Life According to Henry

If I get his voice mail, I’ll hear a sweet boy’s voice explaining that I can leave a message, unless I have the wrong number. If I talk to him live, I’ll hear something quite a bit lower with a squeaky undertone, the voice of a young man on his way.

Before he left on a three-week road trip with his dad this summer, I asked my 13-year-old son how we would like to spend a Sunday with me. Henry had two requests. One was to make a pizza from scratch using a recipe he found online. The other was to show me the collection of comic book super heroes and super villains he created. First, we shopped for ingredients and then we spent the afternoon preparing a delicious meat and cheese pizza with room for improvement in the crust.

After dinner, he declared it comic book character time. He sat me down with a portable file box filled with pencil drawings of creatures, robots and people he made up. Ordinarily, tidiness isn’t Henry’s strong suit, but he keeps his comic book characters alphabetized. For each one, he invented a back-story, an alias, a set of super-powers, a costume and relationships to other characters. Some got their powers because of a science experiment gone haywire. Some were alien. Some were super-enlarged bugs or germs. A number of them were organized into leagues. Henry handed me several pages at a time and insisted I read each description aloud. He watched for my reaction. I pointed out the ridiculous. I called several in a row my favorite. He laughed heartily.

That first night we made it through the letter C. We got through the rest of his collection over a period of days and finished just in time to pack for his trip.

While the menfolk are away, I am clearing away the junk mail and old school work and I come across stray drawings of Henry’s, miscellaneous monsters and mutants that didn’t make it into the box. I stop to consider his approach to creativity. At his age, he’s not too concerned about whether his favorite things lead to a marketable skill, although they could. And even though people have been coming up with super heroes and villains forever, he doesn’t worry about whether his ideas are original. He knows they are. And he just likes making them. “Do what you love and you’ll always be happy,” he has told me before.

I set the drawings aside in his room, and give my son a call to see how the trip is going.

“Hi Mom,” he croaks.

By now, Henry is in favorite place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where grandparents, and aunties and uncles and cousins abound as well as Cousins Subs, his favorite sandwich shop. He tells me about visits to Port Washington and Kenosha and going to the beach and watching the film The Lone Ranger. Understandably, I have been out of sight and out of mind.

I tell him that I am thinking of writing about him this week. He chuckles and asks why. “Because you say smart things,” I say. “Like what?” he asks.

“Like that time you said, you might as well like yourself because you have to be with yourself all the time.” He says he doesn’t remember saying that. But I have it written down. March, 2011.

I ask him if he has been reading. I had sent along a set of books on audio and in paperback that I bought for a family book club experiment. The idea is that father and son could read them on the road and our daughter and I would do the same at home. And then later we could talk about them. To my surprise, it’s working. We’ve read Treasure Island so far and have recently moved on to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his father recommended, inspired by something Henry did a couple summers ago.

In preparation for 6th grade, Henry needed summer school for math. Each day, he dutifully caught the bus to a nearby middle school. Each afternoon, I asked what he was learning about math. “Not much,” he would say. Only after the last day when he brought his stuff home, did I discover what was going on. Initially, the teachers led him to the wrong room and he never bothered to correct them. So, he spent the two full weeks studying English, a favorite subject that is already a strength, instead of math, which he dislikes. Afterwards, we introduced Henry to the word “scam” and explained that it was not a nice thing to do to your parents. His dad compared him to Tom Sawyer and Henry didn’t understand the reference, then. I think he does now.

“How far are you in the story?” I ask.

“Well, I am past the part where he paints the fence,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say, amused. “Me, too.”

Amy Ambrose,