Bedlam in Boyville
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Bedlam in Boyville

Fart jokes, spitting contests, gunplay. How did a houseful of boisterous boys happen to bookish ol' me?

Boys Will Be Boys

Henry on rope swing
Enlarge Image

Henry, age 10, tempting fate
on the front-yard rope swing.

Sometimes I think about what life would've been like if I'd married Henry VIII. As the mother of three sons, surely I'd have kept my head -- I'd have been revered, in fact, even worshipped. Wherever I trailed my ermine-trimmed robes and cast my benevolent eye, adoring crowds would roar with admiration: "Hail to thee, o beautiful one, mother of an heir and two spares!" But much as I like to fantasize about being surrounded by adulators, in real life I am no one's queen. I am the dorm mother at Animal House.

And the thing is, I never saw it coming. My father was the original enlightened man, cooking and cleaning and diapering back in the '60s, even before coffee klatches turned into consciousness-raising groups and suburban moms began to demand such participation from dads. My only brother, now an artist, spent his childhood doing the same things I liked to do: reading books and building little boats out of pine bark. It never once crossed his mind to tackle another kid or pick up a stick and pretend to shoot a bird. Later on, all my male friends were art or philosophy majors, and the first time I ever laid eyes on my husband, one cold Super Bowl Sunday, he was reading a book of poetry instead of watching the game. My first full-time job, teaching literature at an all-girls school, certainly didn't acclimate me to high doses of testosterone.

Not one thing in my life prepared me for living with a bunch of garden-variety little boys who can burp their ABC's, cut high-volume armpit farts, and out-spit a camel, and whose extensive arsenal includes 27 toy rifles, muskets, six-shooters, cap pistols, dart guns, and something called the Big Kahuna. A gun for all seasons.

Truly, my sons are very sweet boys and they all have their tender, cuddly, I-love-you-all-the-way-up-to-the-moon sides, sides they indulge daily and reveal without shame (at least in the privacy of our house). It's their hey-let's-see-who-can-climb-that-tree-the-highest sides that bewilder me. But Haywood is right there, egging them on. Fatherhood has inspired my guitar-playing, poetry-loving husband to get back in touch with his back-country Georgia boyhood of creek-jumping, bike-racing, tree-climbing, river-tubing, fence-scaling fun. Fifteen years ago, a neighbor called to say she'd just passed Haywood riding a borrowed scooter down the street with our 9-month-old strapped to his back. Sam was holding on to his dad's hair with both hands and squealing in jubilation.

Thanks to this unstoppable combination of genes and paternal encouragement, the testosterone-related activities at our house began very early. Even now that Sam is a 6-foot-tall teenager, the most popular games in our family are 1) wrestling; 2) dueling with wrapping-paper tubes; 3) waging war with dart guns; 4) sliding down the hall feet-first into an imaginary home plate; and 5) piling all the pillows and cushions in the house into one big heap and diving into them. I buy only wrought-iron lamps, and I maintain a ready supply of iron-on knee patches in every shade of denim. When Haywood and I go out for the evening, we always rent a brand-new DVD and plug the kids into the video drip to keep them from inventing a game that ends only when someone is actually bleeding.

Not that I can always stop them, even when I'm home. Consider, for example, the rope swing in our front yard. Even Haywood agrees it's not a safe swing, so the kids aren't allowed to play on it without an adult present. In fact, we keep the rope wrapped around a high branch when one of us isn't outside watching. But that didn't stop Henry, Joe, and some neighborhood boys from climbing up the tree when I wasn't looking, liberating the swing, and challenging one another to a jumping competition. It didn't last long. They hadn't been outside five minutes when I heard Henry, through two brick walls and across several intervening rooms, start to scream.

A Bad Break

I threw open the front door to find a little boy named Luke standing there. "Miss Margaret," he said solemnly, "Henry broke his arm." It occurred to me to wonder how a 9-year-old could possibly diagnose a broken limb. Then I saw Henry's arm. It looked like a California highway after an earthquake -- both bones snapped completely in two, one half sitting entirely on top of the other. It was all I could do not to scream myself while I helped Henry into the car.

He was still screaming when I screeched into the hospital parking lot and he screamed anew with every step to the building. We didn't even slow down at the security checkpoint -- I just threw my bag to the guard and followed the nurse straight to the trauma room.

And that's where Haywood finally found us, guided through the hospital maze as much by the sound of Henry's voice as by the receptionist. He walked straight to his son and bent to kiss his head. Then, as he walked toward me on the other side of Henry's bed, he started to sway. The nurse, who was trying to stick an IV needle into Henry's good hand, looked up. "Hon," she said, "I think you'd better sit down."

Too late. Haywood collapsed against a portable x-ray machine, slid down an oxygen tank, and hit the tile floor beside the IV tree.

After the second ER doctor came in, it appeared that I'd be going home with two family members in casts, though it turned out that Haywood only suffered a gash to his right eyebrow. But every time he tried to stand up, his face would go green again and his knees would buckle. Haywood's medical team was taking up a lot of room right where Henry's team was trying to get an IV started, so they finally put Dad on a gurney and rolled him into the corridor. For nearly an hour I ran back and forth between them.

Every time I got to Haywood, he would apologize: "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I should have cut down that swing the day I put it up." I don't know which one I was more worried about -- Henry with the broken arm or Haywood with the broken heart.

The poor nurse, too, was coming a little unhinged after three failed attempts to find a vein in Henry's hand. When she finally stood up to let another nurse give it a try, Henry smiled up at her through his tears. His broken arm was still crooked, but he reached out for her with his good hand.

"Thank you for taking care of me," he whispered, squeezing her fingers.

And somehow, I realized, that's the way it always happens in our family. Just when I've grown accustomed to the maelstrom of reckless energy and bravado, suddenly, in one quiet moment, all the tumult and bluster will disappear, and I'm wholly encircled by tenderness and love and heartfelt gratitude. A mother of only daughters, I'd wager, could not know anything sweeter.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2007.