‘Family’ extends to neighbors

Posted June 14, 2009, at 11:06 p.m.

Ever since my oldest son, Ford, 8, was a baby, I’ve had the nagging sense that he is smarter than I am. As an infant, he looked at me in a way that none of my other children since has. Even then, I was intimidated by Ford’s thoughtful stare. It was as if he was an old soul trapped in the pink, wrinkled skin of a baby.

When Ford was only 2 years old and his dad was on deployment, I took him to a department store where I got into an argument with one of the salespeople. I cried driving home.

“Why are you sad?” Ford asked. He had been speaking clearly since his first birthday.

“The woman at the store made me sad, Ford. That’s all,” I said.

“Mom, do you know that no one can make you sad except yourself?”

I peered in the rearview mirror just to be sure that my toddler strapped in his car seat had not been replaced with Sigmund Freud.

And his memory! There is no getting around Ford’s memory. Often parents have a good four- to five-year grace period when their child’s long-term memory is not well developed and any parenting mistakes are soon forgotten. This was never the case with Ford. He can recall every mistake I’ve made since around the time of his second birthday.

Someday these traits will make Ford very successful. But for now, I worry, perhaps needlessly, that they separate him from his peers. While Ford’s younger brother Owen, 6, finds nothing more amusing than a well-positioned whoopee cushion, Ford is more likely to inquire about how the whoopee cushion works.

So I was not surprised when Ford picked Thomas Edison to study for the annual second-grade biography night at school, even if I did try (unsuccessfully) to have him consider someone more youthful. Ford didn’t care what anyone else thought of his choice. His mind was set. It usually is. (There he goes again, teaching his mom a thing or two!)

What did surprise me about biography night, however, was the fact that Ford was feeling the absence of his extended relatives. Biography night is a big deal. The kids rehearse for weeks, then they dress in character and deliver memorized speeches for an audience full of parents and grandparents. Because we are military, we have not lived in the same town as our relatives for more than a decade. There would be no grandparents in the audience for Ford.

So in April, a full two months before biography night, Ford decided to invite the neighbors on either side of us. One is a widow in her 80s and the other is a widower in his early 90s. (Once, when I made a plate of brownies for Valentine’s Day, I asked Owen to take one to each neighbor. He said, “Why don’t I take both to [the man] and then he can take them over to [the woman],” which makes Owen pretty darn smart and perceptive, too.)

Ford made invitations for the two neighbors and delivered them that day. Biography night was still weeks away, so I worried that the neighbors would forget. I begged again for some of Ford’s grandparents to make the trip, but with work schedules it wasn’t possible.

The morning of biography night and before he left for school, Ford ran next door to see whether the neighbors remembered. I watched out my kitchen window as he rang one doorbell and then waited patiently on the stoop. But it was still early and our neighbors were not up yet. Ford left for school uncertain whether they would come.

That evening, Dustin and I sat in the auditorium while Ford did last-minute preparations with his classmates behind stage. Through the back doors, I saw our neighbors come in. My heart leaped as if they were our own family. I went backstage to tell Ford. His smile was ear to ear, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of that little baby who, for all the seriousness of his eyes, could still light up a room with his half-moon smile.

And I was reminded then that no matter how old we get, no matter how smart or intellectual, everyone likes to have family in the audience. For military families, the idea of “family” is extended to anyone who will take us in as their own. Lucky for Ford — and for me — we have two neighbors who have done just that.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available at bookstores. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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