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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Matryoshkas

Jacob's father sighed in exasperation.

Jacob stood there, all two and a half feet of him, hands on tiny hips, forehead furrowed, lip quaking in an angry pout, before he stomped away exuding that self-righteous indignation so innate to the species known as toddler.

"Yes, Jacob, you little monkey, you're quite right," his father whispered facetiously to the boy's retreating back. "It's just perfectly unreasonable of me to stop you from scaling an eight foot tall bookshelf." He chuckled to himself with a shake his head. "Clearly, it is your misfortune to have been born to a father who is such a tyrant."

Leaning an arm against the library shelves, he pensively rubbed the backs of his knuckles against his lips. His thoughts instantly propelled him back to his own childhood, to memories of standing in front of his own father, being scolded, lectured, and reprimanded for some mischief or another: there had been that time he'd tried to juggle the teacups... a fortuitously aborted attempt at pole vaulting... and oh, dear, yes, that perfectly regrettable incident involving an umbrella, a clothesline and laundry day....

He mentally confessed that he had deserved far worse than mere scoldings; it was a testament to his father's genuinely gentle nature that his backside wasn't still to this day smarting from whippings. However had he gotten into, let alone out of, all the high jinks of his youth?  The ones Father knew of, let alone the ones about which he'd never found out...

Looking to the heavens for strength, he wondered for the umpteenth time since his son was born exactly how his parent had ever managed it: this fatherhood business.

Umpteenth? No, let's be honest, he thought, it is a number well into four digits already, and the boy is barely two years old!    

He watched the toddler, who was now sitting pleasantly on the floor, all disgruntlement forgotten. The lad was distracted, at least for the moment, by his new book, that popular new title, what was the name of that bear again?  Minnie something? No, Winnie. Already his boy adored books!
 
He gets that from me! he thought proudly, his heart swelling with boundless love for his precious and precocious child.

Suddenly he was engulfed by a memory, as vivid and real as if he were a small boy again. As clear as a photograph, he saw his own father towering far above him, a seeming giant of a man. His father's expression was a mixture of incredulity and patience, adoration and - was it really? - exhaustion? - as he said to him, "Son, perhaps someday when you are grown, you'll have a little boy of your own: I hope that he is just like you. And then you'll understand..."

"Right you were, Father," he whispered to himself. "How right you were."
 
* * * *
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With a weary exhalation, Jacob Wells took off his glasses and pinched his nose. His glasses dangled from one hand as he glanced up at Mary.

"When I misbehaved, my father used to threaten to sell me to the gypsies!" He gestured over his shoulder to the corridor through which 9-year-old Devin and 6-year-old Vincent had recently exited. 

 "How much do you think we'd have to pay the gypsies to take those two away?"

"Father! You don't mean that!" Mary exclaimed in shock.

"No. No, of course I don't. No." He waved the idea away with the hand that was still holding onto his reading glasses.

Mollified, Mary left Father's chamber before she could hear him softly chuckle, "But could we not, perhaps, just.... rent them out?" He smiled. "Only for a few hours?" He rubbed his forehead and sighed.

Father contemplated the pair of bicycles propped in front of the table in the center of his study. Where and how Devin and Vincent had scavenged them, Father thought he'd probably prefer not to know. 

 But find them they had, and they'd brought them Below. This despite the fact that they were prohibited, not to mention being far too large a size for the boys. He bent to examine the ingenious contraptions cobbled together from blocks of wood or lengths of pipe which allowed their little feet to reach the pedals.

Father grinned with a secret pride, easily recognizing Devin's handiwork in these clever pedal extenders. He really had to admire his son's inventiveness and resourcefulness.  Once he set his mind to it, Devin always did seem to be able to accomplish almost anything he wanted. This was a quality that would serve him well as a man, if only they could direct it toward more productive ends. Father fancied that was a characteristic that Devin had inherited from himself. Mentally, he congratulated Devin's accomplishment.

Of course, it wouldn't do to say any of that aloud, not to the boy. Not yet.
 
With Devin's stubborn streak - where that trait comes from, I'm sure I have no clue - he'd only get a swelled head if he knew how clever I thought this was.

There would be plenty of time for compliments later, when his son was a little older.


- - -

After eating the evening meal with Mary in the dining hall, Father was returning to his study, when he decided to pop his head into the boys' chamber. Leaning heavily on his cane, he made his way down the corridor the short distance to the chamber that Devin and Vincent had been sharing for years. Peeking in, he found them both in bed, sent there without their supper, just as his own father used to do to him as a child.

Vincent lay on the outside of the bed, closer to the chamber entrance, just at the edge of the candlelight. Devin was next to the wall, illuminated by the glow from the stained glass window. The glass wasn't the only thing that was stained, Father realized: Devin's cheeks were smudged with dried tear tracks. The boy must have cried himself to sleep, he realized with a pang.

Father leaned wearily against the doorway, regretting the necessity of punishing them, but knew he'd had to do it.

Good heavens, Father thought, as if the pilfered bikes weren't bad enough, something Devin and Vincent know full well is against the rules, it's really the construction of the breastplates and jousting lances that has earned the boys tonight's punishment. Did those two really think that they could....?!

Broken arms, legs and worse danced in Father's imagination.

"Fodder?" Vincent's little voice whispered from just beyond the candle glow. Father thought how much he would miss the darling way that Vincent mispronounced his name once those teeth finished growing back in.

"Vincent, my boy, you're supposed to be asleep."

"I know, Fodder." He looked down at his stocking-covered feet as he shuffled closer, then sheepishly peeked up at him through a mop of pale gold bangs. "When you were little, I bet you never didn't listen to your fodder, huh?"

Father lowered himself into an armchair by the bed and held out his arms to Vincent, who scrambled eagerly and happily into his loving embrace. Looking down into those trusting cornflower blue eyes, 

Father momentarily toyed with the idea of saying, 'Yes, my dear little Vincent, you are quite correct: I never, ever disobeyed my father; in fact, I always listened to all my elders, and did just what I was told all the time.'

Instead, he chose to tell the truth.

"Vincent, I think every little child has not listened to his parents at some time or another. I was no different than you, my boy. Some times, maybe even many times," he chuckled, "my father sent me to bed without supper, just as I've had to do to you boys tonight. In my case, I remember that I sometimes got in trouble for becoming a bit too enthusiastic while playing Tarzan..."

"Really?!" Vincent gaped, trying to picture Father as a little boy of any type, let alone one who was capable of playing Tarzan.  

"Yes, well, now...  it doesn't matter what I did! We're talking about you two." He cocked an eyebrow at Vincent but confided in a conspiratorial whisper, "But yes, just like a couple of other little boys that I know, I got in trouble when I was little!"

Father waggled a finger at Vincent's nose, "But don't you tell anyone so!"

Vincent shook his head.

"That's going to be our little secret, yes, Vincent?"

Vincent nodded and crossed his heart solemnly. With a grin, he curled up in his father's arms into one of those impossibly snug balls that only small children can manage. Father hugged him tighter and began to rock back and forth, the instinctive lulling rock that parents find themselves doing unconsciously as they hold a child of any age. He soon felt Vincent's muscles relax until they slackened completely into sleep; his tiny body seemed boneless and twice its normal weight as he slumbered limply against Father's chest.

Father marveled at how a boy so angelic as this child on his lap could come up with ideas as harebrained as this bicycle scheme. But Vincent had stood in front of him, confessing that it was he who had gotten the idea from reading Don Quixote.

If Vincent is the inspiration which holds together this whole world, Father reflected, it really should not be so surprising to me that he is also the inspiration for my sons' shenanigans.

Resting his cheek on Vincent's golden head, he looked at Devin's sleeping form. Devin, once given the notion by Vincent, had set the wheels into motion - literally!    Father thought the boy was truly a natural born leader, able to get his band of followers organized, focused, straightening out conflicts amongst themselves.  How many times had Father rallied the boys at his prep school into some prank or scheme? Yes, well, that was neither here nor there... he put the thought out of his mind.

Jacob sat thinking of his sons: Vincent, the thinker. Devin, the doer. And it seems that I must be both for this world of mine. Of ours. Someday, of theirs.

After several long moments staring at his boys, he picked Vincent up and lay him in his bed, tucking him in against the chill of Below.

"Shall I tell you another secret, Vincent?" Father whispered into the silent darkness, knowing that the boys would not hear him. "My father also used to say to me, 'I hope that someday you grow up and have a son just like you!' And do you know what?" He looked at both the boys' slumbering forms. "I did."

He rested a hand on each of them in turn, feeling their slow steady breathing as they slept.

"Two wonderful, smart, amazing sons. Two maddening, rambunctious, headstrong sons." He walked to the entrance and looked back, "Two sons who fill my heart with more love than I ever could have dreamt was possible... and who just might be the death of me!"  Father sighed.
   
* * * *
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*

"Daddy! Look!" Little Jacob exclaimed, straddling the top of the banister of the spiral stairs in Father's study. "Watch!" He released both his hands from behind his back, squealing as gravity took over and he slid down and around, down and around.

Only Vincent's amazing reflexes and speed could have averted the disaster of 3-year-old Jacob propelling himself face first right into the rock floor at the foot of the stairs. With one fleet, fluid movement Vincent crossed the intervening yards, extended an arm, and deftly captured the boy mid-air.

"This is not a playground, young man!" Vincent scolded Jacob, wholly unaware that his tone had begun to resemble someone else's 'stern voice.' He waggled a clawed fingertip towards his momentarily repentant son. "Someday, Jacob... Someday, I hope...."

"Someday hope what, Daddy?" Jacob cocked his head to the side as he'd seem his father do uncounted times before.

"I swear, Father, sometimes I can actually feel my hair turning gray!"

Father had been unobtrusively watching this scene and saying nothing, but an enigmatic smile had spread across his entire face. As Vincent turned and made this comment, Father did his level best to appear sympathetic. Failing utterly to do so, he hid his mouth behind one fist, looked away and nodded.

Vincent sat down with Jacob on his lap. "You must not slide down the banister like that, Jacob; it is not safe, even though I know that it may seem like fun. It isn't fun if you get hurt or get into trouble, is it?"

Jacob shook his head no.

"We make rules for a reason, son. They are to keep you safe and help you to grow up to be good. When I was a little boy, your grandfather made me listen and behave, and you must listen and behave as well. Do you understand?"

Jacob pursed his lips together in an expression that declared that he did understand, but did not like it.

Father concurred. "You know, Jacob, your father is right.  Even I had to learn to listen when I was a little boy and loved climbing so much that my father used to call me Monkey!"

Jacob, unable to fathom this concept, stared open-mouthed at Father's cane.

"Well, I didn't need a cane when I was your age, you know!"

Jacob shut his lips and nodded solemnly, as if he'd known that, of course.

"It is clearly past someone's bedtime," Vincent declared in a voice that was not negotiable. "Now go to your mother and have her get you ready for bed."

Jacob threw his arms around Vincent's head and kissed him. "Good night, Daddy!"

He crawled down onto the floor and quickly scrambled into Father's lap. He repeated the gesture and planted a wet kiss on Father's cheek. "Good night, Grandfather!"

The lad tottered off to the exit, paused, turned back, and blew them both additional goodnight kisses before vanishing down the tunnel.   

Vincent leaned against Father's desk, looking over his shoulder at his parent.

"Father, I do not know sometimes what I am going to do with that boy! Do you know that Mary told me that four times today she had to stop Jacob from climbing onto the top of her wardrobe! He seems absolutely determined to get up there to play with her set of antique Russian nesting dolls. You know how much she treasures those matryoshka dolls! Mary is going to have to find a new hiding place for them. It would be tragic if he ruined them!"

"Yes, you're right, Vincent it would." Father sat pensively a few moments and continued in a deadpan tone, "Perhaps while you are finding a more secure location for the matryoshkas, you ought to also hide any copies of Don Quixote that you come across?"

Vincent's expression seemed hardly to change at all; only a slight glint in his eyes betrayed him. "Karma is happening, isn't it, Father? And I dare say that you are loving every minute of it."

"Well, Vincent, I cannot help but observe that, like every parent who has gone before me, I do see a sort of, hmm, shall we say, divine retribution in the current situation. As I pointed out to Jacob just now, not only did I not need a cane when I was younger, I also had brown hair until you and Devin came along!" Father chuckled. "Parenthood does seem to be an eternal cycle of unconditional love... and unrelenting paybacks!"

Vincent could only nod and shrug, imagining what wrinkles and gray hairs the coming decades would bring him.

"Don't worry, son - the joys are eternally paid back as well!"  Father smiled.
- - -

Vincent arrived at their chamber some while later to find that Catherine and Jacob were already sleeping. He picked up the work folder held limply in Catherine's fingers and set it by her briefcase.  He bent over Jacob's trundle bed in its nook and tucked the covers around his son's feet - the boy was forever kicking them off! Stepping back, he watched his beloved family sleeping beneath the warm glow of the amber window.

Sitting at his table, Vincent took out his fountain pen and began writing in his journal:


My dearest Jacob,

It has been said that to have a child is to forever have your heart go walking about outside your body. Each day that I watch you, Jacob, I see my own heart walking about inside of your chest.

You do not know this yet. You cannot understand it, and it is not only because you are too young.  Years from now, you may in theory comprehend these words - but you can not, and will not, truly understand until the day you look into your own child's eyes, and discover that your own heart will forever reside within the tiny body you hold in your hands. Then perhaps you, too, will watch your heart go scaling up wardrobes and sliding down banisters...

This has been so for uncounted generations, and will be so for countless more. I look at Father, and I look at you, and I see this.

I see us like the Russian nesting dolls that fascinate you so - each different and yet the same, each holding within its heart the next and the next. Each held in turn by those who came before, ad infinitum. To me, at this moment, you may seem to be the smallest of the matryoshkas, yet I know that within you are already the shadows of generations yet to--
 
Vincent broke off writing and looked about at a rustling sound, just in time to observe Jacob swinging himself proudly onto the top of the bookshelves. The boy beamed with joy at this accomplishment. 

Jacob's father sighed in exasperation.   



2 comments:

  1. I loved this story Laura, so wonderful and thought provoking about the generations, and very true. As parents we certainly come to understand after we have our own children what our folks had to go through. Life has a way of coming full circle, and glad that Vincent is not immune to that. A very heart warming
    story. Hugs, Linn

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  2. Thank you, Linn! This one is near and dear to my heart because it rings so true to myself, my mom, and my daughter. I just had to give Vincent a little of that same delicious pain-in-the tuckus factor!

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