The small wall plaque in the bathroom says it all: House + Love = Home.
When I arrive for a visit, Kristen and the boys are cuddling on the couch watching “Home Alone,” which they’ve viewed often enough to memorize some of the lines. Kristen too — it was released when she was their age. It gives me two ideas, both involving Home. They’ve never seen E.T., which I can hardly believe until I do the math and realize next year the film will be 40 years old. Older than their parents. The movie could be titled, “Alone, Not Home.”
I order it on Amazon and throw in Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson for good measure, which they also haven’t seen, but briefly encountered during their trip to Disney World two years ago. It has all the necessary elements for an adventure film: A treehouse that doubles as a fort, defending your home against pirates, and being shipwrecked on a South Seas island. What more could a kid possibly want?
They have learned, as so many of us do early on, that hitching a ride on someone’s cinematic adventure from the comfort zone of home is an irresistible Friday night combination — especially when you throw in pizza and cuddling with Mom.
They’ve also learned the thrill of pulling off a prank. On April Fools’ Day, Kristen sets out a bowl covered with foil and asks if they want brownies, right after breakfast! Wow! The boys are on that in a nanosecond. The foil comes off and inside they find the bowl filled with E’s, cut out of brown construction paper. Brown E’s. “Gotcha!” she says. Despite their disappointment, they give it high marks as a prank.
After she leaves for work, I say, “Let’s buy some real brownies and prank her back.” I have never seen so much delight enflame the human face. Off we go to the Jewel, and they take off like a shot as if this were their second home. I find them by the mylar balloons and Easter lilies, which we buy for Mom, this being Holy Thursday — along with the brownies, of course, which we cut into little squares to put in the Brown E’s bowl. When she gets home and uncovers it, we tell her it’s an April Fools’ Day miracle! Gotcha back!
Meanwhile, the boys and I curl up with E.T. in the basement. They’re a little nervous, not sure what’s in store. I’ve told them the odds are very good that intelligent life exists on other planets far off in our hugely huge universe. What would they look like? Tyler can’t sit still. He’s not sure he’s going to like this. But E.T. turns out to be both undeniably alien and embraceably cute. And he loves Reese’s pieces, no doubt the most successful product placement in the history of cinema.
But there’s so much more than alien contact. There are flying bikes, a glowing heart and finger, death and resurrection, an empathic hyper-bonded mind-meld between E.T. and Elliott, and of course the most incredible Rube Goldberg device ever devised using a record player, a circular saw, a fork and who knows what all else so E.T. can “phone home.” And at the end, a poignant goodbye with E.T. touching Elliott’s forehead and saying, “I’ll be right here.” Bryce, ever the sensitive observer, wipes the tears from my cheek. Good stuff, though Tyler’s still not sure whether he liked it. Too much to think about.
Such as going out to ride our bikes, which fly only from furious peddling, up and down the street. I brought along my venerable Schwinn LeTour and mention that it’s now 47 years old. Bryce asks how old I am. Sixty-eight, I reply. He does the math in his head. “So you were like 20 when you got this?” he asks, astonished. Not bad for a 7-year-old. This school thing is evidently having an impact.
Mom says, “Did you hear all those birds?” We go out on the back deck and find a major confluence of Sandhill Cranes circling high overhead. Hundreds, climbing the warm thermal breezes, then heading northwest in long V formations. I tell the boys each of those birds is taller than you are, which gets their attention because they look so small at that height. They’re heading home to Wisconsin, I say, after spending the winter in the Southeast.
A month later, Dad returns home from his 10-month deployment with the Army National Guard in Djibouti, Africa. Several days later, he shows up in the driveway, in uniform, to surprise them when they get home from school. That was a good day.
A week or so later, I pay another visit. We ride bikes some more, then make sculptures with air-dry clay in the kitchen. Bryce notices my T-shirt, the only legible one I own, and asks, “Did you get that at Morton Arboretum?” How could you tell? “Because of the tree. You love trees.” I point to the letters, two words run together. Can you read that? “thinkoutside,” he says. Tyler says, “Like think outside the box.” Bryce adds, “Also think about going outside.” Yes, indeed. And home is the box we live in, the one we think outside of.
Tyler is spent after a long baseball game that carried over into the early afternoon. Lots of bases to run, leading always to home plate. He doesn’t want to think about going back outside, so we say our goodbyes. Tyler wishes I could live with them. Bryce says, a little wistfully, “I’ll be thinking of you.”
I leave them safe at home, not alone. Don’t worry.
I’ll be right here.