Out There: A soldier's chores

The army fundamentally alters the parent-child relationship.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
In another few weeks the wife and I will mark a year since our first-born joined the army. I say the wife and I, because the son himself probably won't be making much of a fuss over the occasion. Based on past experience, I envision our emotional, 90-second late-night telephone conversation going something like this: "Hi, lad, it's your folks here," we will chirp, feigning jolly at five minutes to midnight, having waited all day for this moment. "Sababa (great)," he will reply, his voice low, tired and gravelly, the wind in the background making it sound hollow. "How do you feel?" "Sababa." "How was your day?" "Sababa." "Anything you want to know about our day?" Silence. "Well, we just wanted to wish you mazal tov on finishing your first year in the army. We are all very proud of you." "Walla (You don't say), sababa." And it's the extra word, that simple "walla," that will give us sustenance until the next conversation, provide us with what to talk about, what to mull over. THE WIFE and I have learned a lot during the past year - about soldiering, about army life, about our son. We've learned to pay more attention to the military news: which units are doing what, and where. We've learned a lot of really cool acronyms. We've learned where to buy the best socks for long-distance hikes. We've learned that it's easy to sit on the sidelines and shout for a major military incursion, especially when it's not your son who will be involved in that incursion. None of this, however, do we learn in our daily - sometimes only weekly - cell-phone conversation with our son. In those conversations all we hear is that everything is OK (thank God); that it's cold (or hot); that the food is good (or lousy); and that our son is dog-tired. It's when the lad comes home for Shabbat, in those few minutes when he's either awake or not hanging out with his friends, that we glean more substantial bits of information. Some things the lad can't talk about, some things he won't talk about, and some things he doesn't think we'll understand. And we, like obedient dogs waiting for a scrap to be tossed from the table, are thankful for whatever comes our way. What we've learned is that the army fundamentally alters the parent-child relationship. The kid you once controlled is now being controlled by others. The boy you used to protect is now very much beyond your protection. For years we imagined what it would be like when our son was in uniform, how we would cope with the anxiety and deal with the worry. And now that we are very much in the midst of it, we realize that we didn't really have a clue back then. Some issues you just never think about. Like, is the warrior still in the family's dish-washing rotation when he comes home for Shabbat? Can we ask him to make his bed? Do we tell him what time to come home at night? Is nagging him to turn off the television and read a book still the default option? Will he take out the trash? It's trying to figuring out how to navigate life's mundane tasks when our son is home that has added an unanticipated challenge to the chore of sending him off to the army. "Clear off the table when you're done, won't you, son," I gently recommend one Friday afternoon, treading ever-so-lightly. "Sababa," he replies, before going out with his friends, leaving the table decidedly un-cleared. So what am I going to do? Ground the boy? Withhold his allowance? Send him to his room? There he is, fighting the Jewish people's fights with his bare hands; suffering the blistering hot and the freezing cold, the slings and arrows of his officer's whims; facing the deprivation of sleep. Am I really going to take him to the woodshed for not washing off his fork? So, nobly, I let it all slide, figuring the boy needs a break, that his feet are blistered, that his muscles are sore, that his mind is preoccupied with more important stuff, that he shouldn't have to spend his few unstructured hours away from the base doing household chores. My son, in short, has me duly trained: he's in the army now and, consequently, the prince of our home. The only problem with my son's new arrangement - a free pass from all household duties - is that the other denizens of the home are less than thrilled. Indeed, they're rebelling. "Is he nuts," my daughter complains one Shabbat afternoon. "I told him to help me clean up, and he said he was doing his share for the country." Her anger is not unjustified. Some of the boy's arguments for getting out of dumping the trash sound like cheap pick-up lines soldiers use in bars: "Hey, babe, I'm shipping out tomorrow, and who knows when I'll be back." "You're creating a Joseph," the wife chimes in, conjuring up the Bible. "His sister is going to resent him; his brothers are going to throw him into a pit. I don't care how many kilos he carries on his back, he can wash up after himself." "Sababa," I reply, promising this time to speak to the lad.