The other night I held Isaac, our youngest, in my arms. He cooed "Daddy" and stroked my cheeks with his hands, an angelic smile on his lips. Then he stretched his arms back as far as he could and brought his sweaty little palms crashing into my ears. He followed this by maintaining a grip on my ears and pulling them like they are taffy, with the emphasis on the word "like," because they most assuredly are not made of taffy, though I fear they are a bit larger now. In short, the boy treated me exactly the way you want to handle a large assailant who has you in a bear hug. As I've explained elsewhere, the boy seems to have an innate talent for inflicting injury.
And then, as my howl reverberated through the kitchen, he went back to the sweet loving. This child is going to be trouble.
Last night we went to The Prairie Rose Chuckwagon supper, where they feed you brisket, beans, and biscuits until you pop, and then sing cowboy songs. Caleb and Eli went in their cowboy gear: big hats, shooting irons guns strapped to their waists, clippity-cloppity little cowboy boots on their feet. Isaac had no guns, just a big red cowboy hat that he mostly threw off his head when nobody was looking.
As supper finished a grandmotherly lady took the two older boys backstage to teach them the cowboy way -- how to be real cowboys, not beautiful little things pretending to be cowboys as they sashay through the hills.
Meanwhile the singing commenced, interspersed with jokes most writers aren't clever enough to produce any more ("Slim's wife cooks so bad that the flies got together and fixed the screen door"). Isaac alternated between dancing in the aisle and trying to climb up onto the tables in order to place his life in danger, which seems to be its own reward for this boy.
Then it was time for the children to perform. Normally the place is packed with kids, but on this particular evening it was filled almost entirely with wild-spirited geriatrics on a bus tour and a large group of men from Sweden. (By the way, are there just no white socks in Europe, or is cool there to sport the brown polyester socks with the white Adidas?)
So the kid show consisted entirely of Caleb and Eli. They walked up onto the stage to join the Wranglers, as the cowboy band is known, in a round of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" ("The stars at night, are big and bright, clap, clap, clap, clap deep in the heart of Texas..."). I'm never worried about Caleb in these situations -- the boy thinks it's natural that an entire roomful of people should be interested in him. It's Eli I fret over, the shy lamb who buries his face in my shirt when he gets embarrassed. But there he stood on a stage, under bright lights, in front of nearly a hundred people, the serious little cowboy, concentrating on the song so he could get the clapping right.
His clapping was perfect. They finished the song and the crowd went ape, or as near to ape as a bunch of astoundingly old people and dorky Swedes can get. Isaac probably clapped the loudest, having gotten over his fury at not being allowed to traipse up onto stage with his brothers. Caleb tipped his hat and bowed and scurried down the steps, but Eli stood there, not quite sure what to do, looking back and forth, beginning to realize that everybody was watching. Then the biggest cowboy, Cyclone Stu, leaned down and whispered in his ear. Eli responded by taking off his big black hat and bowing deep at his waist, the way only little ones can do. That just sent the audience over the edge with applause.
The boys made their way to the back and sat down on a bench on either side of me. Cool as two little cucumbers, each stuck a lollipop in his mouth like so much chewing tobacco and kicked back to enjoy the rest of the show. Because that's how cowboys roll.
After the show we lingered at the back of the crowd, which is only partly true because it's not like we had a choice, between trying to find a lost sippy cup and wiping beans off of hands and helping little cowboys understand that not all old people enjoy having sidearms pointed at them. At the doorway stood the Wranglers, who seemed ready to make my own little wranglers a permanent addition to their band. There was much big cowboy/little cowboy talk, and some agreement that Isaac was the next Garth Brooks based on body weight and cuteness alone, though of course nobody said anything about the cuteness because real cowboys don't talk that way.
As we left one of them said, in a deep, serious voice meant specifically for me: "You've got a real nice family there." Sometimes people say that, with an urgency in their voices, a need for me to understand it, almost as if they can see in my face every time I have forgotten it. And always I nod and smile and say thank you, though I know it has nothing to do with me, that it is a gift.
So we loaded up into our modern-day wagon and rolled across the plains back to civilization, three exhausted little cowpokes in the back already snoozing, their bellies full of beans, their guns safely holstered, their hands sticky from lollipops. And as they began to drift into prairie dreams their dad steered the team, wishing these days could stretch on forever, filled with happiness over his lot in life and a little sadness at what is lost and what will be lost.
And just like when one of those big cowboys slaps you on the back and calls you "pardner" and it makes you feel like just maybe a little part of you could be a cowboy too, I realized, being close to my three little cowboys with their wild dreams and innocent hearts, how often they make me better than I would otherwise be. They've ridden into town, each in his own little way, and cleaned it up. They've brought chaos and joy in equal measures, and now the house is a different place. I guess that's how cowboys roll.