When the flight attendant advises that passengers place the oxygen mask over their own faces before assisting those seated nearby, I always interpret this imperative more broadly—that I should take care of my own needs first, whether or not I’m strapped into an airplane seat, 10,000 feet in the air. Day to day, this doesn’t really happen, of course. What with dogs needing kibble in their bowls and mail needing filing and kids needing an occasional warm embrace or a ride to school… my own needs often wind up in the back seat, shoved in the crevice between the seat cushions along with candy wrappers, pennies, and old gum.
But one thing I do hold sacred: In the morning, I don’t want anyone to bug me before I’ve cleared that first cup of coffee. Around my house, my daughter has learned to steer a wide berth for the 5 or 10 minutes it takes for me to drain the mug. My teenage son just stays in bed.
This morning, I filled the first cup before first light, and in the dark toddled over to the fridge to add a bit of milk. I unscrewed the carton and started to pour, then—surprised—stopped. The milk, which had been fine the previous night, was a startling shade of blue. An oddly bright color, like a robin’s egg.
“What the…” I said, to no one in particular. Then, more loudly, in the general direction of the bedrooms, “Hey!” I yelled. “Anyone know what happened to the milk?” From my son’s room, somewhere under the covers, I heard a muffled sort of snort that before long matured into a prolonged, knowing cackle.
When I told this story to some friends today, each looked at me quizzically, like a dog might cock his head at an unfamiliar pitch. “So wait… he dyed the milk blue? Well what’s so funny about that?”
I grew up in a house where small humorous jokes were often played on others as a display of warmth and affection—and, also, as an attempt to root you in humility, to school you in the reality that the world could be a ruthless place. “You might get straight As in school, Ms. High and Mighty,” the pranks seemed to say, “but we know where you sleep.”
Around my childhood home, asking, “What’s for lunch?” inevitably brought the response, A cracked ice sandwich and a glass of fish.
What did you learn at school today? “Nothing.” Then what’d you go for?
You might go to brush your teeth at night and, just before squeezing on the paste, discover that your toothbrush was wet. Your question —”Did someone use my toothbrush?” yelled through a crack in the bathroom door—was met by robust laughter by someone lying in wait for your reaction. Eventually, you learned to test the other brushes: Chances are, it was just someone trotting out Dad’s old trick to wet all the brushes under the faucet before returning them, one by one, to their usual holes in the porcelain holder.
This kind of ruse was a gentler manifestation of the teasing that my father picked up from his own father, my grandfather—the kind of guy who laughed pitilessly at my cousin, his grandson, who as a young boy had deduced that the safest place to hide the key to his Captain Crunch treasure chest was inside the chest itself. “That wasn’t too bright, was it?” the old man asked him, after he had dropped the key in the slot… then instantly realized his miscalculation.
When you are a kid, you don’t realize that not every family has a father who hides in the coat closet, poised to jump out at you from between the parkas and galoshes. Or who, dressed in nothing but his boxer shorts and a big grin, stood in front of the picture window and waving good morning to our neighbors. Not every family has someone who routinely hides under the bed and—just at the moment you step onto the rug—shoots out a hand to grab your ankle in a terrifying grip.
I was the smallest child and, over time, the constant punking made me a little wary, a little nervous, a little like I had to always watch my back. As a teen, it sometimes made me plenty irritated. Possibly, it was the lack of sleep: between 1970 and the time I left for college, I slept with one eye open.
But time and distance have softened my view, as they have a magical way of doing. I’ve come to see my siblings and me back then as puppies rolling on the lawn, nipping at each other in play. It might look a little painful to the outsider, but it was all in a kind of fun that, in a way, captures the very essence of them.
So more often these days, I feel a wistful nostalgia for the fun-house pranks of my childhood. My parents are both long dead, my brother and two sisters and I live our lives, for the most part, irrespective of one another. But we shared something rich that, until this morning, I thought was gone, too.
Some children excel at sports or school, and I imagine their parents take great pleasure in witnessing their success. A child walks across the stage at her high school graduation as valedictorian, and if you were to scan the crowd you could find the parents, their eyes fixed and shining. If you could see through their clothes and skin and into their chest, you would find their hearts swollen, near bursting with joy. Those moments—and maybe million others, too… the first wobbly ride on a two-wheeler, the winning goal in the net—make the crappier parts of parenting dissolve. Gone, in an instant, are the arguments you’ve had, the anger at the acting out, the endless, epic parent-child battles of who is right and who is a nincompoop.
Standing there this morning, with my mug of blue-tinted coffee bathed in the pool of refrigerator light, I had one of those moments. Some day, maybe, my boy will bring home a varsity letter or a perfect report card, and that would be alright. But it wouldn’t please me half as much as knowing, at this minute, that ours was the only fridge in the town—and likely beyond—that held milk colored quite so vibrant a shade of blue.