By Kelly Barlow
When my son Liam turned four years old, I made him a Bob the Builder cake for his birthday. I hadn’t planned to. In fact, as an unaccomplished baker, the thought never even crossed my mind. But two weeks before his birthday, a package arrived in the mail from my sister Susie – a Bob the Builder cake pan.
“What the heck was Susie thinking?” was my first thought, and I put the pan right back in the box. She was the baker of cool scratch cakes, not me. I could probably fill the cake mold with a box mix and bake it, but then I’d have to decorate it to look like Bob. That took skills far beyond my canned icing and butter knife portfolio.
Later that day, I opened the box again and looked in on Bob. The cartoon character’s refrain latched on like an earworm. “Can we fix it? Yes, we can!” I rolled my eyes, grabbed my car keys, and went to the store. The clerk assured me a caulk gun-looking device with plastic tips had magical powers to transform my Bob into a confection masterpiece. I headed home with a bag full of new kitchen gadgets and a whole lot of skepticism.
The day before Liam’s birthday, I gathered my supplies, put on my Martha Stewart game face and went to work. I recruited my sister Leslie to help.
“Gee thanks, Susie,” she said in mock gratefulness upon seeing the Bob pan on my kitchen table. Leslie was a great cook, but her philosophy was, If someone can do it better, why not pay them to do it for you?
We spent at least three hours building Bob, successfully extricating him from the pan in one piece and adding drops of food coloring to homemade buttercream icing to match his construction worker wardrobe of blue bib overalls, orange flannel shirt and yellow hard hat.
“I don’t think that’s orange,” Leslie said, peering into my bowl of frosting for Bob’s shirt. “It looks more nipple pink to me.” I laughed at her apt description and made attempts to adjust the color, adding a red drop here and a yellow drop there before finally giving up. I wanted to get this cake decorated before Christmas.
When I finally pushed the first bit of buttercream through the piping tip, Leslie and I made audible gasps. A little blue star bloomed like magic on Bob’s colorless form. “It worked!” she said. “How cool is that?”
Only a thousand more tiny stars to go.
When Bob was finished, I put him through an extensive photo shoot, including standing on a chair with my camera pointed straight down, like some cake goddess marveling at her creation. He wasn’t perfect, but damn, he looked like Bob the Builder.
“Is that Bob?” Liam asked when he saw it.
“It sure is!” I said, bursting with pride and waiting for his you’re the best Mommy ever response.
What I got was, “Bob’s shirt is supposed to be orange, Mommy.”
There was no fudging the details when it came to my kid. He was a miniature Joe Friday. Just like the detective from Dragnet, Liam was stickler for the facts. For him, things were either black or white, right or wrong, yes or no. And nipple pink was just plain wrong. I’ve spent the better part of Liam’s 21 years trying to tug him into the grey areas, help him blur the lines a bit, but the circles have yet to overlap in his Venn diagram of life.
My first real clue that Liam’s left brain might be outpacing his right was a note home from his kindergarten teacher.
“Liam only checks out nonfiction books at the library,” she wrote in the margins of his spiral-bound planner.
I’d seen his reading selections when he emptied his backpack. Topics ranged from the country of Malaysia to President Lincoln to the sinking of the Titanic. It hadn’t occurred to me that not liking green eggs and ham or a rainbow-colored fish was cause for concern. His teacher asked that I encourage him to read a little fiction now and then, help broaden his reading palette to include more imaginative genres.
“But I don’t like those kinds of books, Mommy,” he told me when I sat him down for his non-fiction intervention. Who was I to argue with that? I was just happy my kid loved to read and didn’t want to screw that up by making him read things he wasn’t interested in. I understood the teacher’s point, but he was five. Was it already time to worry that he wasn’t going to be a well-rounded adult without the help of Dr. Seuss?
“What kind of books did you read as a kid?” I asked my husband after showing him the note.
“I remember really liking this kid-geared series of biographies on famous Americans, you know, like Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, the founding fathers…”
That explained a lot. It also confirmed that my husband would be to blame for my son’s life of non-fiction delinquency. I’d read Dick and Jane and Nancy Drew, so it wouldn’t be me.
Liam’s data-driven penchant persisted, and I found that raising a Joe Friday had challenges beyond simply policing his reading material. Every holiday and birthday became a snipe hunt for a gift he might like. He was never into superheroes or video games. There was no easy gift button to push with him. And judging whether he liked said gift required detective-like powers of observation, because he never tore into the wrapping paper like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil or jumped up and down with joy to indicate his excitement.
Liam was a measured soul.
On his first birthday I presented him with a chocolate-covered cupcake. He stared at it for several seconds before he carefully dipped one finger into the icing, looked at that finger, and then held it out for me to wipe clean. This was in stark contrast to the one-year birthday party for my niece. As soon as the candle went out, she dove right in, giggling in delight as she shoveled cake into her mouth with two-fisted reckless abandon.
It took time to figure out how my Joe Friday expressed his own brand of revelry, and one Easter it showed itself in spades. Along with peanut butter eggs and chocolate bunny, I placed a deck of cards in his basket — not your typical “go fish” deck, but flashcards that featured a U.S. president’s face on one side and a list of facts on the back. I’d stumbled upon them at the local Ben Franklin store and thought he might like them.
I was wrong.
He loved them.
After several careful minutes of examination, looking at each card and flipping it over, his eyes started to twinkle just a bit. Look at this one Mommy…this one says…and this one says…and this one says…Mommy, did you know…Daddy, look at this…
I’d found the holy grail of gifts, and his non-stop commentary was verification.
He took those cards everywhere – car trips, the grocery store, grandma’s house.
“Do you know who was president when you were born?” he asked my Mom.
Without hesitation she answered. “Herbert Hoover.”
“No, Ma Ma. It was Calvin Coolidge!” He showed her his card as proof. Hoover came to office not long after she was born, but factually-speaking, Coolidge was the sitting president at the time of her birth. Mom took the news with her usual grace, a smile and big hug for her grandson.
I wasn’t blessed with grace. Liam called on me numerous times to play a “fun” game where he held up one of those cards, and I was to tell him which president it was.
“Benjamin Harrison?” I guessed at the tenth card showing a bearded white man.
“No, Mommy. This is Rutherford B. Hayes,” he said. Then he’d pull a fast one and hold up the Hayes card again. And I’d get it wrong, again.
“Mommy, we just went over this,” he said.
I didn’t smile. I just pretended I wasn’t embarrassed.
I did my best to raise my little truth-monger, but most of the time I was flying by the seat of my ill-fitting pants. I made mistakes, some big, some small. I even repeated the same mistakes, trying a second time at a themed birthday cake. I asked my cousin Heather, a baker with actual talent, to make a cake featuring the Titanic. It was beautiful, from the red keel plying through icy blue waters to the four yellow and black smokestacks offering up little wisps of grey smoke. Seven-year-old Liam took one look at it and said, “Mommy, smoke shouldn’t be coming out of that one,” as he pointed to the fourth stack. “On the real Titanic, that smokestack was fake.”
I didn’t make that mistake a third time. I switched to birthday banana pudding.
My mom, a devout Christian, would have cringed the day my Joe Friday asked me about Heaven. Growing up, my eight-sibling family and many of our cousins took up the first three pews at church every Sunday morning. And most of us had attended the Lutheran elementary school next door. Mom did her best to instill her faith in all of us, but by the time Liam was born, religion and I had suffered a falling out, and I’d distanced myself from the church. It was a decision I’d made as an adult, but one I’d imposed upon my kid.
As a result, the sum total of Liam’s ecclesiastical experience was funerals and the occasional school program. He’d never heard the bible stories, never went to Sunday school or summer bible school. The consequences of that decision began to show in seemingly trivial and sometimes funny ways at first.
Liam’s best friend in second grade challenged him to quote the first words from the Bible, and teased him mercilessly for his answer, which was Once upon a time. After attending his grandmother’s funeral, he told me his funeral shoes were too small.
“Honey, they’re called Sunday shoes,” I corrected. But how would he know that?
All these little things eventually added up to the remorse I still feel today.
“Where is heaven?” Liam asked me.
“It’s up near the stars,” I said.
I panicked. Short of showing him a map with a red circle around Heaven and turn-by-turn directions to get there, I knew no answer was going to satisfy him. I thought about naming some random star or planet, but I didn’t know enough astronomy to make it believable. I could feel my mother’s eyes boring ironically into me all the way from Heaven, which was near what? Alpha Centauri?
“I’m not sure anyone knows exactly where heaven is,” I said to him, pretending to be busy, hoping he’d lose interest and wander away. But his probing continued.
“Then how do people get there if they don’t know where it is?”
I could see the first glistening of tears forming in his eyes.
“God comes and gets them,” I said. A brilliant recovery, until Liam poked holes in it.
“How does he come get them? Does he come down in a car? What kind of car does God drive, Mommy?”
“Well, he doesn’t need a car. He can just appear and take your soul back up to heaven with him.”
“If he just takes the souls to heaven, where does the rest of us go?”
A tear finally broke loose and was rolling down his cheek, and my brain was screaming at me…Abort! Abort! Abort!
How could I explain Heaven to my Joe Friday? Heaven wasn’t a simple matter of facts. It was a matter of faith. And faith fell into a seriously grey area.
Liam had no grey.
I looked at that tear and wiped it away with my thumb. “Wanna walk to the ice cream parlor and get some ice cream? I bet they have the rainbow kind you like.”
I’d chickened out, and it haunts me still. One small saving grace is that Liam grew to be over six feet tall. If not, he would weigh 300 pounds from me shoving ice cream in his mouth every time I failed a crucial fitness test for motherhood. And I always gladly paid for sprinkles, like they were the extra credit that might keep me from flunking altogether.
He asked me where babies came from during a trip to the grocery store, and the cereal aisle didn’t seem the best place for a discussion on back-seat-of-the-car sex, millions of tiny sperm on an egg hunt, and episiotomies. Or that’s what I told myself.
“Maybe we can talk about that when we get home,” I said. “How about some ice cream?”
I know there were times when I got it right, when I answered his questions with sufficient evidence, while managing to hold back enough truth to keep the blissful ignorance of childhood intact. But my instincts to protect him from life’s ugly realities so often ran contrary to the data he needed to make sense of the world around him.
“Mommy, the kids at school were mean to me,” he said one day after school.
“Why were they mean to you?”
“I told the teacher they were playing their Gameboys in the bathroom and they got in trouble. They aren’t supposed to play with them at school.”
This was a definitive checkmark in his wrong box, and he didn’t understand why he’d been labeled a tattletale.
“Sweetie, you don’t need to worry about what the other kids are doing. You just need to make sure you are doing the right things.”
“But they aren’t supposed to do that,” he said, the look on his face begging for my concurrence.
“I know, but unless someone is in danger of getting hurt, it’s not your job to point out whenever someone is doing something wrong. Just let the teacher handle that, okay?”
“But they’re supposed to keep them in their lockers.”
My miniature detective continued to plead his case against the offending silly stupid heads.
I took another approach.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s like this. In first grade, when you tell on your friends, they are going to call you a tattletale. In high school, when you tell on your friends, they are going to beat you up in the locker room and leave you there for the janitor to find. So, it’s best to get out of the habit of tattling now while you’re still young.”
I wasn’t wrong, but perhaps in retrospect, a touch too brutal.
Today I am still nudging my Joe Friday into the grey areas. Pointing out when he needs to offer a little more room in his judgement of those things that sit in the overlap between black and white. That sometimes between right and wrong, there’s room for forgiveness. And when there isn’t a firm yes or no answer, he may have to be satisfied with I don’t know or maybe.
He’s grown into a good man, full of strong opinions but also filled with compassion for others, respect for his elders, and the ability to laugh at himself. I couldn’t be prouder of who he has become. On days when doubts about my skills as a mom assault me, threaten to beat me to a pulp, I remember those presidential flashcards – the time I got it right. Those cards likely changed the trajectory of his life. He discovered a love of all things presidential, and we visited every presidential museum, home, and gravesite we could while on family vacations. We even performed a rare act of flagrant law-breaking by jumping the fence of the Congressional Cemetery after driving three hours to get there and finding it was closed. At age 13, Liam began a long tenure as a democratic committee volunteer. He helped organize local campaigns. He fully committed himself to the causes he believed were worth fighting for.
Today, he’s majoring in political science.
This could just be a case of correlation versus causation, but I’m taking credit anyway. I’m hopeful I will have enough evidence at the pearly gates to prove that, while far from a perfect mom, I did a decent enough job. And if St. Pete lets me through, I’ll pray he doesn’t notice my long list of motherhood missteps trailing behind me, stuck to my shoe.
An English major with no idea of what she wanted to do, Kelly Barlow has worked as a technical writer and in public relations for a shipyard, run her own communications business, worked as a reporter and photographer for her hometown newspaper, and is currently a communications specialist working at NASA. She’s written hundreds of stories about other people, but now she’s turning the pen on herself. Growing up the youngest of eight siblings, hitching her sleigh to an engineer, and rearing her own child to adulthood, she’s hoping she won’t run out of material too quickly. “Raising Joe Friday” is Kelly’s first byline on a story about her own life.