The blessing of feeling special

When Paul came back with the doughnut, the man we had met at the ferry terminal said: ''It gets more expensive as they grow up. How old is he - eleven?''

We were in a snack shop on the main street of Cordova. The man's daughter was fourteen, he said, and wangled $20 from him every time she went out on a date.

''Of course, when they're fourteen, you can send them away when you go on trips,'' the man added with a calculated grin. ''That's worth twenty bucks now and then.''

We all smiled - even Paul.

We had come to Alaska to be together, outside the routine of home. At home it often seemed that my wife, my son and I were merely living in the same house. I was aware that days went by when I did not really look at Paul. Like a lot of fathers I let him become part of the furniture of my life.

On the boat trip out to Columbia Glacier there was a retired couple with two grandchildren, boys not yet teenagers. Bruce, who was twelve, moved around the boat while everyone else watched the glacier. Whenever large chunks of ice calved, dropping into the bay, Bruce banged a stick on the railing, sometimes so persistently that we could not hear the thunder-like groaning of the moving ice as it pushed toward the sea. Paul watched him, saying nothing.

Daniel, the other grandchild, stayed below. He and Bruce were not talking to one another.

''We brought them here to keep them busy,'' the grandfather said. ''Once we get back home, we'll take a vacation!''

''Their mother's finishing a PhD,'' his wife explained.

''We hope she finishes it before they finish us,'' the grandfather said.

''Motherhood does get in the way sometimes,'' the woman went on.

Another chunk of ice dropped into the bay. Water-ice exploded into the air. A wave formed and rolled toward us, exciting Bruce. He banged away on the railing. The grandfather smiled tolerantly, resigned. ''If only there were streets,'' he said, ''I'd tell him to go play in them!''

Bruce heard much of this, of course. That was the American way. Such comments and the treatment accompanying them were socializing him to an intensely competitive way of life. Still, they made me wonder about the way Americans think of children - and condition them to think of themselves.

A taciturn young Japanese couple ran the laundromat in Anchorage. The man had put ''Out of Order'' signs on the washer and dryer he reserved for his exclusive use. The woman ironed shirts in the back behind the washing machines. Neither one paid attention to any of us in their establishment. If we spoke to them, they frowned, annoyed, as if we were barbarians.

The Japanese couple had a little girl. She sat quietly beside her mother's ironing board. Occasionally they exchanged a few words. Finally the little girl got out a small bicycle; it resembled the mini-Schwinn we had first gotten Paul. Seeing the bike, her father lectured her sternly. She rode it once around the machines. Paul watched her. Then she put it away and resumed her seat beside the ironing board.

After we loaded the machines, I went to sit near the TV set. The first warm-up game of the pro-football season was on. Beside me two Eskimo women sat talking. While watching the TV screen, I listened to the guttural sound of their speech.

Paul came over to sit on the same chair with me. I put my arms around him, and we watched the TV. Then I was aware that the woman beside me had turned. She was large, moon-faced and ruddy, and she was smiling at us. Thick, black hair sprouted abundantly from her head. ''I'm Kathy,'' she said, offering me her hand. When I took it, I felt Paul's weight press against me.

The woman now reached her hand to Paul. She grinned. Her eyes, which had looked friendship at me, glowed with delight. Looking at Paul, they shined the way a miser's might shine, beholding an ikon of gold.

''Hello,'' she said to Paul. ''I'm Kathy.''

His weight pressed harder against me. He smiled shyly, polite and endearing, and I knew that inside he was uncertain, perplexed, perhaps mildly alarmed. ''Hi ,'' he said finally.

''What's your name?'' she asked.

''Paul,'' he said, barely audible.

''How old are you?''

''Ten.''

''I have a son who's ten,'' she said. ''I have six children, four boys, two girls.''

''That's nice,'' Paul said. Then he looked at the TV set, embarrassed at being watched.

''How old are they?'' I asked, not wanting to be impolite.

Watching Paul so exultantly, Kathy seemed uncertain of her children's ages. She waved at a slight, unshaven man standing against the wall watching Paul and introduced him as her husband. He came forward, smiling, showing missing teeth, and told us the ages of their children. Then Kathy introduced the other woman, her sister. The sister leaned over to say that she had eight children, all girls.

The three Eskimos continued to watch Paul. He watched the TV set, not knowing what else to do. His weight still pressed hard against me.

''It's okay,'' I whispered. ''She thinks you're terrific!'' Paul pursed his mouth. Being thought terrific was not terrific with him.

I hugged him closer. He could not, of course, remember when women would stop us in markets to say how beautiful he was. For some reason where we lived that stopped happening after toddlerhood. Once a child got out of his stroller, he stopped being something to appreciate and became something to deal with.

Now Kathy spotted Donanne who had finished with the machines and stood nearby , watching Paul react to this situation. Kathy turned to Paul and gestured at Donanne, immediately recognizing the resemblance.

''She your mother?''

Paul nodded and stood up.

''We're going for a walk,'' Donanne said after smiling at the Eskimos.

''I'll start them drying when it's time,'' I said.

Kathy and the other Eskimos watched Paul and Donanne leave the laundromat and go off down the street. Then they turned back to their conversation in the guttural language. After a while a white man came for them. They all went off together.

The football game finished and I started drying the laundry. ''Did they leave?'' Paul asked as soon as he and Donanne came back. He looked where the Eskimos had sat.

I nodded. ''When you get home,'' I said, ''you can tell your friends you met some real Eskimos.''

He looked doubtful. ''They were really -'' He stopped without providing the word.

As we were folding clothes, Donanne said, ''Those Eskimos made a real impression on Paul. That's all he talked about on our walk.''

''I noticed,'' I said.

''He doesn't realize that some cultures actually cherish children.''

''I guess not,'' I said, startled into reflection. I grinned with some embarrassment. ''Poor kid. . . what do we do about it?''

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