Through the years, I developed a stock answer to the “what should I be?” question. I would look thoughtfully at the asker, whichever of our five children it might be, then say: “Just be a good person.” For some reason, they all stopped asking me. I don’t know why.
But the second question was trickier, because I know how my wife, Anita, does things. She would buy a bunch of Halloween candy as soon as our grocer put it on the shelves — you know, right after the Fourth of July. She did this ever since we got burned one year. We waited until the day before Halloween to buy candy, and there wasn’t any good stuff (read: “chocolate candy bars”) left. So she started buying it early and hiding it, since the average shelf-life of un-hidden chocolate in our house was about 37 seconds.
For some reason, however, I seemed to be the only one in the family who could never find Anita's Halloween stash. I remember one year catching then-7-year-old Jonathan wandering around the house munching on a trick-or-treat-sized Snickers bar.
“Hey, Jon,” I asked, “where’d you get that?”
“Shhh!” he hissed, spewing a little stream of chocolate-caramel-nut spray. “It’s a secret!”
“I know!” I whispered. “So share the secret with me!”
“Mommy said don’t tell.”
“She meant that you shouldn’t tell the other kids,” I assured him. “It’s OK to tell Daddy.”
“Mommy said ‘specially don’t tell Daddy!”
“That's right, Dad,” said 9-year-old Elizabeth, who had a mini-Milky Way in her hand. “We're not supposed to tell you where the candy is.”
“But you guys know,” I whined.
“That's because Mama trusts us,” Elizabeth said. “If we tell, she won't trust us anymore.”
“Besides,” Andrea added, “somebody has to not know where it is, or else there wouldn't be any point in hiding it.” This is as close as you get to logic with a 16-year-old on a 3 Musketeers high.
Just then 18-year-old Joe Jr. walked in with a little bag of Whoppers. “Mom's getting better,” he said, swallowing malted milk and chocolate. “It took me four minutes to find the stash this year.”
“That’s because I helped hide it,” said 20-year-old AmyJo, maturely munching a Milk Dud. “No more Ms. Nice Guy!”
“But what about Mr. Nice Guy?” I asked my children. “What about me?”
“What is it you always say to us, Dad?” AmyJo asked. “‘I could do it for you, but I love you too much to deprive you of the joy and satisfaction of doing it for yourself.’” She looked at me triumphantly as her brothers and sisters convulsed in laughter around her. She had been waiting for at least 16 years to turn that line around on me, and she was enjoying this.
And if you promise not to tell I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was enjoying it too. For the first time in my life as a father I realized that some of my teaching was actually sinking in to their chocolate-loving little heads. And it occurred to me that if they were using my own teaching here against me, maybe they were occasionally using it out there against the Big Bad World, too.
The thought gave me comfort — then and now — my cholatelessness notwithstanding.
Which reminds me — I’ve got to get down to the store before all the good stuff is gone.