The rain paused long enough this week to let me pick up some free firewood from a couple we met through our house church. Recalling the sublime days of my youth spent hauling firewood with my dad from the driveway to the back patio of our home on Meadowsweet Drive (I must have been around five), I slipped upstairs to recruit my own 5-year-old into service. In a rare display of exhaustion, he had fallen asleep during quiet time, a two-hour daily ritual in which he usually sets up and mows down toy soldiers from World War II, the Civil War, the Alamo, and the War for Independence. Today the anachronisms were too fatiguing. With effort I woke him, asked for his help, and led my yawning boy to our ’99 Buick LeSabre whose gray trunk and backseat I had already lined with protective blue tarps.
Trading a bag of David sunflower seeds over the driver’s headrest, we drove from East Dayton over the river to West Dayton. By turns the scenery changed from suburban to urban and back to suburban, with the last of these considerably more dilapidated than most neighborhoods my son has visited. At first one scarcely notices that a certain brick building along the road wasn’t always such a fortress, but has been ever since the owner bricked up what used to be magnificent windows. Then one notices the boarded up convenience store, followed by the corner market with metal gates lowered from ceiling to floor at 4:30 on a Friday. Nearby lurks another market, whose gates long ago succumbed to suffocating vines. After these sites, disappearing into a neighborhood sounds grand. But some streets have places where, if you park just right, you can count more vacant, abandoned, and condemned houses than occupied ones.
I knew the scenery would improve considerably once we turned onto our friends’ street. But before we did, I noticed an incongruence in street names as jarring as my son’s disregard for military timelines. We rolled through a stop sign at Cambridge Avenue. Then we paused a moment at Yale. We took a wrong turn on Princeton, found our way back via Yale, and eventually again gave Princeton the old college try. Once we saw an older boy gripping a younger boy by the hair and guiding him toward the house, presumably to keep him out of trouble, or for a reckoning with the headmaster.
Who named these streets, I asked myself, and what high hopes for this neighborhood did the naming imply? The friend whose firewood I was about to inherit told me once that this used to be a predominantly Jewish area, at one time boasting as many as three synagogues in a five-mile radius. Now the synagogues were gone, but the prestigious Ivy and Western Ivy League names lingered, bearing all the meaning of an untranslated Rosetta Stone. What good were they now? Loaded names, but empty words.
My son’s task, upon arrival, was quality assurance: Keep daddy from choosing rotten firewood. This instruction was followed by an on-the-job tutorial in distinguishing logs whose outsides crumble in your hand from logs whose insides disintegrate with a good beating from logs that thus far had withstood the weather, but which our fireplace would soon destroy.
He did fine. But the questions flew on the way home. Why won’t rotten wood burn? Well, because it’s like trying to burn earth. You can’t burn dirt; you put fire out with dirt. Why does wood rot? Because if you don’t elevate it, moisture from the rain gets trapped, and the log starts turning into ground. Why do some people not elevate their firewood? Well, lots of reasons, I guess. Some people don’t know better. Some don’t care. Some care but never make the time.
We rolled past Princeton, Yale, and Cambridge. “That sounds like a waste,” he said. We passed the gated markets and the old bricked up buildings. “It is.”
As we left West Dayton, I was struck by my son’s grasp of the causal relationship between carelessness and waste. This grasp preceded his questions, or else he would not have framed them with Whys. All parents are well acquainted with the Why Stage, because a day comes when all children discover that effects have causes. They forget this around adolescence, and our difficult mission is to remind them. But don’t parents forget this as well?
The wisest and most mature parents I know are those who remain (or have grown) keenly aware that their investment of time and attention in their children yields a direct and compounding return. Another class of parents grasps this in theory, but in practice does the equivalent of failing to elevate its firewood.
Granted, some firewood is rotten from the moment it was felled, and that is the fault of none but the tree. Neither lumberjacks nor parents are all-powerful. But as a rule, the jack is accountable to his buyer to deliver wood with its properties intact. And parents are accountable to God to present children of integrity and upright character.
But how easy it is to leave firewood sitting there in a pile, looking almost the way a woodpile should. Even if disregarded, it will burn effectively enough in a fireplace for a good long while–until a distant day when it does not. On that day, it will not be the wood’s fault it has crumbled to earth, the shell of what it should be, like a rundown neighborhood with broken promises for street signs.
How easy it is, amid a thousand demands on our time, to leave our children as they are, rather than setting them as they should be. The work is tedious and time-consuming, and often the short-term results are negligible. And as with firewood, even if one does everything right, one cannot perfectly prepare against storms, vandals, thieves, long winters, or acts of God. But generally, doing what one can, and especially doing what one should, withstands the tests of time and elements.
This is an important truth for every parent to teach his or her child, but especially for young parents to learn themselves, because like it or not, time and elements have already begun working on their children-woodpiles. And after 20 years, the heat of their fuel will depend far more on the quality of the stack than on the density of the grain.
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