'Anton," I say with a sigh, my hands on my hips as I shake my head in wonder. "How do you do it? And why?"
My 9-year-old stands in the doorway of our aptly named mudroom, streaked and caked with - you got it - mud. And he's smiling. Smiling!
My son is a mudder. Which means that autumn and spring in Maine are when he is in season. Simply put, he loves to slop. Sometimes he is a purist about it, directly seeking out mud puddles and jumping in or running through them.
Other times, when he thinks I might be lurking about, he muds under cover of some approved activity, such as riding his bike or scooter, or tossing a baseball in the air and casting himself into the mud in a dramatic hustle to catch it. ("I had to, Dad," he tells me, "or I wouldn't have made the catch.")
Anton is pretty upfront about his mudding. How could he not be? The evidence covers him from head to toe. But there've been times when he's attempted a feinting maneuver, slinking into the house like a spy as I raise a wary eye from my work and drum my fingers on the kitchen table.
"Anton?" I probe. "Did you ride your bike through the mud?"
"What do you mean?" he asks in a vain attempt to buy time until he can get to a hamper.
"Turn around," I tell him. And there, up his back, is a solid streak of prime, sopping, grade A Maine mud. "What ever happened to fenders?"
There have been times, I admit, when my son's mudding has come in handy. We live on the Penobscot River. When Anton and I go canoeing, low water sometimes requires that we put the canoe in on a muddy bank.
"Now, how are we going to do this?" I muse out loud. But before I have a chance to engineer a solution, Anton casts off his shoes and socks and is in the mud up to his knees.
"Yecch!" I exclaim as I avert my nose. "It smells like rotten eggs."
"Yeah," says my beaming son. "Isn't it great?"
I have tried, on occasion, to have a sit-down talk with Anton to discuss his mudding in a quiet, rational manner. "From now on," I tell him, "when you see mud, the idea is to avoid it, not leap into it."
"But why?" he asks.
"Well," I begin, "because you track it into the house. Because you're running out of clothing. Because..." What else can I say?
The truth is, I have a hard time correcting my son about things that are not actually "bad" or wrong-headed. Especially when he is looking up at me so earnestly with those big, round eyes that are as dark as pools of ... fresh mud?
Anton never thought of himself as a mudder until recently, when we were cuddled on the sofa, watching a video of an old Abbott and Costello show. In it, Bud Abbott refers to a racehorse by saying, "He's a good mudder."
Costello's inevitable response: "How can a 'he' be a 'mudder'?"
Anton immediately sided with Costello, declaring, "I'm a 'he' and I'm a 'mudder.' "
"Yes, son, you are," I assured him as rain began to fall and I gazed forlornly out the window.
A couple of weeks back, a note came home from school asking parents for contributions of used clothing in good condition, "in case a child has an accident."
The next day Anton returned home dressed in a shirt and pants he didn't go to school in. "What happened?" I asked, and then I watched as he took a plastic bag weighing about 10 pounds from his backpack and handed it to me. It was his own clothing, covered in mud.
"Oops," he said, "I guess I fell during recess."
I have tried to come to terms with my son's mudding by reassuring myself that it is just a phase - albeit a long one - that he will outgrow. It simply requires that I continue to scoop mud from the washing machine with a soup ladle. And scrape dried mud from his sneakers with a trowel. And pray for drought.
Just the other day I took Anton to the playground after a rain. I was surprised at how many other kids were out and about. But while they stayed within the confines of monkey bars, swings, and slide, Anton gravitated, as is his wont, to a mudhole on the periphery, where, once he thought that I wasn't looking, he began to stomp.
The mother of one of the other children approached me. "Your son is in the mud," she said in a tone that suggested she was performing a public service.
I stared long and hard at Anton, his shoes submerged in the glop, his eyes seeking out the deepest spot, his face radiant with glee.
"Thanks," I said to the mother, and as she looked on, I waded into the mud with my son.
"Isn't this great!" he said.
"Yes," I agreed. "Now we're mudder and father."