Quality time

March 01, 1994|By Bob Oeste

I'M upstairs getting our 5-year-old ready for bed. She's screaming. Our 1-year-old is whacking my guitar with a plastic hammer. From the bedroom doorway I hear my older son's voice straining to rise above the racket.

"Hey, Dad, we're supposed to read this paragraph and answer a question, but I don't get it."

My son is 12. He's holding a wrinkled "ditto sheet" in one hand. In the other is a battered book titled "The Soviet Union Today."

He holds the book open in front of me, and I skim the paragraph. It's about the French invasion of Russia in 1812, probably one of the central events in modern Western history and a great story to boot. I glance at the teacher's handwritten question on the ditto sheet: "What was the result of Napoleon's invasion of Russia?"

A dozen answers flash through my mind. The story resonates. It's packed with history and high drama and human foibles and moral lessons. It's important. I'm grateful to the school system that he's learning things like this, things that will help him understand how the world got the way it is and why it matters. I'm proud of him for caring enough to ask.

Now all we need to do is sit down in a quiet place and talk. I want him to know the whole story, about the little corporal who muscled his way up to become Emperor of the French, about the Grande Armee and how the Mighty are Fallen when their reach exceeds their grasp. I want him to understand that there are better stories of hubris than Bo Jackson's.

I want him to know about the Russian winter and how five out of six French soldiers never came back, and about other Russian winters and other little corporals who got their hash settled at the gates of Moscow, and how it changed history and made the Russians paranoid and shaped our world.

But it's late and he's impatient and I've got to get the other kids to bed. So I try to squeeze it all into a sentence or two, calling after him as he retreats into his room. "Napoleon thought he could beat Russia," I shout, "but it was too big and too cold. So he lost. A lot of guys died. After he got back to France he lasted a couple more years; then they put him in jail."

He's closing his door now, satisfied. Then he stops for a second, hesitates, sticks his head back out. "You mean Napoleon was French?"

I struggle for words. I want to grab him and say, wait a minute, we've got to talk about this. But the 5-year-old is pounding on my stomach and the little guy is wrecking my guitar, so all I say is, "Right, Napoleon was French."

The door slams.

A minute later my wife comes in and rescues my guitar. She takes our 1-year-old downstairs for his bottle. I'm alone with my daughter, and we sit down to read a book. It's quiet. She asks a few questions. They're easy ones, and I answer them.

After she's in bed, I take the dog for a walk. When I get out on the sidewalk, I hear the front door open. My son is finished with his homework and wants to come with me.

Great, I think, now we'll get it straight. But he's starting to talk about something else, about the outfield shift of the Orioles and how the season looks, and I don't interrupt. Wouldn't work now anyway.

When we come back, my wife is in the kitchen. "What was all that yelling about upstairs?" she asks.

I shrug. "Napoleon invaded Russia."

My son hangs up the leash and starts up the stairs. Then he leans over the rail and pokes his head into the kitchen.

"He was French," he says and disappears upstairs.

"Right," I call after him.

Well, it's a start, I guess. We'll have to talk about it again tomorrow.

Bob Oeste is a Baltimore writer.

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