"Nothing you do for children is ever wasted."
From Leaving Home, Viking Penguin Inc.

The children are back to school after a week of Easter break. The weather was so lovely when the children were released from confinement, the fresh air went to their heads. Air has a different effect on children: what we merely breathe, children are ignited and launched by. At Our Lady on Sunday morning, Father Emil felt as if he was speaking to a convention of rabbits instead of the usual herd of turtles. Constant movement in the pews. The homily was on new life and it was all around to be seen.

When I was a kid, we sat quietly on Sunday morning sometimes for forty of fifty seconds at a stretch. Fidgety kids were put between two grownups, usually your parents or sometimes a large aunt. Like tying a boat to a dock. Every time you moved they'd grab your shoulder and give you a sharp shake and hiss at you, Sit. Death will be like that. I'll be in bed and think, "Well, I think I'll get up and live a little," and death will grab me, shake me, say, "Shhh. Be quiet. Lie still." I used to think about death on Sunday morning. How hard it would be to lie in your coffin for years with nothing to read, nothing to do, but some grownups I knew probably could manage quite well.

Some former children returned for Easter, bringing their children with them, and some children were shipped earlier to spend the week with grandparents, some of whom are starting to recover to the point where they can sit in a chair and sit back all the way, not lean forward to jump when they hear the crash. The grandparents imagined the kiddos leaning against them on the sofa listening to Uncle Wiggily: they forgot how explosive kids can be. Something in the air sets them off. A kid can go all day and hardly eat, then the moon shifts and he's eating like a farmhand. You served baked horse and he eats all of it. Children can lie around for a long time, then a herd of them bursts in the front door and gallops through the kitchen and outside. Children are always on the verge of bursting. They burst six, seven times a day and think nothing of it.

Virginia Ingqvist had two grandkids with her last week, Barbara's two oldest, Doug and Danielle. Hjalmar worked late at the bank. He loves them, but he knows his limit, and it's about thirty minutes. One is four and the other five, an age when you want to find out everything in one day. "Why don't buildings fall?" asked Doug two minutes after he arrived. "Because," Virginia explained, "because they're built to stand." "How?"

Thirty seconds, and already she was into architecture, and knew that biology and astronomy and physics were coming right up. Then theology. "Who's God?" "God is God." "Yeah, but who?" It's never a subject you know something about, such as etiquette.

Barbara came up on Friday with her two-year-old and took all three of them to her friend Ruthie's house to visit. Ruthie has three of her own. Her three and Barbara's three sniffed each other for a moment and then two cats made the mistake of coming around the corner of the house into the backyard. The cats realized it was a mistake and backed away, saying, Uh, sorry, didn't know you were here. We'll come back later. But the kids grabbed them, hauled them indoors, got them dressed and into a doll buggy, two little cat children. The cats went limp, waiting for a chance to break out, which they did -- two cats in full regalia, one up the tree, one on the garage roof, trying to remove their clothes, five children in pursuit, and the two-year-old investigating the back porch.

Barbara and Ruthie sat in the yard talking about child rearing. Barbara's philosophy is more relaxed than her mother's, less restrictive, a hands-off approach, allowing children freedom to explore and find their own boundaries. As she said this, she watched the little boy climb the porch steps, stand at the top, turn around, and when he took a step forward straight out into space, she leaped up and made a dash for him, too late to catch him, but she almost stepped on his head. When she scooped him up, she came close to spraining his neck. A major cause of injury to children is parents rushing to the scene. The panic reflex. Some children love to scream for the thrill of making immense people move fast. I remember that, on a quiet day, my sister and I in the backyard wondered, "Where's Mom?" Upstairs, we thought. So I screamed, "MOM." She made it down in two seconds. A good pair of wheels for an old lady.

Grandma Tollefson turns off her hearing aid when descendants are around, so a crash is only a whisper to her, boys thundering around upstairs are a distant tapping. One afternoon a sound came out of her house like jets taking off, her grandson practicing his guitar. She was there, knitting, rocking, saying to him, "You know, there was a boy I knew who played the guitar -- what was his name? Oh dear. He moved away in 1921, I think. He played his guitar on his porch, and I sat in our porch and listened. I don't think he knew. The screens were so dark, and I could hear him so clear, just like I can hear you. I was in love with him for a whole summer and he didn't know it." Kevin didn't hear a word she said, and she didn't know the music was blowing her hair back.

Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child rearing. You don't put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely nearsighted gaze.

The Buehler boy celebrated a birthday last night and ten of his closest friends came over for a party. They danced to alarming music and ate an alarming amount of pizza and told alarming jokes and there were periods of alarming dead silence, which the Buehlers heard from the kitchen, where they remained in quarantine. They whomped up armloads of chow, and passed it to the their son, who carried it to his guests. Stayed in the kitchen for five hours, except for one trip to the bathroom, averting thier eyes, and the mister snuck up the front once to have a look, and when he looked he wished he hadn't. He was dying of curiosity. the party was so quiet and then burst into laugher, and then silence and then whispering and screams of laughter. He tiptoed down the hall and peeked and saw they were huddled over the Buehlers' wedding album. Nineteen fifty-nine was a funnier year than he had realized and he was a little hurt. He was quite handsome then in those half-rim glasses, his hair carefully oiled and combed back on the sides, like a ocean wave about to break, and piled high in front. He missed that pompadour. There's not much left where it rose from his head, a little tuft as a souvenir of what a stylish devil he used to be. He was hurt when he heard them laughing about his hair. He thought, "What are these people doing in my house? Why am I feeding them?"

Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted. We know that as we remember some gift given to us long ago. Suddenly it's 1951, I'm nine years old, in the bow of a green wooden rowboat, rocking on Lake Wobegon. It's five o'clock in the morning, dark; I'm shivering; mist comes up off the water, the smell of lake and weeks and Uncles Al's coffee as he puts a worm on my hook and whispers what to do when the big one bits. I lower my worm slowly into the dark water and brace my feet against the bow and wait for the immense fish to strike.

Thousands of gifts, continually returning to us. Uncle Al though he was taking his nephew fishing, but he made a permanent work of art in my head, a dark morning in the mist, the coffee, the boat rocking, whispering, shivering, waiting for the big one. Still waiting. Still shivering.

--from Leaving Home, Garrison Keillor, Viking Penguin Inc.

Return to What Garrison Keillor Needs to Know About Children.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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