this every day or two. Or at least once a week.”
“What about the baby powder? We haven’t used that in years,” Bill said.
“Remember how Porter used to complain about his bottom itching? I convinced him that sprinkling baby powder on it stops the itching and then I taught him how to put him on himself so I wouldn’t have to deal with his butt every night,” I said. “He’s sort of a messy sprinkler but he hasn’t complained of an itchy bottom since I bought the jumbo baby powder.”
“This is gross,” Bill said.
“Exactly,” I said. “Your son needs to take care of it.”
I returned to the bedroom and pretended to read my US Weekly. I heard Bill tell Finn to clean the bathroom, and Finn’s indignant response.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “I have to clean up all that mess that everyone helped make just because I forgot to get my shoes? That is so harsh.”
“It’s not about your shoes,” Bill explained patiently. “It’s about the fact that your mother told you to do something and you didn’t do it.” I wandered into the hall to watch and see whether Bill continued to support me or caved under Finn’s pleas.
“But I forgot!” Finn yelled, bursting into tears. “I bet one of you has forgotten something once.”
“Yes, and when we were little, our parents punished us for not doing what they said, too, even if we just forgot,” Bill said.
“Well, I don’t like this one little bit,” Finn sniffed, “and I don’t think it’s fair that I have to clean up a mess that everyone helped make.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Yeah, well I don’t think it’s fair that I have to clean all your dirty clothes and all your dirty dishes when I didn’t mess them up,” I said sarcastically.
“Just a minute, Finn,” Bill said. He turned to me and put his hand on my shoulder and steered me into our bedroom. “Don’t you have a new US magazine? You’ve been dealing with the kids all day. Why don’t you let me handle this? You go relax.” He pushed me towards the bed.
I could see what Bill was doing. He was acting like he was shouldering the childcare burden, but really he was well aware that I was extremely grouchy, and he feared that if Finn didn’t start scrubbing toothpaste in about two seconds I was going to hit someone. Actually, his fears were well-founded.
I went back to my magazine and my favorite feature: “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” I saw Reese Witherspoon walking her daughter to school, Uma Thurman pushing her daughter on a swing in a park and Sharon Stone trying to hold ice cream cones for herself and her son. None of the celebrities were cussing at their children, but then again, all the children seemed to be behaving beautifully. Stars may be like us, but their kids didn’t look like they acted like mine.
As I read, I heard water running and Finn snuffling in the bathroom. I didn’t feel like I loved him much yet, so I just listened while he finished cleaning up and threw the dirty towels into the hamper.
He stuck his head into my room. “I finished the bathroom, Mom,” he said sullenly.
“Good,” I said without looking up from my magazine. I heard him trudge down the hall. I kept reading.
For a while there was silence in the house. At first I enjoyed it, and then I got suspicious. I looked in the den. Bill was on the sofa, reading his Blackberry and watching baseball.
“Feel better?” he asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “I’m just going to check on the boys.”
Both Drew and Porter were curled up in Finn’s bed, listening intently while Finn read them Oh, Say Can You Say DI-NO-SAUR?
I watched a moment, savoring the sight of three blond heads close together debating the merits of the T. Rex. I tiptoed back to my room.
As I read, I started to feel guilty about the way I had yelled at them all day. I went back to Finn’s room to apologize, and they had all fallen asleep. I called Bill, and we carried Drew and Porter to their beds and tucked everyone in. On my way to bed, I paused by Finn’s room and listened to his slow, even breathing. “I’m sorry, Finn,” I whispered. “I’ll act more like a celebrity tomorrow.”