Ah, Christmas break! A breather in the school-year grind. Nine-year-olds sleeping in. The routine relents. Santa has infused the playroom with fresh diversions. The temporary return of long, lingering, open-ended days. More to the point, the gift of more hours with the boys. The more time, the more you learn about them.

The pre-Christmas bomb cyclone left behind a thin blanket of snow covering the backyard, and sunshine beginning to melt it — just enough for good packing — so the first order of business was a snowball fight. Fortunately for them, my aging arm can no longer hit the broad side of a barn, and I’m the bigger target, so they enjoyed their unabashed pummeling.

Soon enough, it occurred to them that snowballs might make good eating. They fished out some food coloring and a couple of waffle cones from the kitchen cabinets, and I earned a reprieve from incoming projectiles.

It occurred to me that snowballs were the first step toward a snowperson, so I started rolling. It didn’t take long before they were rummaging inside for the accoutrements — a well-worn Cubs hat, cucamelons for the smile, Hershey’s kisses for eyes, the aforementioned pointed end of the waffle cone for the nose, sticks from the brush pile for arms, and mini-snowballs for the buttons of an invisible coat. It was a rather diminutive snowperson, but nature hadn’t left us a lot to work with.

We left our little buddy basking in the warming sun and headed to Urban Air, an indoor trampoline park and climbing venue, for which a certain couple of Santas had bestowed gift cards. On the way, Bryce made it abundantly clear he was afraid of heights and definitely would not be going on the high ropes course. Tyler is a mountain goat, so that’s his natural element.

The website describes it thus: “Weave, climb and race your way around this high-flying obstacle course. Climb and swing through the air like a superhero as you race to finish the course. Do you dare look down? The stakes are high as you and your friends level up your confidence, balance, and agility in these exhilarating, gravity-defying obstacles.”

“No way,” Bryce kept saying, “no way.” No argument from me, I told him. Do only what you’re comfortable doing.

As their father and I watched from below, Tyler made the rounds. He was harnessed and attached to a sliding cable, and seemed perfectly confident.

Home sweet home

Then Bryce appeared, walking much more slowly, but still walking. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look nervous, but when Tyler rejoined us, he said, “He doesn’t look nervous, but he’s very nervous inside.” Nonetheless, he completed the course and came down to a cascade of acclaim. Effusive is too tame a word. He had “leveled up his confidence” by several orders of magnitude.

Next came the equally high-flying zip line, which had plenty of zip to it. And then the climbing structures. Quite a breakthrough afternoon for Bryce.

The following week, we arranged a playdate at Dad’s house with their step-brother Trevor, so the boys had their fill of nerf warfare in the basement while I cuddled upstairs with my new granddaughter, Charlee, two months old that day, who had learned to smile since last we met (the first grin arrived on Christmas morning, I was informed). She loves daylight, so we spent a good long while looking out the back windows because I have never lost my love of daylight.

The ride home was tense; the combat seemed to make the boys cranky. They oscillate between brotherly collegiality and quarrelsome contentiousness, often briskly. Finally, Bryce broke the silence.

“I know what we can do when we get home,” he said to his newly restored co-conspirator. “We can build something with the Christmas boxes.”

Give these two an unlimited supply of cardboard and duct tape, and they are in building heaven. I held pieces together while they slapped on the tape. They were now in full collaboration mode, talking each other through every step.

It was the most ramshackled of shacks, but it did have a chimney … which doubled as a periscope … and a mail tube … which they tested but decided if an envelope got stuck in it, Santa would for sure. When all was done, we stood back and Bryce gave his official assessment:

“Well, it doesn’t look very good from the outside … and it doesn’t look very good on the inside … but I like it.”

I did, too, and after Tyler worked his interior design magic, the inside contained a rug, books, a baseball bat, a Jenga box, a Cubs logo painted on canvas, several toy cars, a chess board, and a wall-mounted “screen” with “Disney +” drawn on it.

What more could two 9-year-olds want?

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