3. BUILD SOMETHING BIG AND COOL
When my wife talks about her childhood, she talks about the stuff she and her brother built with her dad: a two-story playhouse; a life-size kids’ car; an elephant-trunk-style luge track descending from a second-story window, which was built after a brutal Montreal snowstorm and presumably before the term child safety was coined.
“It’s amazing my brother and I survived,” she says gleefully, and it gets me thinking: I want to build something substantial with my son. Something he’ll never tire of blabbing about to his spouse. I don’t know yet what opus we’re going to bang out together, but here are the basic rules:
• No birdhouse kits, IKEA furniture or anything with downloadable LEGO instructions.
• It must be large enough for him to ride or play in, sturdy enough to last for at least one full year, and there will be bonus points if it can be ridden with or without the use of a converted lawn mower engine.
• Real tools, hardware and materials with a grain or a gauge will be required (no Allen wrench or bristol board).
• It must serve no practical purpose beyond our own satisfaction in the building of it, pride in its completion and enjoyment in whatever form of recreational use we’ve dreamed up for it.
• Finally, it must be approved by a building inspector, so my son can’t sue me.
4. PLANT A VEGETABLE GARDEN
In the 2008 documentary The Garden, which follows a group of low-income families fighting to preserve a community farm in the heart of south central Los Angeles, an old-timer at the property tells the camera that his father was even poorer than he, “but he left me a millionaire because he taught me how to plant.”
Now maybe your son’s orthodontist won’t accept payment in homegrown cherry tomatoes, but there’s a richness in that statement and a deeper form of inheritance than the kind listed on wills. Growing real food with our children is a mutual birthright that predates bagged lettuce and four-digit PLU codes for fingerling potatoes, and it’s one of the simplest and greatest acts of creation we can share with them.
Take your son to the local nursery and let him choose what crop to plant. (Mark my words, it will be corn.) Prep the soil together. Poke your fingers in the earth. Drop in the kernels. Cover them up. Water them. Feed them. Care about them. Grow food. If you’ve forgotten the basic amazingness of this whole process, check out his face when the seedlings pop out in a few weeks before rocketing into six-foot stalks — much like he himself will soon enough. Then notice how enthralled (yes, enthralled) he is about eating vegetables (yes, vegetables) that he grew himself.
5. TAKE HIM TO THE PLACE WHERE HIS GREAT-GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER GREW UP
If you have a coat of arms traceable to a charming village in Northern Scotland, you’re halfway there. Many of us, though, haven’t a clue where any of their son’s 16 great-great-great-grandfathers spent their formative years, apart from “somewhere near Brazil” or “basically Central Asia.”
Those of us in the latter category should be ashamed. Come on, men — these are our son’s hallowed forefathers we’re talking about. They were alive before Moby-Dick was published, and they bequeathed their nose to you, their chin to your boy and their ears to your future twin granddaughters. These fellows lived and loved and toiled so that you and your offspring could one day fly-fish and test-ride roller coasters together — and traipse the globe to some faraway speck of land marked with your indelible genes.
I’m not suggesting you do this when your son is 8 — unless you want to be dealing with a really bored, cranky kid in Minsk. But a day will come when this excursion into your shared lineage will mean as much to him as it does to you. If it’s when he’s 40, he’ll still be your son, you’ll still be his dad, and the two of you will still have a wayward adventure to enjoy. Perhaps it will be the germ for a screenplay that the two of you will co-write when you get back.
Call that Paternal Bucket List entry No. 5.5.