Homeward bound

The middle child returned home.

I'm not sure there can be a middle child with six kids, but Sam, our third-born, sat firmly in the middle until our last daughter came along. Growing up, he was the quiet one.

Once, when he was about 8 years old, we packed up the family to see a movie. We were halfway to the Breckenridge Theater when my wife asked Sam if he was excited to about the film. No answer. Question repeated. Still no answer. A few head swivels later we did a U-turn. He was in his room upstairs quietly reading a book, perfectly content.

We waited a few years before we told him he had slipped our notice.

Sam fits the birth order personality well as he navigates in and out of the older kids and younger kids, poking at each, laughing with all. But he remained quiet.

We traveled to Colorado when he was about 10 and the family hopped out of a rented minivan to grab some lunch at a Chick-fil-A. After bathroom breaks, I stood at the counter taking orders over my shoulder when Sam walked in and, hands on hips, and said, "Forget something, Dad?"

I checked my pockets. Phone. Wallet. Keys. I looked at him quizzically. "No?"

"You locked me in the car. I couldn't get the door to slide open so I climbed through the sunroof."

My wife shook her head, "Way to go, Dad of the Year." I started to share the blame with her but noted her look of horror. I'll take this one.

As Sam grew, he became our Holden Caulfield, our doubting Thomas. He's idealistic, yet he has to see to believe.

He graduated college last year and took a job teaching financial literacy through a New York bank. When he found out he could work remotely, he decided to do so from Europe. Landing in Portugal and working his way east, then north, then south again, landed him in five countries this year alone.

We'd coax stories out of him, begging for photos and information on his journey. Still quiet within the family circle.

Throughout the spring, Sam applied to graduate schools and is heading to Georgetown University this fall. In the meantime, he'll continue to work remotely from my carport-turned-apartment.

He's home.

The conversation began the moment we picked him up from the airport.

That's the change. That's the real difference in having an adult child home for any length of time. When the balance is tipped in any direction, you get new kids, new personalities to behold.

You see, the thing about big families is that it's a constant carnival and all family members find their place within it. The roller-coaster riders take up a lot of space, the barkers get a lot of attention. Meals are a midway of choices and everyone is a clown at one point or another. There's the ringleader. The magic. The best part is that all trade places at one time or another; there's no mold one has to fit forever.

(DROP CAP) In our newly found time together, Sam and I opted to fish the Little Red last Sunday. To my chagrin, he refuses to use a fly rod and opts for his spinning reel.

Better than the fishing, however, was the meandering conversation on the ride there and back. It logged miles between the nonsensical to the interesting.

"In a state with no pro teams, I bet the Razorbacks have more power over our culture than we think. I bet when our teams win, crime rates lower and birth rates go up."

"Fly fishing seems too involved. I'll stick with what I know."

"What would you do with the Marvell-Elaine situation?"

I think the middle child in any family is the one who soaks in the carnival more than the others. The middle child may not bark the loudest or require the extremes of the roller coaster or even care too much about the midway choices. The middle child is the one who takes it all in and finds his spot, content to be the lead participant or the spectator depending on the situation.

The middle child finds common ground and gets along.

Sam's time with us is ticking by. I don't want him to leave, but I don't want him to stay. I enjoy his company, but I know he'll never find fulfillment living in his dad's carport apartment. He's passing time until his next verse begins, and I'm thankful to get a few bars and notes in while I can.

Adult children re-enter the family home with all their good and bad experiences in tow. They bring their travels, their stories, and their desire to see and believe. When they visit, it's like a new world unfolding into the old house.

The middle child will soon leave again. I'll miss the conversation.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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