As my life expands, my pockets fill

The other night, just before retiring, I emptied my pockets onto my bed. Things poured out: keys, loose change, wallet, comb, cellphone, handkerchief, notepad, checkbook, an empty film canister, a pen, an inconsequential note to myself, and a stray button I'd been carrying around for months as a reminder to find the garment to which it belonged.

I stood gazing down at the pile, wondering, with woe, how life - or my pockets, at least - came to be so encumbered. I recall remarking to a friend that the biggest difference between being an adult and a child was that, as a kid, my pockets were pretty much empty. And with good reason: I had no money and therefore no wallet. I didn't comb my own hair (that was my mother's job), and I certainly never wrote notes to myself. As for a handkerchief, why would I need one when I had two ample sleeves? And buttons? Well, when they popped off, they popped off.

Perhaps this is why, in literature, I've never come across a poem about the contents of a child's pockets. But some imaginative ground has been plowed about what a kid might put in his pockets, such as "What Did You Put in Your Pocket?" by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, a fragment of which goes:

What did you put in your pocket
in your pockety pockety pocket
Early Monday morning?
I put in some chocolate pudding
I put in some chocolate pudding
slushy gushy pudding....

When I sort my sons' clothing prior to doing the laundry, I play it safe by always checking their pockets. I've never found chocolate pudding, but now and then a nugget of interest does surface. In the case of my teenager, it was once a less-than-stellar report card that he had perhaps hoped would dissolve in the rinse cycle. But more often it's money he forgets to take out of his jeans, leading to his ongoing lament about being broke.

As for my 8-year-old, his pockets are almost always empty, as mine used to be, although I once found a postage stamp adhered to the lining. And then there was that pen I didn't find until after I had done the laundry. (Did you know that if a black pen breaks open in the wash, it will turn all of the whites gray?)

Although my sons' pockets are mostly unremarkable, I always find more fertile ground in their school backpacks, which serve as a sort of diplomatic pouch for communications between their teachers and me. Early on I discovered - in an alarming manner - the importance of checking those backpacks every day. Once, when my older boy was in second grade, I went foraging through his papers. In the midst of notes about the lunch menu, overdue library books, and the promise of a new method of teaching math, I found a brief, neatly printed essay whose most trenchant passage was, "I love my dad, even though he beats me all the time."

I was immediately on my feet. "Alyosha!" I called. "I need to talk to you!"

When he came into the room, he stood before me, smiling angelically. With as much calm as I could muster, I cleared my throat and presented the essay to him. "Did you write this?"

He looked it over and nodded.

"How could you write such a thing?" I said. "You know I never beat you."

His response was matter-of-fact. "Sure you do, Dad," he said. "Every time we play checkers, you beat me."

After explaining the two meanings of the word, I asked if his teacher had seen the essay. "No," he said, "It's due tomorrow."

Needless to say, I used my executive privilege to winnow that particular assignment and became doubly vigilant about checking his backpack from that day on.

When I look back on my own days of empty pockets, I am able to trace a smooth line of acquisition: a comb arrived by fifth grade; my own set of house keys came in middle school; the wallet appeared in high school; at some point a handkerchief took the place of shirtsleeves.... And now, here I am, in a state of arrest, my pockets packed so full I can barely sit comfortably.

Does it have to be this way? Perhaps not. The revelation came last weekend during a canoe trip with my son. We put out onto the lake in bluebird weather - clear sky, warm sun, gentle breeze. But after we had reached the far shore, thunderheads gathered. We hurried home but were caught in the deluge, soaked to the skin within minutes. When I got to the car I emptied my pockets of all their sopping gear and thrust my hands down into those newly vacated recesses, recalling a time when hands were all they carried.

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