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Admiring a son’s love of digging

April 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 24, 2019

Digging a hole is fun. For our son, Adam, the bigger the hole, the better. This is perhaps more true today than when he proudly dug his first hole at the beach when he was just 2-years-old.

Hole digging, then and now, has also been a source of conflict for Adam. On that sunny day at the beach, when he first demonstrated his great enthusiasm for digging, he and his big sister, Zoe, clashed. As soon as he finished, she audaciously jumped into his hole. “No, my hole, my hole, my hole,” he screamed.

At home in our yard, each spring when the ground softens, Adam’s zest for digging reemerges. A plot in the front yard, encircled with curved cinder blocks, where a flowering shrub once bloomed, became the center of Adam’s shoveling in his early years. A collection of toy trucks, bulldozers, and other earth moving devices were prominent features in Adam’s circle.

His hole was in plain view — on a one-block, dead-end street — where up to a dozen and a half kids range freely. At times, Adam and his hole became a spectacle, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that other parents on the street, rather sensibly, seemed to disallow front yard hole digging.

Adam, the youngest kid of the clan, beamed at the positive attention. But when other kids inevitably wanted to jump into his hole, push dirt back into his hole or throw objects into his hole, his territorial instincts flared.

So it went, each spring Adam loved digging a hole in the front yard, and conflict would soon follow. Eventually, the novelty of the hole would subside, for Adam and the other kids, and by Memorial Day, each year, we would plant flowers in the plot. Peace would return, until the next spring.

A few years ago, when his hole digging had produced unbearable frustration and tears, Adam successfully helped my wife Lori and I understand that digging a hole meant something special to him. He deeply wanted to have his own space to dig, where he could occasionally invite others to join him, but could also just be by himself, without the need to defend his turf, or self.

Adam and I filled the front yard hole for the last time, under the watchful and bewildered gaze of his peers. Then, we easily agreed on a place in the backyard, where, surrounded by a fence, Adam was free to dig privately and peacefully. And dig he did.

Each year since, his hole has become bigger. This year, fast-approaching age 10, he stretched himself on the ground, arms fully beyond his head, marking the four corners of a 5-foot-by-5-foot square. Using a full-sized spade, he dug the perimeter one afternoon, piling the earth to the side. Over the course of 3 weeks, he ventured to the backyard to dig, often after school, sometimes before, and always on the weekend. The spring rains halted operations from time to time, but mostly they just made his shoes and clothes muddy as he continued to dig, undeterred.

At times he was joined by his friends, who either watched and chatted or, as the hole became deeper, assisted by pulling up loads of earth using a rope Adam had tied to a bucket. Occasionally, excitement would spike when a large rock was found, requiring all manner of engineering skills to extract the find. When getting out of the hole became a challenge, Adam tied a rope to the adjacent fence and dropped it in for a hand-line, toeing his way up the wall using footholds he etched with the back of the shovel.

By the opening weekend of April school vacation week, the hole was complete, having reached a maximum depth of 4-feet, which Lori and I imposed to guard against the risk of a cave, as there is no telling how deep Adam would dig otherwise.

Much to my amusement, following a raucous but amicable couple hours of scootering, skateboarding and capture the flag in the street and front yards of our neighborhood, Adam and a handful of kids converged in our backyard. Soon they began taking turns running across the yard and jumping into the hole, which was much safer than when Adam, days before, had placed a mini-trampoline next to the hole so that he could bound over it. Still, a sprained ankle, or worse, seemed inevitable. I bided my time, as the group gravitated toward relatively safe play. Throughout the afternoon they returned to the hole — jumping in and climbing out, throwing balls in and out, digging, chatting and laughing — lots of laughing.

Adam seems as proud of his latest hole as he was with his first at the beach so many years ago. And, for countless hours, he has found peace, quietly digging alone. But today, Adam freely shared his hole, and it served as a great source of community. He seemed content, never outwardly demonstrating a need to defend his hole, feeling, it appeared, to relish the connection more than the hole itself.

Later, as the evening rains approached, I gazed at the backyard. The hole and mounds of surrounding earth occupied a 10-foot-by-10-foot section of our modestly sized yard. I smiled at the realization that the spot in the yard will probably remain bare until after Adam heads off to college. But then, Lori and I are less interested in grass than we are in growing healthy, active kids — and community.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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