My grandsons turned 4 last month. Holding up four fingers when adults ask your age is much easier than holding up three. Try it sometime. Three is really awkward. So they like being 4. They’re enjoying their big-boyness.

I’ve been hosting them once a week for more than a year, and we’ve been eating out a lot. Sometimes we stop at McDonald’s or the Junction Diner in Forest Park (a train delivers the food) or George’s in Oak Park, but more and more lately, we’re eating at home. This isn’t my first buffet. I was a housespouse and main cook for three years when my son was young. I’m a little rusty, but it’s all starting to come back as I expand my repertoire.

Their favorite meal is “Pasta with Bacon,” a modified version of spaghetti carbonara. The boys enjoy helping and I tell them I couldn’t make it without them, which isn’t entirely true. Actually, I wouldn’t want to make it without them. 

They take turns assisting. One puts butter in the sauce pan to melt. The other pours the pasta into boiling water. They stir and add the parmesan, the milk and the bacon. 

Each time he finishes his turn, Bryce climbs down from the stepstool and says, very earnestly, “If you need any more help, just give me a call.” For Halloween this year, Bryce was a dalmation. As a fire dog, he’s very committed to public service.

They set the table, carrying the plates (“Two hands!”) and placing the silverware (“No waving the forks, you’ll poke your eye out!”). I dish up the pasta, and we shake on some extra parmesan for good measure. Applesauce is the side dish.

As the food settles into their growing tummies, I settle into the warmth of being at home in a family setting with my son and his sons — and grandma when she can make it (health issues lately have prevented it). 

I live alone and cook for myself most nights, but not often for other people. So this is a change for me. But as late fall heads into winter, eating in with the boys has become my preferred option. 

We sit around the table reviewing what we did that afternoon — a walk in the forest near Trailside, collecting leaves and acorns (now scattered on the dinner table, centerpiece-style), and pretending to roast marshmallows to make s’mores over the blackened remains of a former campfire. Someone created a “tipi” out of fallen tree limbs and this becomes their “firehouse.” Ding-ding-ding-ding, off they go, running down the trail to put out another fire. Bryce and Tyler to the rescue. 

Bryce takes a long slug of milk and drains his sippy cup, then looks at me with a smile and says, “Ahhhh!” He wants more, so his dad gets it because I’ve been running back and forth to the kitchen and want to finally eat. But Bryce insists that I get it for him. “I can’t,” I say, pausing, and Tyler says, “because your food will get cold.”

A 4-year-old just finished my sentence for me! 

When they’re done, they drift back to the living-room play laboratory to work on a puzzle or knead Play-Doh or drop marbles through a big plastic contraption — or we’ll read books or watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or play hide-and-seek or apply paint to paper or play musical instruments (Tyler shows real promise on the harmonica) or whatever catches their fancy.

This could go on for a while. I wish it could go on forever, in one form or another.

When I started living alone more than a decade ago, I thought family time was over for me. Now here is this unexpected gift, plopped in my lap, asking me to read a book. The cycle begins again, my second time through childhood.

For a long time I felt that one of my failings in life was the inability to create a true “home.” Now two little boys are turning that perception upside down, creating moments when it all comes together. Instead of making them feel at home, they’re doing it to me.

As my son sits on the floor, Bryce climbs onto his shoulders from a nearby chair and begins chortling with glee, as infectious a laugh as you’ll ever hear — until Tyler joins in and doubles the delight.

When Mama returns from work, we blend anew, telling her about our day and hearing what the week ahead might hold. And the alchemy of love’s labors once again transforms ordinary into extraordinary.

Then off we go, down to the firetruck to buckle them in — firefighter and fire dog — for the long drive back to the main firehouse.

Their work here is done, a broken family briefly blended and mended.

Tyler and Bryce to the rescue again. 

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