It was a normal morning, or at least I thought so. Thanksgiving was over, with its parade of seldom seen relatives, and the required polite attention as they “caught up” with what everyone had been doing.
It was a Saturday, and it had snowed six inches, the night before. That meant the kids were all outside, bright and early, getting thoroughly cold and wet, and loving every second of it. Their mother and I loved it too, because it meant a very rare opportunity to celebrate the memory of how those kids had come to be. Sex in the morning is fabulous, when you can get it. At this stage in our lives, it meant sucking on months-old peppermints from Pizza Hut, kept on the night stand for just such an occasion.
But, when you’re enjoying great sex, who cares about stale peppermints?
Of course great sex, at our ages, and after twenty-five years of marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean long, drawn-out sex, which was good, that morning, because the kids came stampeding back into the house, wet, cold, and complaining.
I got up, still panting slightly, threw a piece of oak into the stove and cracked open the air vent, to get it going. My wife was like a General, marching the troops, as she ordered them where to shake off the snow, and where to put items of clothing as it fell off of them, until they could all scamper close to the wood stove, turning in slow, measured circles, pausing to let whatever side of them was facing the stove get warm before turning another ninety degrees. I stood and watched my naked children, and smiled as I thought of rotisseries.
June was seven. She was “our little accident”, though she was a gift we treasured. I noticed her big sister, Fran, was growing up fast. They all grow up fast, but Fran astonished me. I knew she was fifteen, but she’d always been my little girl, even when June came along. When had she grown those breasts!? And hips!? And hair!?
Modesty had never been a strong suite in our home. It wasn’t planned that way. I’m hot blooded, and can sweat in air conditioning, so I ran around like a nudist as soon as we got married. Jill eventually joined me, both because she said she felt so overdressed around me, and because it led to the kind of fun she was interested in, and married me for. At least partly. When the kids came along, first Brad, and then Fran, two years later, the only reason to cover them was to avoid wet or smelly accidents. Once they got potty trained, it just never occurred to us to put something on them, unless it was cold.
It occurred to me, quite suddenly, that we had two teenagers, standing around the wood stove, stark naked. It was the first time I’d recognized them as anything other than ... Frannie and Brad.
I surveyed my seventeen year old son. Almost a man, he had already tested me many times, in the time-honored tradition of the young bucks testing the old bulls, pushing limits here, stretching the rules there, seeing if it was time to formally challenge the leader. He was a good kid, with a good heart, though. And it was normal, so I didn’t worry about it.
I saw his eyes flicker to his middle sister. He was normal in that way too. He’d seen her naked all his life, but with her recent development, and the fact that fall and winter usually meant everybody was covered up, he was discovering her maturity just like I was.
The reverse was true. Frannie was checking him out too.
My wife, always more vigilant than I thought she was, also noticed.
“Fran, don’t stare at Brad’s penis. It’s not normal.”
“Mom!” moaned a very embarrassed, and suddenly very pink-all-over fifteen year old girl.
“And Brad,” said my wife, ignoring the wail from her daughter, “don’t ogle your sister.”
“Yeah, right,” snorted Brad, his eyes flickering from Fran’s pink-nippled breasts to the light brown fuzz between her thighs. “Like I’d be interested in doing that!”
June, of course, with her genius mind, simply turned and watched and listened. In most families, a seven year old, with a brother and sister twice her age, would be at a serious disadvantage. But June was as smart as both of her siblings put together, and neither of them got more than an occasional C in school. Even then it usually meant they didn’t like the teacher, instead of the course material being too hard for them.
“In fact,” said my wife, crossing her arms below her breasts, hidden by the robe she was wearing, “all of you go get dressed.”
There was a chorus of complaints, made to sound like they didn’t want to leave the immediate warmth of the stove. They didn’t fool us, though. I tried to remember if I’d ever “had a talk” with either of the older ones. I decided I hadn’t, and that it was probably way past time. Just like I probably had in the past, I put it off for another time.
“Do what your mother says!” I ordered, in my most rough, alpha male growl.
They went, though they sure didn’t scamper in fear, or respect for the old bull’s position in the herd.
Breakfast got them back out of their rooms in a hurry, all appropriately covered. When had it suddenly become necessary for them to be ... appropriately covered?
Jill and I, still in our robes, presided over a nice family breakfast, which was going just fine until June said: “Daddy, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, baby,” I said, ready to dispense wisdom. “Is Santa Claus real?”
It was a question asked millions of times, in millions of homes, by millions of kids hoping, usually against hope, that the answer would not devastate the dream. It always meant that, somewhere along the way, somebody had said he did NOT exist.
Of course any kid who has survived five or six Christmases has seen the movies that deal with the issue. But those are movies. Sooner or later, they go to the ultimate source.
That was me, in our family. I had a saying: “Dads know everything.” It had worked pretty well for the first ten years. It was a little frayed around the edges these days. Both Fran and Brad knew more about the computer in our house than I could ever hope to know, and that wasn’t the only chink in my armor.
“Of course he’s real,” I said instantly. “Why do you ask?”
Brad snorted. Fran sighed. They’d asked the same question, years back, and gotten the same response. In the years since then they’d argued with me, trying to convince me that Santa was just a kids tale. I’d stuck to my guns, and they’d eventually given up trying to convert me.
“People say he’s not real,” said June. She didn’t go into all the arguments about there being hundreds of men in red suits all over town, or that elves didn’t exist or any of that. She got right to the point.
I don’t know where it came from. It hadn’t appeared in my head when either Brad or Fran asked the same question, or tried to argue with me about it. But, suddenly, it was there.
“Do you believe in heroes?” I asked.
“Heroes?” asked June. “Like on TV?”
“No, not those heroes,” I said. “I mean people who risk their own lives to help someone else ... in the real world.”
“Like firemen?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “that’s one example, but they choose to do that kind of work. I’m not talking about that kind of hero. I’m talking about the person who is at the right ... or wrong place, at the right ... or wrong time, and something terrible happens, and they decide to help, instead of run away, or look out for themselves.”
“So policemen and soldiers wouldn’t count either,” said June, quite seriously.
“True,” I said. “They’re definitely heroes, but not the kind I’m talking about.”
“I don’t know anybody like you’re talking about,” said June.
“OK,” I said patiently, “but do you BELIEVE in them? Do you believe they exist?”
“Right now?” asked my genius daughter. “This very instant?”
“Have they existed in the past, do they exist now, or could they exist in the future?” Going toe-to-toe with brilliance isn’t always a fun ride.
“Of course,” said my genius daughter.
“OK.” I bored right on in, ready to make the kill. “Is there only one possible hero?”
“Of course not,” said June. “Somebody like that would have to be Superman, and he doesn’t exist.”
I heard a snort from Brad. I looked up. Oddly, both he and Fran were paying attention. Neither had said anything yet, but I could just see the tenseness ... the willingness to jump in and help kill the dream.
“You are entirely correct,” I said. “In fact, it’s impossible to say who might be a hero, and who might not, until something happens. But the FACT is, that heroes exist, even if they haven’t been heroic yet.”
I felt a huge wash of relief. The first hurdle had been cleared. Acceptance was there.
“OK,” I said. Now, what makes somebody a hero?”
“You already said that, Daddy,” said June, patiently. “It’s when somebody helps somebody else, and doesn’t care if they might get hurt in the process.”
“That’s almost it,” I said. “It’s not that they don’t care if they get hurt. It’s that doing the right thing ... helping whoever needs help ... is the most important thing in that moment. They give of themselves, for the benefit of someone else. And they don’t do it because they get paid to do it, or because somebody will give them an award, or anything like that. They just do it because it’s a good thing to do.”
.... There is more of this story ...