You can’t step outside our house these days without getting little spikes of colored wood stuck in the soles of your feet. The cobblestones in the front of the house, on to which we venture shoeless each morning to retrieve the paper, and the bricks in the back, where we go to liberate the bunny each afternoon, are strewn with the shavings and varicolored leads of dozens of colored pencils. The reason is that, by unfortunate coincidence, the day after I exhumed the last tree limb from under his bed, Paris took up whittling.
Now, in between bursts of wild athleticism, he will sit in prolonged, silent contentment cutting down a length of Laurentien smoke grey/gris fer acquired in Canada, or a Crayola mahogany/acajou bought here, or a bright pink UltraColor (TM) of no fixed origin.
“Make sure to cut away from yourself,” my husband will say, as he arrives home to find Paris on the front steps, spraying shards of painted wood.
“Welcome home,” I greet my husband. Tousling the head of the heir, I too will say, “Make sure to cut away from yourself.”
If you are one or two generations older than we are, you may regard it as wicked to demolish useful writing implements in this way, but I am afraid that just dates you. Our generation may be spendthrift, and it is true that we do not hoard milk cartons the way some of our venerated elders did (and do), but, with the stipulation that time is money, it is manifestly the case that once a box of colored pencils has been distributed around one’s house, it is cheaper and quicker to drive to the office-supply store, park, lock, go in, locate another set, pay, go back to the car, unlock, and drive home, than it is to hunt each pencil down individually and reassemble the set. Schools want each pupil to have his or her own set of 8 or 12 colored pencils, and after enrolling children in such places for some years our house is littered with the things. As far as I am concerned, every pencil Paris whittles to oblivion is one less cluttering up the house.
“Make sure to–”
“Which reminds me,” I mutter, adding to my list, “Colored pencils… three sets.”
Lately the children and I have been running pre-emptive autumn errands at a furious pace. The idea is to secure ourselves a) an untroubled vacation in Maine, and b) a few tranquil days at home afterwards before c) slipping roasted-bean-like into the devouring back-to-school grinder.
“Where are we going this time?” they ask bravely, as we set off yet again. Medical check-ups! School uniforms! Black low-heeled shoes! Painting smocks! Three-ring binders, index cards lined on one side, #2 pencils. Black ball-points, 10. Red ball-points, 2. Lunch boxes, 4. Jolly backpacks for the littles. Regular backpack for Paris. Ominous wheeled backpack for Molly, with free monogram.
“I’m ready for school,” Paris announces one July morning, striding into the kitchen wearing his pyjamas and a backpack so full it is hanging almost horizontally.
“Can you put this in for me?” He hands me a circular piece of plastic with a little chain hanging off it.
“Ew,” I say, “This is from a–”
“The plumber said I could keep it.”
Inside the backpack, among stuffed animals and three-subject notebooks, there’s a flash of red-and silver: The Swiss Army knife I bought as a Father’s Day gift when Paris was just a baby. In the time it takes to say, “Oh, very well,” a scenario flits past of our seven-year-old being expelled for “bringing a weapon to school,” and I make a mental note to sweep his backpack thoroughly come September. What I am not willing to do is ban the thing. In my view, children ought to be able to exercise their inner Tom Sawyer, even at the risk of damage, personal injury, or property-related torts.
A day or two later we meet Charlotte and her son RJ in Virginia at a beautiful farm once owned by George Washington. The Potomac rolls heavily in the distance, as we melt and swoon our way through gardens towards a picnic table. Meteorologists say it is possible for the humidity in the air to surpass 100 percent, and we are rapidly approaching dewpoint.
Charlotte breaks bread into chunks and hands them to the younger ones, who speed away to a special children’s garden with such excellent features as a weeping myrtle tree, a tiny Confederate cabin, and a beached dinghy surrounded by sea grasses. Molly stays with the adults. Charlotte D., she confides to a piece of paper I happen to see later, “is not beautiful like other people, but she makes you want to look at her again and again.” We are nattering away pleasantly about this and that, and occasionally adjudicating a case of “Violet said,” and “RJ won’t,” and handing out more bits of bread, when–
I am not quick to leap out of my seat. People are constantly yelling, “aagh, Mummy!” around me, and usually they have stubbed their toe. But when Paris’ voice rises sharply, so do I.
Paris is standing atop a little earthen hut in the children’s garden. He is flapping his hands and something dark is spraying and spattering across his white shirt and bare arms. I race to grab a handful of napkins from our picnic and run to him, aware that I too am flapping my hands, with the same expression out of Edvard Munch.
“Oh, God, sweetheart, oh, no, what’s happened? Here, clamp this over–” The expanse of white napkin blooms bright red, and I tighten my hands over it. Paris looks up at me, his face white under streaks of dirt and tears.
“I forgot. I cut towards–”
Later, in the car, as we speed along an unfamiliar road following those large blue “H” signs that you never notice when you are not desperate for an emergency room, I find myself babbling to Paris how sorry I am that this happened, and how brave he is, when he interrupts me.
“No, Mummy, I’m sorry,” he says, “For interrupting everyone’s day.”
The emergency room, when we reach it, is apparently staffed by lotus-eaters. Let a blood-spattered mother and son step through the automatic doors, and the indifference is so thick you can cut it with a pocket knife. Indifference is an exaggeration; it is as though we are not there.
“Excuse me?” I say after a while to a nurse behind a protective plexiglass panel. She does not look up, and moves away. I fill out a little sheet of paper (patient name, patient age, nature of patient’s complaint), slip it under the panel, and gently guide Paris towards the waiting area.
A TV mounted above everyone’s heads is running an infomercial about abdominal bloating which features many swollen female midriffs, an animated colon, and consequent happy faces of relief. Paris sits on my lap and watches it. The other patrons sit in attitudes of resignation. We are none of us made-for-TV emergencies, but the lassitude is unbelievable.
“Mwandi mfumo?” a nurse says hesitantly, coming into the waiting room.
A dazed-looking woman rises, one hand to her head, and follows the nurse down a hallway.
“Paris,” I whisper mutinously, “If you are feeling brave, only if you are feeling brave, let’s take a look. You don’t have to–”
In answer, he slowly unwinds the sodden paper napkins. We gasp. A deep, gory slash runs right across his finger and down one side, but the edges are clean and the bleeding has stopped. It could easily take three or four stitches. But with bandages and a splint–?
First I have to check something. Swaddling Paris’s finger again, I hustle him back to the plexiglass. “Excuse me,” I shout pleasantly, rapping on the window. A triage nurse looks up as if tranquilized. “Can you please tell me how long before we might be seen?”
“Sure,” she murmurs, looking where I am pointing at Paris’s name in red ink. “About two hours.”
“Wow, thanks,” I say. “Please take us off the list.”
She looks worried in the vague, noncommittal way people do when they are watching an unhappy moment of televised drama. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you.”
An hour later, having stopped at the drugstore and applied, in the parking lot, antibacterial gel, no-stick bandages, and a peewee sized finger splint, and having reacquired the girls, who had gone off with Charlotte and RJ, we arrive home. Everyone unfurls from the car and of course tread immediately on the festive splinters of wood left by Paris the Scrimshaw Man.
“Say,” I suggest rakishly, “how about a little–”
“No thanks,” Paris says, “In fact, Mummy, I think I’m going to take a break from whittling.”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.