Listen

As I left my bedroom the other morning Eli’s squawks drifted up to me from the
kitchen. Apparently the interval between the last dregs from his milk bottle and the next course (pancakes) had stretched out too long. He was standing at the refrigerator door, alternately banging on it with his palms and grunting with anger as he tried to pull it open.

The boy is always hungry, and eats as if he rarely gets fed. I worry when we eat out that someone will see him gulping and gnawing at his food and call the child welfare authorities on us. He gets a piece of food firmly in hand, opens his mouth as wide as an opera singer, then jams in most of his fist. No shrinkage along the transit line of table and protruding belly for this kid; he is getting all of his food into his mouth. He makes an “Ah-goom” sound with every bite; the “Ah” is emitted while his mouth waits for the food, the “g” comes out as the food goes in, and the “oom” follows last, possibly his version of “mmm.”

Caleb, meanwhile, bless his little heart, rarely shuts his piehole at the dinner table. Endless. Chatter. He even interrupts me — I am not making this up — to ask me what I am saying. He actually uses my talking as a reason to simultaneously talk.

And then there is the lovely wife, the planner in our family. Planning is, for a woman, a pseudo-interactive exercise that involves what counselors call “reflecting back” to the patient speaker. It works like this: she details her latest thinking on where the cabinets will go in our utility room, for example, and I offer up some commentary about what makes this a good idea, to show that I’ve been listening.

Put all of this together, and you have a typical conversation at our dinner table:

“The cabinets will look great . . .”

“Ahgoom.”

“Dad, did we have pizza the other night?”

“Yes.”

“. . . that last one once we mud those holes . . .”

“Ahgoom. Heh heh.”

“Dad, is that a circle pancake?”

“Yes.”

“. . . don’t you think that will look good?”

“Yes.”

“I need some syrup on it.”

“You have syrup.”

“Ahgoom. Ahgoom.”

“Not on that piece.”

“It’s sitting in a pool of syrup.”

“But I need syrup on it.”

“Fine.”

“We also need to hook up that sink, and I’ll need you to cut holes in the back . . .”

“Eeeeeeeewaaaaahh!”

“Good Lord, what is wrong with that boy?”

“He’s upset because he’s done with his pancake.”

“Well for the love of all that’s holy give him another one.”

“He’s already had two.”

“Dad, he’s already had two.”

“Aaaaahhhhhhhaaaaa!”

“Three won’t hurt. He’s a growing . . .”

“Excuse me, excuse me Dad. Did you say ‘growing’?”

“What? Yes.”

“You said he’s growing?”

“Okay, tubby, Daddy says you can have another pancake. These boys are going to eat us out of house and home one day.”

“I . . .”

“Excuse me, excuse me Mom. Did you say ‘house and home’?”

“Yes, Caleb. What were you going to say honey?”

“I forgot.”

“You forgot, Dad?”

“Yeah.”

“He he he. That’s so silly.”

Sometimes the wife says we never talk. But often I feel overloaded with the sheer crushing burden of talk. It may be the case that I don’t talk, but we do a lot of talking. And then there’s work, with its massive, copious, largely superfluous array of talking to, above, about, around, for, down to, and sometimes even with my colleagues and associates. Oh dear Lord I need a day of not talking.

I’ve heard people say that a parent’s relationship with his children is like God’s relationship with those of us who are his children. We are disobedient by nature, and we constantly need correction and guidance, but always there is the forgiveness welling up from that deep heart of love that only a parent can fathom. If you want to understand how God can forgive your continual affronts to his dignity, have children. The love of a parent gives him no choice.

One could write a book on this, and another on all the implications of Christ’s rebuke to the Pharisees: “You are of your father the Devil.” I want to be with my children even when they are rotten; but I cannot tolerate many of the children of other parents. Yet even with this love comes frustration; one can almost hear it when God says to his children, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Be still. Be quiet. Even the Almighty God wanted his kids to shut their yaps sometimes. I’m beginning to understand that many of the things my mother did were not in fact evidence of mental illness, but merely symptoms of parenthood, like locking herself in the bathroom to eat a Hershey bar unmolested. Sometimes we need the blessed silence.

But now I’m traveling and I miss their tender, guileless (usually) voices already. I think the day will come too soon when they’ll have their own little people to take care of, when they’ll be wrapped up in conversations about handwashing and poop and what is appropriate to carry onto the slide (soccer ball: yes; toy lawnmower: no), and they’ll go a little crazy too. And I’ll miss them, and I’ll respond with joy when they let Grandpa visit and sit at their table and just . . . listen.

Comments

  1. G Braden

    You know, for a moment, I thought you were talking about MY household. My wife’s chief complaint is that in all our talking, we never talk. My son is out of the ‘ahgoom’ stage but is ceaseless in chatter stage. (“Dad, if we lose our brakes, do we jump out of the car?”) and my daughter … well, she’s my daughter, and 100x smarter than I will ever be 🙂

  2. Jeff Brokaw

    Tony – I often think the same things about the beauty of silence – just don’t get much of it! Well, at work it’s TOO quiet, but that’s another topic.

    But then I think, like you, that when the kids are gone I’ll miss the noise big time, so I try to just enjoy it as best I can. Every age has its little challenges.

  3. Allison Gentry

    My husband is SO grateful! Dazed, he managed to blurt out “You’ve got to read Tony Woodlief this week”. This finally explains the look he gets during dinner with the family (wife plus three children under the age of five). I just thought he would find it soothing and relaxing like I do. Instead, I think he might see it as a full assault on his sanity. Now that I know, I can plan some down time for him with no chatter. Oh, how his life is about to improve! All because of Tony Woodlief : )

  4. Da Goddess

    Thanks, Tony. I needed this one tonight as I reflect back upon the chaos that intruded upon my family dinner.

    As painful as this evening was, I would be much poorer in spirit if I didn’t have this in my life.

  5. Anonymous

    Oh, the joys of parenthood!!!
    I am sure when you become Grandpa Woodlief, you will be an honored guest at Eli’s and Caleb’s homes, where you will be able to extract “revenge”!! This is what one of my profs at U-M told me – once you become grandpa, you borrow the grandkids, spoil them rotten, and then send them back to the parents!!! This is how you get them back for all the trouble the kids gave you when you were raising them!!!!!!

  6. Cheryl

    This is the first column of yours I read, and right off the bat I sent it to my husband because it could be us. Look forward to many more!

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