My son, prince of the neighborhood

Younger neighbors clamor to be in the presence of 'His Majesty.'

Here he comes, swaggering – swaggering! – down the street, fresh home from school. The neighborhood kids must use a spotter because as soon as Anton's presence is detected, they pour out of their homes and run to him, as if he were a conquering hero.

I also try to approach my preteen, but he throws me an expression of horror and recoils, lest his adoring legion sees that he actually has a father and did not simply precipitate out of the ether. I watch, forsaken, as he is borne away by his subjects.

I don't know exactly when my son became a royal, but I think it was over the summer when I heard a plaintive call from the little boy across the street. Gage is 7, and he adores my son. Once school had ended for the year, he rose early while Anton was still enjoying the princely prerogative of sleeping until noon.

Frustrated by the absence of his older playmate, Gage would sit on his front lawn and wait longingly for my son. "Anton!" he'd wail. "Aaan-ton!" On the occasion of a particularly drawn-out plea from Gage, I approached my slumbering liege and advised him to rise, upon pain of losing his Game Boy privileges.

As I look out the front window at my son, the lord of the manor, I see him surrounded by his serfs, all of whom are younger than he. I watch his exaggerated gestures as he makes what appears to be a speech, and I wonder if he is royalty or only the court jester. The other children laugh and laugh. One rolls on the ground, holding his stomach. A little girl claps.

When I finally call Anton in for supper, they accompany him to the door, like a retinue assigned to see him safely back to the castle. "Will he come out again?" asks Ashley with her hands clasped. I throw her a sympathetic look and tell her, "If His Majesty eats his peas he shall appear again with the hour."

I don't think I had previously appreciated the intensity of this devotion. One day back in July, I indulged myself by lying down on the sofa for an afternoon nap. And then, in my half-sleep, I sensed a presence in the room. I opened my eyes and beheld a little boy staring at me.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" I asked him, but gently. His response: "Is Anton home?"

I didn't understand where the allure lay. Anton is not "tough" and so does not command the blind allegiance of a weak-kneed gang that wants to be tough by association. He's not a jock and so cannot deliver the glory of athletic victory. He never carries money, so there is no opportunity for monetary largess to ensure the loyalty of his followers.

And then, the other day, as I was watching him hobnob outside with his younger cohorts, I think I saw it. Anton will give anybody an opportunity at friendship with him, and his interests are still so general and dilettantish that he's genuinely keen for almost anything: a jump in the river, a game of badminton, frog collecting, skateboarding.... This means that he shares common ground with all of these neighborhood children who, in turn, find him so wonderful because little kids adore big kids who pay attention to them.

And he really does care for them. I recall one occasion at a town picnic where a vendor was selling helium balloons for 50 cents. Anton saw one of his friends shedding copious tears because his balloon had slipped away. Anton took him by the hand and told him, "Don't worry, Nathan, my dad will buy you another one." And as my son's personal treasurer, how could I refuse?

As I write this piece, it is 9 o'clock in the evening. Anton is getting ready for bed. There is a scratching at the door. Another admirer. "Jake," I say. "What are you doing out at this hour?" And then I see that his younger sister is with him. "Anton is going to bed," I tell them. "And so should you."

I watch as the siblings retreat. After a few steps they pause and the boy says to the girl, "Megan, don't you wish Anton was here?"

When the sun comes up again, he will be. But for now, I ascend to His Majesty's room with quiet steps, pick up his damp towel form the bathroom floor, and turn off the light in his room. He's already fast asleep, perhaps to dream, and I linger on his threshold for only a moment before bidding him, "Good night, sweet prince."

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