I often seize opportunities to communicate to my 12-year-old son the importance of sharing. When we recently bought a new television set, Alyosha asked about the fate of the old one. When I told him I intended to give it to a needy college student, he was shocked. How, he wondered, could I give a television away? A television!
Still, I am mostly pleased with the magnitude of his own generosity. I have watched with satisfaction as he treats his friends to candy bars, allows them to ride his bike, and sleeps on the floor of his room so an overnight buddy can have a bed.
This virtue was put to the test recently when we took in a 16-year-old exchange student from Russia. Until Pavel's arrival, my son could lay claim to virtually the whole house. But suddenly, resources had to be partitioned among three bodies. The first disillusionment came one day when Alyosha jogged to the cupboard for some Cheerios and - Aieee! Gone. As were the chocolate-chip cookies, the salted peanuts, and those cheap packets of soup noodles.
My son went into a real tailspin over this, not understanding how so much food could disappear so quickly. Explanations about the eating habits of teenagers fell on deaf ears; at that moment, Alyosha's stomach was doing the thinking for him.
Despite my aversion to shopping, I quickly discovered the bulk-foods aisle of the supermarket, and soon the food reserves of the house were replenished.
I still needed to remind my son to share, though. Even though food was no longer an issue, he had cordoned off his room and all of its resources. I'd watch uneasily as Pavel peered through the slightly open door as my son lay on his bed, his head bobbing to the "music" emanating from his recently acquired boombox. I was pained when Pavel got up the courage to ask Alyosha if he could borrow some of his tapes and my son refused.
That's when I interceded with one of my copyrighted lectures on generosity. Sitting with Alyosha on the edge of his bed, I discussed the challenge of living with other people, the fact that Pavel's interest in my son's music was an attempt to reach out to him, and the obligation we had to make Pavel feel like a member of our family.
Alyosha acquiesced, but with a stipulation: Pavel could listen to his tapes, but he couldn't copy them. Fair enough.
It is hard to describe the very real gift of people's dinner invitations during this period of interfilial diplomacy. No one can evoke more pity in others than a single father of two boys. Friends invited us with due frequency to their homes, where Pavel, Alyosha, and I were not only stuffed with pasta, but allowed to take leftovers home as well. There is one dinner I will not soon forget. The meal itself was cooked to perfection, but when the dessert was announced my pulse quickened.
Not just any cheesecake. This was a sombrero-size wheel of individually wrapped slices, moist and sweet. When compressed with a finger, the slices squeaked with freshness. Taking my first bite, I was speechless and could do no more than look up at my hostess, nod, and allow a gentle tear to make its way down my cheek. I feel no shame in admitting that I had a second slice, and a third. When my son was unable to finish his slice, I rose to the occasion.
Noticing how much I had enjoyed the cheesecake, my friend gave me the last piece to take home. I don't think Alyosha or Pavel noticed this, and I did a good job of secreting it under my coat as we made for the car.
During the drive home, the boys conversed animatedly in the back seat. I can't recall any details of their conversation. All I could think about was the cheesecake.
Once home, I waited for the boys to turn in. Then I buried the cheesecake in the refrigerator, behind a bag of apples, two grapefruit, and a broad crown of wilted broccoli, which, I knew, would deter even the most intrepid child.
I SLEPT well that night, dreaming about the cheesecake. When I awoke, I determined to have it for breakfast. When I entered the kitchen, Alyosha was sedately eating his cereal. Pavel was already out of the house.
I opened the fridge and dug through the barriers I had erected the night before. But when I arrived in the inner sanctum of the crisper, the cheesecake was gone! I looked to the counter, where a lonely platter lay. I approached it, pressed my forefinger against some residue, and tasted. A tear made its way down my cheek.
"Alyosha," I said, my voice catching in my throat. "Did you eat the piece of cheesecake that was in the refrigerator?"
My son looked up from his cereal. "No," he said. "Pavel did."
My heart sank. "Did he just take it?" I managed.
Alyosha shook his head. "No, he found it and asked if I thought you wanted it."
"What did you tell him?"
"Well, I remembered what you told me about sharing, so I said, 'Nah, you can have it.' " And then, after a pause, my son looked up at me. "You did want me to share the cheesecake, didn't you, Dad?"
Approaching my son, I gave him two or three reserved pats on the head. "You did the right thing," I told him, haltingly.
Sharing is important, but sometimes it's very, very hard. In fact, when it comes to cheesecake, somebody has to do it for you.