This column was originally written for Mother’s Day 2009.
When a small hole first appeared in the wall of the first-floor bathroom of my old bungalow around Mother’s Day a year ago, I was curious. For about a week, I silently watched as the hole grew from the size of a pen tip to about the size of a thumb. It was as if some tiny being sentenced to a lifetime on the toilet was desperately trying to dig its way out of the bathroom with the world’s smallest shovel.
I had no idea back then what the magic hole was all about, but I thought I knew who could fill me in. I called my then 8-year-old son, Will, into the bathroom.
“What do you know about this hole,” I asked him.
“What hole?” he answered.
“This hole.” I pointed at it impatiently.
“Ohhhh, that hole,” he said, weighing his response options in his head. “Well, it was sort of an accident.”
An accident? How on earth could gradually boring a hole into a wall be considered an accident? It’s like saying I let my hair grow long “by accident.” Or that I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen people “by accident.”
Will explained: “I was wondering how strong walls are, so I pushed on the wall a little when I was sitting on the toilet; then I poked at it a little, and then there was the hole.”
He told me he kept thinking about how walls are made and whether they’re really safe. His goal was to get the hole large enough so that he could take a peek inside the wall, like an elementary school archaeologist. “I thought it would be cool,” he said.
That was a year ago; I still haven’t patched the hole. It remains as testament to me of the power of curiosity, and a reminder that while walls may come and walls may go, the thirst for knowledge is everlasting.
That thought buoys me when my brain gets tired answering questions for Will, the kid known in my household as the Grand Inquisitor.
There’s that wonderful scene in “Uncle Buck” in which a boy (played by Macauley Caulkin) peppers his Uncle Buck (played by the late, great John Candy) with question after question.
At the end of the rapid-fire scene, the boy says, “You have more nose hair than my dad,” to which Uncle Buck replies, “Thanks for noticing.”
“I’m a kid,” the boy replies. “That’s my job.”
I live that scene every day. That’s why I often find myself heaving great sighs of relief after getting Will to bed. It’s not that I don’t love spending time with him, because there’s nothing I’d rather do, but sometimes he tires my brain.
There’s not a subject area Will doesn’t consider. He quizzes me about the solar system (“Guess which planet isn’t really a planet anymore?” “Do you think the sun is a planet or a star?”); dinosaurs (“If there were dinosaurs around today, do you think some of them could fly? Would you be scared?”); and music (“Is Prince the best guitarist in the world?” “How could Beethoven write music if he was deaf?”). He needs to know how kidneys work and why we have two of them. He wonders how glass is made, and why bones don’t make noise as they grow. During last year’s presidential election, he wondered whether super delegates were anything like super heroes.
He came home from school last week, totally aghast that the Romans killed all the Egyptian priests, thus ending the use of Hieroglyphics.
“Nothing against Italy,” he said, giving nod to my Italian heritage, “but does that make any sense to you?”
When he was in daycare, we were summoned to a conference with his teacher.
As a toddler, napping to Will was strictly an optional activity, one to be undertaken under only the most tired of circumstances. His doctor told me not to worry, that “wakefulness” was a sign of an intelligent child. Call it what you will, but to a tired caregiver, it was just plain cruel and unusual punishment.
Couple his refusal to nap with his love of entertaining his peers, and it’s easy to understand how he could sometimes try patience. If he sensed the smallest of openings or was the least little bit bored, Will wasn’t shy about pursuing his own interests, which often involved making his fellow students laugh.
But did any of this rise to the level of a conference? According to Will’s teacher they did, but there was an even more pressing problem: Will asked questions, lots and lots of questions. Could we ask him to save his questions for home?
I was dumbstruck.
“But isn’t asking questions a good thing?” I dared to ask. “Isn’t that a strength? Don’t teachers like kids who ask a lot of questions.”
The teacher glowered: “All these strengths will make him successful when he grows up,” she told us, “but they make him difficult at daycare.”
That was over half his life ago. Will continues to ask lots of questions, and I’ve vowed to keep answering them as long as I am able.
When he was not yet 5, Will posed an amazing question to me, straight out of the blue: “Who put the magic in us,” he asked.
“The magic in us?” I replied, not quite grasping where his question was going.
“You know, Momma,” he said, “the magic that makes us alive.”
That thought struck a chord deep inside my heart; the image he painted took my breath away.
That’s is why I am thankful to be celebrating Mother’s Day because of one who thinks so deeply. It’s also why I don’t think I’ll ever patch that hole in the bathroom wall — I hope to enjoy it for many Mother’s Days to come.
UPDATE: The hole remains un-patched. The photo of the hole in the bathroom was taken on May 7, 2016.