If you visit the Van Dam family, don’t be surprised if Robert (11), Joseph (7), Daniel (6), and Sarah (4) pull out a treasure chest and start showering you with strings of plastic beads in a rainbow of colors. Brian (8 months) will just grab a couple of fistfuls to play with. The necklaces are the spoils of February festival parades at which gobs of baubles are flung to the spectators. The festival is inherited from New Orleans’s French founders.
The festival chest is fun, but Robert has a better treasure trove in his bedroom. It’s a bookcase bursting with such riches as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L‘Engle, and the Hardy Boys mysteries. Robert’s mom and dad often have to remind him late at night that it’s time to leave Narnia or Middle-earth and get some sleep.
One book the whole family loves is the Book of Mormon. On a Monday night in October Robert gave a family home evening lesson on Nephi obtaining the plates of Laban. Afterward the children painted funny faces on Halloween pumpkins.
A happy boy, Robert enjoys playing with his dog, Pixie, and his cat, Midnight. He has many friends, and they often play kickball or football in the backyard or the street.
Robert also enjoys climbing the magnolia tree beside his house with his brothers and sister. Sometimes they do their tree climbing in City Park, where ancient live oaks bend and twist along the ground before turning to the sky. Some of these trees were old before the Civil War, and climbing them is like riding a time machine.
But even the oldest trees are young compared to the mighty Mississippi River that hugs New Orleans in a great horseshoe loop. The Van Dams like to walk along the levee (flood-control dike) in Audubon Park and just watch the old river flow. Sometimes they go downtown near the famous French Quarter and watch tourist-packed paddle wheelers churn upstream. While there they often buy a dozen beignets, delicious deep-fried pastries powdered with sugar.
Of course, there is work to do as well. Robert is a student at a middle school that meets in a beautiful, white-columned building that used to be a courthouse. His favorite subjects are math and social studies. He has been honored at school as a scholar and has won science awards.
A “job wheel” on the Van Dam refrigerator also demands part of Robert’s time. Unloading the dish washer is his favorite chore; cleaning the bathroom is the one he dislikes most.
In his spare time Robert sometimes practices the art of origami (Japanese paper folding). He can make frogs, birds, deer, dogs, giraffes, and crayfish, to name a few. For Christmastime he has folded an origami Santa, sleigh, and reindeer.
Christmas is a very special time for the Van Dams. Each year they go to City Park, where thousands of electric stars and snowflakes are hung from the branches of moss-draped oak trees. Other favorite traditions are buying groceries for the poor and baking Christmas cookies for friends and neighbors.
Robert’s Blazer class has helped to clean up a senior citizen care center and a playground.
Robert has a lot of fun with his brothers and sister. Joseph loves sports and collects sports cards. Daniel likes to draw complicated castles. Sarah likes to dress up and to dance. Brian loves to laugh, and nobody is better at making him laugh than Robert.
Robert’s mom, Cynthia, teaches early morning seminary and cooks delicious meals such as jambalaya (a spicy dish of rice cooked with ham, sausage, chicken, shrimp, or oysters) and red beans. Robert’s dad, David, works as an accountant and serves as bishop of the ward. The children enjoy going with him to visit the sick and help cheer them up. Sometimes when Dad comes home from work or Church duties, he gets ambushed at the door in a hug attack.
There’s a lot of love in the Van Dam family. It’s their best treasure.