Story by Jennifer Oliver
“Steve, what am I going to do?” Mike bemoaned.
Our friend, Mike, was going to finally see his boys. Separated from his wife, who lived on an entirely different continent, it had been over a year since he’d seen his boys. They were flying in to spend one week with him.
The fear on his face was real. He was apparently not used to having them to himself. Especially for one whole week.
“I don’t have the money to take them anywhere,” he said. “I was hoping to go on down to that water park in New Braunfels.”
“That place is expensive, Mike!” Stephen retorted. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have fun! Take them to the springs. Fill up your gas tank and go find some historic sites. You can borrow my tent and go camping.”
Judging from the distaste on our friend’s face, none of those suggestions were worthy of consideration. Stubbornly ingrained in him was the idea that the amount of money splurged on his children equaled the amount of love he’d get in return.
“What do your boys like to do?” I ventured.
He shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“No, I mean, what are their hobbies?”
“I’m not sure.”
My heart filled with compassion for his boys. And for their clueless father. They connected mainly through sporadic, expensive phone calls and through infrequent exchanges of snail mail. Mike wanted to make an impression on his boys. That he was successful here in the United States and could afford to take them anywhere they wanted.
He just didn’t get it.
I remember as a child the things my family did that cost practically nothing at all. A spontaneous picnic under a generous oak, pulling off the beaten path to pursue a trail of signs that led us to a barn filled with dusty treasures. Taking walks around the block with my parents after dinner.
One Christmas stood out when, at a loss as to what to give his girls, my Dad presented each of us with a wrapped shoe box inside of which was a slip of paper that simply said, “I love you.”
I can’t even remember what else I opened that Christmas morning.
One Sunday afternoon, while on the freeway, Stephen veered off to revisit a small town we hadn’t seen in a while and stopped at an empty city park. There, the boys gleefully sampled monkey bars and listless swings. We brushed a layer of leaves off the concrete picnic table and ate sandwiches we had brought from home. Afterwards, they strayed to the edge of a creek, pocketing unusual stones, and swirling patterns in the shallow water with sticks.
I remember with fondness the time when Stephen, an Eagle Scout, was anxious to instill a love for camping to the older boys, ages three and four at the time.
Across the street from our home, under a cluster of gnarled oak trees, Stephen spread out fake grass turf, erected a tent on it, and stuffed it with sleeping bags and blankets and pillows. He even placed a potty chair at the entrance of the tent.
It was unusual spring weather–chilly with light, misting rain. The boys each carried a battery-powered lantern with them to light their way to the tent.
In lawn chairs around a small campfire that Stephen had prepared, the boys roasted marshmallows for the first time on antique extendable forks we had collected over the years in anticipation of that very moment. Stephen pointed out constellations and identified a variety of nighttime sounds. We told stories and sang to an audience of trees. And for a while there, with the boys in our laps, we quietly gazed at the campfire’s hypnotic dance, the crackling and smoke filling the silence.
Afterwards, we directed the boys to a small picnic table Stephen had fashioned out of tree stumps. They brushed their teeth there by lantern-light, removed their shoes, and squealed loudly when they entered the tent, jumping up and down. Stephen wasted no time joining their merrymaking.
It’s a sight that will burn brightly in my memory for a long, long time.
Stephen liked to earn a little pocket change on occasion by delivering antiques for a dealer friend to various parts of Texas. He’d pack up all four kids and treat them to these road trips. Someone asked him why he didn’t just stick the kids in daycare during those times.
“Where else can a father spend quality time with his children and get paid for it?”
It’s true what they say. Enjoy them while they’re young. The years will zip by, and before you can say “knee replacement surgery,” they’re picking out a retirement home for you.
Our son, Cody, overheard Stephen make a comment about someone who “just needed to go out and get a life.”
“What’s a life, Dad?”
“It’s when you take each day and make the most of it.”
“Oh, I see!”
We don’t know if he really saw. But we do know that time is the most important thing one can spend on a child.
Just don’t spend it all in one place.