Prologue: It is eight in the morning, give or take, and the phone, which is attached to the wall via a cord as curly as a pig’s tail, is ringing. It is a wake-up call for two kids, and I am one of them. The other one is already awake and she is sitting in a living room covered by orange shag carpet and fuzzy rays of sunshine. She is watching game shows and yelling, “No Whammies!” at a television set the size of a dishwasher. She does not care to answer the phone.
We do not have voicemail or an answering machine, and the phone will continue to ring until I pick it up. The longer it rings the more I will regret it, so I stumble out of bed and pick up the receiver. The man on the other end is my father and he is starting my day from his place of employment. He and my mother have been at work for about an hour and he is of the opinion that I will not waste my summer by sleeping all day. Rather my summer days will be spent attending to the list of chores that he has written on a pad of paper and left on the counter. The list, as always, is full of digging various holes, pulling endless weeds, and lifting assorted objects that border just south of heavy. The list, as always, is long and imposing.
My sister is younger, and her chores involve folding clothes and dusting, things that are regulated to her more by age than gender, but regardless of the reason she gets to stay inside a house made cool by an always running evaporative cooler, and I will spend the better part of the day working in a yard full of sun and desert. It is Arizona, I am 10-years-old, and the day is too hot to touch.
It is eight in the morning. My wife left for work about twenty minutes ago, and my job is waiting in the next room while I make a pot of coffee. The jazz is already playing and the dogs have returned from their morning constitutional across a lawn of soft, green plastic. The boys are still asleep, and I take great lengths not to wake them.
Thirty plus years have passed since my summers were shaped by chores and the subsequent building of character that surely followed, and in that time I have decided, for better or worse, to take a much gentler direction with my kids—work isn’t going anywhere, but childhood is fleeting and leaving faster by the moment.
That isn’t to say that my kids don’t have chores. Between them they have to make their beds, feed and walk the dogs, do the dishes, and vacuum their room, among other duties that we make up on the spot whenever they are too loud or our show is on.
They have some responsibilities, which, on occasion, have taught them about the pride found in a job well done, and, much more often, the fine art of shirking. There is also an allowance, in theory—and said theory is, apparently, one-sided, poked with holes, and leaking the countless tears of laziness and heartache all over the memories that we are making. Some theories are messier than others.
My wife and I believe that the children should contribute to the greater good if they want the greater good to contribute to them. We are the greater good in this scenario. Needless to say, opinions vary and their stream of allowance trickles where it could easily pour (relatively).
If you were to ask the boys they would say that they have a ton of things to do. They see mountains where we point to molehills. Their entire list of chores and responsibility could fit in one tweet (that’s less than 140 characters for those of you that technology has left behind), and yet they think it as thick as a phone book, except that they have no idea what a phone book is.
Their collective workload could be done, and done right, in a very short period of time, but they prefer to discuss their options until we agree upon the looming lack of them. Then the job is inevitably done between moans, breaks, and the weight of the world upon small, spoiled shoulders. And then it is done again, but properly. You can tell when they have finally finished their 20 minutes of honest labor, because it is an hour past bedtime and their lives are both horrible and ruined, respectively.
It makes me wonder how they will recall their childhood chores of summer. Will they compare their seconds of suffering to the hours of sunburns and blisters that still make me cringe—the hours I spent daily, year after year, promising myself that I would never make my own children spend their summers beneath sweat-furrowed brows, armed with nothing but a radio and a garden hose full of warm, rubber-tinted water—or will they take a faraway afternoon to write about the hardships they faced on mornings such as this, when they rolled out of bed by their own accord, and there was nothing put upon them but the boundary of property lines and the limits of their own imagination?
It is eight in the morning. The coffee is hot, the boys are quiet, and there is a trumpet keeping time to the birds that are singing. I have work to do, and I hope that you will read it.
Epilogue: Time, as a lens, is often pliable, and our stories grow more and more self-serving. This one is no exception, and it will be molded accordingly.