I trace it back to a time two years ago when he was invited over by one of his classmates, also 9 at the time. When I went to pick up Alyosha later that day, I found him riding his friend's bike. Let me clarify this: He was riding his friend's inside (as opposed to his outside) bicycle - doing laps around the palatial living room, a route that, at its far extreme, put him out of earshot.
My son and I live in a small clapboard home in an idyllic location, a modest structure with a million-dollar view. Our house sits on a rise along a sidearm of the Penobscot River in central Maine. Just across this stretch of water is a wooded island. In the summer our backyard is a flyway for bald eagles; in winter the snow lies draped from our home, out across the river, and over to the island - an unbroken blanket of white punctuated only by the barely discernible footprints of an occasional fox or rabbit.
As someone who grew up in urban New Jersey, I often feel that in living here I've been rewarded for some good deed. But a child views things differently. To him the world is more intimate than expansive: The way the world works to his local advantage is of utmost importance. And gradually, after his stint at his friend's home-cum-velodrome, my son came to believe that we needed a new house. A better house. A bigger house. One able to accommodate a six-day bicycle race.
My son's opinion of our home began to weigh upon me. My view of where we lived began to contract. The river and wetlands and wildlife receded into the background while the imperfections and limitations of the house itself came to the fore. I embarked upon a program of improvements, all modest, all within reach of my finances.
Actually, I began to have fun with the projects that lay before me. I painted walls and laid throw rugs. A contractor friend offered me vinyl replacement windows at a discount. I put up new bookshelves and filled them with volumes long lingering in the darkness of cardboard boxes. Two closets got new doors, and I updated some of the light fixtures. I filled the somber mudroom (every Maine house worth its salt has a mudroom) with light by cutting two huge holes in the south wall and installing windows.
And on it went, the painting, carpentering, and wiring. The pace of progress was moderate, as I paid for everything as I went along. In the meantime, Alyosha's circle of acquaintances was growing, and he frequently brought home reports of the wonders of other people's homes. One day he burst through the door with a magnificent description of his friend's finished basement, replete with billiard and Ping-Pong tables. At the time I was sticky-fingered with polyurethane from finishing new wall paneling. But my son's message was clear: Why couldn't we have these things?
I realized it was time to sit my son down and explain how the world works in this regard. For a moment I verged upon saying that the more money one has, the more one can buy. But this wasn't the point I wanted to make. I realized that if I had unlimited capital I would not jack the house up and slip a basement under it. I wouldn't move into a bigger, more expensive house. No, it wasn't a matter of spending in proportion to how much one had to spend; it was simply a matter of meeting one's needs. If I needed a pinch of salt, why would I want a barrelful?
So I spoke to my son about need versus want, explaining that we weren't hungry, we had ample clothing and a furnace that faithfully hummed along during even the worst northeaster. "What more," I asked him, "could we possibly need?"
Without missing a beat, he looked dead at me and declared, "A pool table!"
That was a year ago. In the interim, my funds for home improvement slackened and I - we - had to content ourselves with the flourishes that had already been accomplished. Interestingly, Alyosha didn't raise the issue of "more is better" again. But I don't think it was the talk we had. He just seemed to be growing up. Perhaps he was too busy with his social life to fret much about the limits our home imposed on him.
THIS autumn has been an equivocal one. The past summer was so wet that the leaves have clung to the trees with a vengeance. But the other day they seemed to all start falling at once, blanketing ground and roof and pickup truck as they steadily rained down from the spreading silver maples that define our property.
Just yesterday morning I stepped out of the house with my son as we headed for school and work. Mist curled above the river, a great blue heron set down in a thicket, and our small house was awash in autumn leaves. We both stood still, captured by the moment.
Finally, without looking at me, my son spoke up. "This is a nice house," he nodded.
Even if you can't ride a bike in our living room.