Before he was eight years old, the boy had learned a lot. Not so much from school. His three years in school had, of course, taught him numbers and words, but its main take-away had been who was fun to play with and who was a butt-head. “Butt-head,” was the boy’s favorite term for people who were, well… butt-heads; though his mother was never enthralled by his use of the word. Particularly at Thanksgiving dinner. But, by his eighth birthday, the boy was privy to a host of other – and far more valuable – information. For example, already the boy had learned something about
Funeral etiquette. When his granddad died, he discovered that playing Frisbee on the church lawn before and after the service was frowned upon by certain family members.
Basic male/female anatomy. Playing doctor in the backyard with neighborhood kids, he learned viva la difference.
The enchantment of father/son love. Sharing ice cream (one-pint-vanilla-loaded-with-chocolate-syrup-and-Spanish-peanuts-one-bowl-two-spoons) with his dad every Sunday night after church can bond a pair.
The mysteries of the super-religious. His grandmother insisting on knee-bowing, hour-long prayer sessions with the whole family while grandmother howled and wailed as the spirit took her over gave him a new look at religion.
Race relations. His parents took in a struggling young black girl, treated her as a part of family and then often heard his dad called a n*** lover.
Infinity. Playing at the beach and taking breaks to look out at the watery horizon, imagining that it went on forever.
The wonders of big girls. When a buddy showed up with a Playboy magazine.
The love of fantasies. Night after night in the dark he kept his sister awake playing out-loud flying stories in bed with his tiny dolls.
The horror of screaming pain. He and a friend were climbing a tree. The friend slipped, impaling his arm on a metal hook high in the tree and was dangling by the hook while the panicked boy ran for help.
The whirring blessings of an attic fan. It brought in cool breezes over his sleeping body night after night in South Florida.
The thrill of hurricanes. With howling wind and electricity down, the boy’s family magically transformed into Swiss Family Robinson.
The ecstatic irrational joy of music. Regularly marching around and around the perimeter of the living room rug singing, “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!”
And, of course… What words not to use at Thanksgiving dinner.
Suffice it to say that by his 8th birthday, the boy had a workable – if not entirely well-rounded – education for living. He was, of course, not fully prepared for the hormonal agonies of adolescence, for romantic relationships (Is anyone?)(Ever?), for SATs, for seemingly never-ending school, for the panic in realizing that you are financially on your own, for failed romantic relationships, for divorce, for the too-soon deaths of both his parents, for deep bouts of suicidal depression, for the thrill of traveling the world playing in a band, for enjoying a remarkably renewing romantic relationship, for having children and grandchildren, for having a job that he adored. For blessings upon blessings.
But the knowledge and wisdom he received before 8 candles ever flickered on his cake was, perhaps, as fine a foundation as could be expected. Or not. It’s what the boy got. The hand he was dealt.
As he blew out the candles on that 8th birthday cake, no one knows what he wished. He didn’t tell anyone; and now, he can’t remember. But possibly, the wish might have had something to do with sailing over the horizon, eating more ice cream with his dad and steering clear of butt-heads.