December 20th was the third night in a row with all five of us living under one roof since our three boys left for college this fall. We’d all been looking so forward to Christmas break! My husband and I had the Christmas tree up and the whole house decorated. I had cookies made and the fridge stocked with all their favorites; my husband kept trying to sneak the special cheeses and dips and out-of-season fruit,  because for the first time since September we had actual food in there. We had eaten dinner together! Yes, all together! And then we played cribbage while Christmas carols played softly in the background. If there ever was a night to take a Christmas card picture, this was it. This is the image I had in my head as I drifted off to sleep.

Two hours later I awoke abruptly, startled by a distant noise. At first I thought I just wasn’t used to having the boys back in the house, but then I noticed the other side of the bed was empty. I sat up and strained to listen. I heard voices. Before long, the voices got louder. I was a little irritated that my husband and the three boys were obviously living it up, while I was trying to get some sleep for work the next day. Then I realized the voices I heard were not happy. I also realized I was going to have to get up and investigate. Sometimes the momma is the only voice of reason in a house with that much testosterone. Three boys and a husband AND one male cat. That’s why I’ve always insisted on a girl dog, but I digress.

Let me paint the scene I found when I got downstairs. All four of them (yep, my husband too, 52-years-old he is), were pushing and shoving and throwing their egos around the basement. I couldn’t tell what the heck was going on and nobody would answer me. It looked to me like the 18 and 20-year-old had ganged up on the 22-year-old (which NEVER happens) and my husband was right in the mix – having no idea what was going on, but puffing up his chest as his face turned beet red (like it always does – in fact, when the boys were little and dad got upset, they used to compare him to Clifford the Big Red Dog –  the resemblance is remarkable). I admit that after repeatedly asking in a calm voice, I finally resorted to full-on mom scream. That temporarily disabled them, but seriously, this is all I could make out, “There were no pillows on my bed and Chris had two! He wouldn’t give me one. He’s being a jerk!” (except he didn’t say jerk, exactly). And they promptly went back to pushing and shoving. I’m not even kidding. Just as I decided I was going to have to go get a bucket of cold water to throw on them, my oldest son exploded and yelled “THIS IS RIDICULOUS! I’M OUTTA HERE!!!”  He put on his jacket and stomped out of the house.

Now the other three went into panic mode. It was after midnight. Where was he going? He didn’t take a car, which meant he was on foot, after midnight, a few nights before the winter solstice in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan brand of cold and darkness, and who knows what, lurking. Now that he was gone, the remaining dimwits didn’t know what to do! Suddenly, I, the only one uninvolved in the aforementioned melee, was voted off the island and into said cold, dark night in search of the 22-year-old. Remember, I was sleeping, so it only stands to reason that I was in my pjs. My faux-fur, angel soft, meant-for-sleeping, comfy Christmas-season pajamas. Resignedly, I donned my boots over my fuzzy bunny slippers and my parka and went in search of him. I figured he was in the garage because “baby, it was cold outside.” After trekking across the driveway in the fresh snow, with boots and fuzzy bunny slippers now full of snow, I found him, head in his hands, sitting in a rejected-from-the-main-house glider. The same glider I used to rock him to sleep in. I’m not even sure why it’s in the garage, other than it no longer matches our grown-up décor. On this night, it seemed to offer my eldest the only comfort he could find.

“Okay, tell me what happened,” I said quietly.

“You’re not going to believe it,” he said. And the story poured forth.

He had gone to bed and left his younger brothers gaming in the rec room. He promptly fell asleep until he was rudely awakened by his overhead light snapping on. He felt a push on his shoulder and opened one eye. “What in tarnation? (I’m censoring the real words again…)

The 20-year-old was standing over his bed. “Do you have my pillow???” he demanded.

“What? Your pillow? I don’t know. Do I?”

“You know you do. Give me my pillow.”

“Okay – but seriously? You woke me up for that? Thanks a lot.”

“Well you have my pillow! Poop-head!” (again, I’m censoring).

The light snapped off, the 22-year-old burrowed under his covers and just as he was settling back in, the light snapped back on. This time it was the 18-year-old.

“Now what?” my oldest son asked.

“Why are you being such a meanie? Why did you take Conor’s pillow? You’ve been a snaggle-toothed dragon since you got home. You aren’t being very nice”  (seriously, the censoring is so time-consuming).

Right around this point in the story, the story got a little fuzzy. Somehow they all ended up out of their beds, hurling insults and slow punches. I just want to clarify that when they were little, if they woke up scared or not feeling well or had to go potty, I was up like a shot, while my husband snored on. In fact, this past September, when they all finally left, was really the first time I had a full night’s sleep since 1993. For real. So pardon me. This ONE time my husband got there before me. Believe me, it will NOT happen again.

I was able to coax my oldest son back into the house with my soft, soothing words and the fact that we were both shaking so badly from the midnight air. He slept upstairs on the couch that night, afraid of another pillow raid. I sat up with him for another hour and we talked about the ridiculousness of the night. My husband tried to join us, but because he had jumped into the fray so enthusiastically, we chastised him and sent him to bed, alone.

The next morning both younger brothers apologized for their attacks. In the daylight they could not believe how childish they had been. By early afternoon, they were all at the gym together, playing basketball. (Not the husband; he was not allowed to play in any reindeer games after his previous night’s antics). On my way home from work, I stopped and bought an arsenal of pillows – firm, soft, synthetic, down, body, contoured – you get the picture. After that, we lived in relative harmony for the next three weeks of winter break.

I feel for my boys. Coming home is both easy and difficult. They are adults in so many ways, but they look forward to coming home and having someone else cook for them and do their laundry and most of all, love them everyday they are home. The difficult part is that they are not the same people they were when they left. They’ve matured and become more independent.

And yet, when they walk back into their childhood homes, they revert right back to the little boys they used to be. They know they have grown past this ridiculous childhood rivalry and yet they can’t help themselves. They still have to mix it up and assert their dominance. I’m just glad no one felt the need to mark his territory by peeing on the floor. Including my husband.

Pillowgate, as we’re calling it in hindsight, reminded me of the millions of times the boys wrestled in the living room, grinding each other’s faces into the carpet, asking “Whose carpet is it?” Barbaric and funny, their giggles turned into growls, as playing around turned to serious competition. I miss those days. Not the fights, but the daily presence. I could count on seeing them at least in the morning and in the evening. I could hug them and take care of them and love them everyday. I’m so proud of the men they are becoming (except during holidays), but life has changed so much since September and my husband and I are still trying to figure out what to do with each other. But that story is for another time.

Erin Berndt

Erin Berndt and her husband moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for just a few years, 25 years ago, and have raised their three sons and various cats and dogs there. Erin has been teaching high school English for 26 years. Although most of her writing has been done in red ink over the years, she likes nothing better than to write about her family’s escapades.