Jeffrey didn’t even remember waking up—he just slipped from pleasant dreams to smelling Mom’s cooking. He wiggled his feet between the sheets as he listened to her distant, busy, kitchen sounds.
Later that morning, after his mother had gone visiting teaching, Jeffrey repeated her instructions over and over to himself. “I won’t be gone long,” she had said, “and I’ll be right next door if you need me. There is one thing I would like you to help me with while I’m gone—and two things I want you to not do.”
The thing Mom wanted him to do was one of Jeffrey’s favorites—the dishes. And the not-do things were easy—he wasn’t to eat any cookies or watch TV.
Just before she left, his mother had hugged him and then stretched her arms out wide. “This much,” she’d said. Jeffrey had smiled and stretched his arms out, too. “This much, Mom.”
Once, when Jeffrey was much smaller—he was almost seven now—his mother had asked him how much he loved her. He had flung his arms as wide as he could and said proudly, “This much!” That gesture had become one of their private messages to each other.
Jeffrey stood on the kitchen stool, washing the dishes with a sponge and setting them in the warm rinse water. He felt important for doing something to help Mom. As he worked, he thought, I won’t take a cookie, of course, but I wonder if they’re cowboy cookies?
Cowboy cookies were his favorite. Mom made them with oatmeal, coconut, semisweet chocolate, and raisins. He looked at the bear-shaped cookie jar on the far end of the counter. “I’m not going to take one,” he said aloud, “but I wonder … ?”
He moved his stool, climbed up to the counter, and pulled the jar to him. As he lifted the lid, the welcome smell reached him almost as quickly as his memory of it. Yep, they’re cowboy cookies all right!
His tummy grumbled, wanting one. “Nope, I won’t,” he told his tummy. But as he looked into the jar, he saw a bump on the side of one cookie—you know, the little bump that sticks out so that the cookie isn’t quite round. Mom probably wouldn’t mind if I just ate that, he thought.
Almost on their own, his fingers picked up the cookie and removed the little chunk from its side. It was a short move from there to his mouth. Mmmm, it was good! He set the cookie back in the jar, but now it had a ragged dent in its side. When Mom sees that, she won’t like how it looks. He took the cookie out and looked in the jar. That looked better. He put the lid back on, returned the jar to its place, and climbed off the stool, cookie in hand.
Jeffrey never thought that he would eat a cowboy cookie he didn’t like, but as he sat at the table, eating this one, all he could think of was how sad Mom would be if she knew.
He climbed back up to the sink and continued to wash the dishes. At least I didn’t look at the TV. During the day, there weren’t programs on he wanted to watch, anyway. Then he remembered watching cartoons about this time of day at his friend Mark’s home. Mom said no watching TV, and I’m not going to. But, he thought, I can just check to see if that channel with the cartoons is on our television.
He dried his hands on his apron, went to the television, and turned it on. It came to life with older people doing boring, older-people things. He turned to the station he thought Mark had had on. There were the cartoons! He watched the captivating characters scurry across the screen. As he burst out in laughter at them, his feet, as if on their own, backed him onto the couch.
He was only there a moment, he was sure, when he heard steps coming up the walk! It must be Mom! He shot up from the couch, shut off the TV, ran to the sink, and began to wash more dishes.
When his mother had unlocked the door and come in, Jeffrey didn’t look at her. He couldn’t. He was ashamed of himself and hoped that she would never know how poorly he had done. He felt even worse when his mother rested her hand on his shoulder and asked, “Jeffrey, are you all right?”
“Yes.” But his voice didn’t even convince him.
Mom sat down at the kitchen table. “Come here,” she gently requested. “You know what?”
“You have chocolate on your face.”
Jeffrey didn’t even try to wipe it off. He just sat down heavily on the chair next to her and hung his head.
“What happened, little buddy?”
The story poured out in a flood of tears. As she listened, she tenderly pulled him over onto her lap and rocked him back and forth. After a while she gently asked, “Do you know why you didn’t do what you really wanted to do?”
Jeffrey didn’t know. He wished that he did, and he told her so.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Yes, Mom—you know I do.”
He smiled a little. “More than this.” He opened his arms wide.
“Then,” she said, “let me tell you an important truth. You must promise never to forget it, and you must use it.”
He nodded, listening to her closely.
“OK,” she said, “Here it is: We will never arrive at the place we don’t want to go, if we don’t take the first step to get there.”
“Yeah?” Jeffrey waited for her to tell him the rest.
“I don’t understand.”
Mom explained, “There are things you will not want to do because they make you sad. And there are things you will want to do because they make you happy. No matter how hard the first step seems that takes you to happiness, once you take it, everything gets easier.
“And,” she continued, “no matter how easy or safe the first step to sadness seems, don’t take it. Then you will never get to where you don’t want to be. You see, you fooled yourself when you decided to just see if the cookies were cowboy cookies.”
“Ohhhh.” Jeffrey began to understand. If he hadn’t looked in the cookie jar to see if they were cowboy cookies, he wouldn’t have seen the cookie with the bump. Looking was his first step to where he wished he had never gone. He thought of how innocent and small it had seemed to him at the time. “And,” he blurted, “the first step with the TV was when I turned it on to see if there really were cartoons.”
Mom smiled, pleased that he understood. “Every first step we take is always the most important. After we take it, the other steps always come quicker, made stronger by the first one. So, if we never take the first step …”
“… we will never get there,” Jeffrey completed. “And that’s why the first step is the most important step.”
He and Mom sat together quietly for a while. “Will you remember?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, I’ll remember,” he assured her. It was so simple. I won’t fool myself and take the wrong first step again, he promised himself. He turned to Mom. Together, they said, arms stretched wide, “This much!”