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My Son’s Masonry

My son continues to mix water, sand, and cement powder. Making mortar. He sets up scaffolding. Sits busy with his trowel, spreading mortar on bricks, making walls.

One time, late at night, I was washing a big stack of the previous day’s dishes, the last of my chores. He appeared in the kitchen – he was 3, I think – with a face full of sleep. He looked lost, like he had perhaps misplaced his bed and the kitchen was as good a place as any to find a place to rest his head. Or maybe not lost. Troubled. That’s more like it. He had something on his mind. Something disturbing enough to rouse him from his little bed to go seek help in the kitchen.

“Daddy,” he said, squinting, waiting for the vocabulary to articulate his concern, “what do worms eat?”

What do worms eat? I wanted to scoop him up and show him everything in the world. Can you imagine being so consumed by wonder that you emerge from a dead sleep with a pressing concern about the diet of worms?

“I don’t know, little guy.” I said, smiling. I’ve made it a consistent practice to respond to my kids’ curiosities with not knowing, to resist putting immediate closure on wonder with certainty. It’s a very good thing to wonder awhile. Plus I didn’t know. “Dirt maybe? But let’s get you to bed and maybe we’ll find out tomorrow.” It turns out that worms do eat dirt. Decaying roots and leaves. Protozoans, bacteria, fungi, and more.

*

There were times when I wondered if he would ever stop talking. He exploded into language. I tried going toe to toe with him, having long conversations to wear him down. I tried ignoring him. But his speech wasn’t something that depended on the listener. He was a little being for whom the world was a brand new thing to say. He talked to hear himself talk. Because talking was a joy. Because talking, learning how to talk, seizing new words, was the way he moved from being just a sentient something with a handful of needs to a little boy living in a world that grew and grew with the reach of his vocabulary. And the kid never shut up.

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So imagine my surprise when, now 14, he’s taken up masonry, building walls around himself, moving as all of us did, from such a vivid conversation with the world to a rich inner monologue. He’s talking to himself. Talking himself into a self. There’s a person in there, someone seeking distinction apart from me and his mom and his sister, a boy no one knows because he needs it that way to become who he is, to continue becoming who he’ll become. I try to remember this when every attempt I make to knock through his bricks are met with one word answers. He’s thinking. What used to be vocalized is now being thought. He’s reached that point where he must discover for himself what worms eat.

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I used to make mortar and lug bricks for a bunch of angry masons. To parent like a masonry laborer is to help my son make his mortar, hand him a few bricks, give him his privacy. But don’t forget the door, little man. And nothing beats a window.

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