“my childhood is over.”
when he was not even 2, he looked up through the skylight as i tucked in the covers, soft by his shoulders. “mommy,” he wondered aloud, “who puts God to bed?”
when he was 3, he looked up from the kitchen table, and asked, “mommy, what is facetious?”
i’ve been side-by-side with this questioning child for 18 years now. i’ve gotten used to the way words unspool from his mouth, from his mind, from that heart deep inside.
but that doesn’t mean i’ve stopped catching my breath, feeling the air stopped in its tracks, when some of the thoughts come.
and so it was, the other night, sitting at dinner alongside a pond in chicago’s lincoln park, that great front yard of the city, looking south on the muscled shoulders of steel and glass that scrape the sky.
we were feasting, had sipped the watermelon, basil and gin cocktail (i don’t drink gin, but this had to do with a newspaper assignment, and that boy beside me, he sure didn’t mind). had scooped the very last drop of asparagus puree from our plate, and duck rillettes from a charcuterie slab.
the little one and his papa had gone off to visit the so-called powder room, when my brand-new 18-year-old took in one of his sighs, the kind where the smile begins with the first uptake of air, and the eyes start to glisten, and i pretty much know that what’s coming next will enchant me.
“you know,” he began, “this is the first time in my life a whole phase of my life has ended. my childhood is over. it’s not like you can reach back into any of the moments and shift it around. it was what it was. and even if i don’t remember one moment, or the one after that, the experience of that moment is all there, is a part of who i am.”
then he just smiled.
or i think so. for my eyes were veiled in a scrim of tears, that holy blessed water that anoints so many moments of life. sanctifies. signals, my heart has been touched here. is pounding. is spilling. cannot be contained.
“my childhood is over.”
i tumbled the words in my head, in my mouth, so many dew drops of wisdom packed in each one, so rich was the taste on my tongue.
“my childhood is over.”
and so it is.
and that, perhaps, is the crux of why 18 matters. not that he can now buy cigarettes; which you know he wouldn’t. not that he can vote, which he can and he will. oh, will he. and not, as he remembered to tell us when ticking off the new-found legalities, that he can now buy playboy magazine. which i would bet he won’t do. (and which prompted the little one to ask, loudly, “what’s playboy?” to which we all shooshed him quite emphatically, as fears raced through our heads that he’d be tossing that just-discovered word around on the fifth-grade playground.)
“my childhood is over.”
the words kept tumbling through my head, and suddenly so many scenes pop-pop-popped.
the summer camps at the zoo, and the planetarium, and that great hall of midwestern pluck and twang, the old town school of folk music.
the little boy in the NASA astronaut suit. the little boy in the blue-striped engineer’s cap. the boy on the baseball team in hyde park; the boy standing in the T-ball outfield, turned away from the pitcher’s mound, pointing toward the sky, hollering, “look, there’s venus.”
the boy sitting on the roof of the playhouse on the playground at lab school, watching–not playing in–the schoolyard games. the big move to the 10-mile-away town where all is leafy, is mown, is too-often manicured, leaving behind the pop and the whir of the city he loved. the el rides, back. the boy who would not leave his city. a boy forever enchanted with urban grid, and thoreau’s wilderness.
the tearful nights in the kitchen. the angst of all-nighters. the company he found in the pages of nabokov and faulkner and emerson. the arc of limitations he tested, wrapping his palms ’round the oars, rowing his heart out, not looking back.
it was all the quilt of his childhood. his childhood stitches now pulled through the cloth, now set.
it was what it was.
forever will be.
and i couldn’t help but think of how very wholly i had poured myself into the work of being his mother, of all the hours and brain cells and blood cells it took. the signing up for this camp or that. the filling out form after form. the driving him long ways, and jam-packed ways, at all hours. the praying. the worrying. the peering in through the classroom door to see that all was well.
mothers do that, knowing or not. we set out to be our child’s field guide and companion. we arrange and re-arrange. we call people we don’t know, speak words that don’t come easy sometimes. we listen 24 hours a day. we carry our children wherever we go, even when the miles between us are many.
even when they’re 18. and beyond.
but for that whole first chapter, the one whose last page has just turned, i was fully awake, fully on board.
i gave that boy the best that i had. i’d made him that promise. so help me God, i did not run away, not on the nights when i had no answers, not on the mornings when worry consumed me. not when, for the 9 millionth time, i walked in his room and witnessed what happens when a cyclone blows through.
i was, forever will be, the mother who plays in his childhood scenes. who will endlessly loop. i’m the one off to the left in so many frames. i am, more than anything, the one who is beaming.
the fact of the matter is this: the greatest gift i’ve ever known is the gift of being that boy’s mother. i have learned volumes. fallen umpteen times. scratched the depths of my soul, so help me God.
i have preached and promised and pleaded. i’ve stirred and baked and spooned in whatever was needed, oatmeal to amoxicillin, i’ve served ’em all.
it’s what we do when we discover our deepest calling is the call to mother a child.
that childhood is over. and my tasks there are laid to rest.
but that boy is riding today, in a car full of 18-year-olds, to a faraway city in the belly of michigan. there’s an interstate between here and there, and 18-wheel rigs that whiz by, hellbent on getting wherever they go in a hurry.
it’s time to let the boy go. his childhood is over. but don’t think for a minute that this day will be easy. his father is tied up in knots. i’m the one soothing, saying, he’ll be fine, when deep in my head i picture terrible things.
my last words as he strode out the door, that strapping tall boy with the duffle slung over his rock-hard shoulder: “come home safe, or i’ll kill you.”
dear Lord, hear my prayer.
the murky picture above is not so murky in my mind. it’s my two boys, after dinner, with the chicago skyline rising up over their shoulders. fireworks were exploding from behind those mounding rainclouds, and at first we thought it was red lightning, making for an unforgettable step into the night, as we left the north pond cafe, where we’d savored an unforgettable feast, an unforgettable marking of age. my camera didn’t do what i wanted, but i love the image anyway. it’s the way memory fades, yellows around the edges.
please forgive my tendency lately to write here as if i am tracking time, the close of my firstborn’s childhood, as he put it. one of the gifts of writing is that it serves as glue, to stick snapshots to the pages of your life, so you capture it, hold it. these stories are for down the road as much as for today. they are for me to read and re-read some day; they are for my boys to tuck in their boxes from childhood. in writing of life’s passage, i hope that each and every one of you finds a spark of your such passage, or the passage of someone you love. a blog is an odd-duck of a thing. a blog of four and a half years, odder still, perhaps.
these are but swatches of my heart. and if they spark something in you, my prayers are answered. do tell: when you hear the words, “my childhood is over. it was what it was….” what sparks to your mind? what are the scenes from your own childhood that have lasted through all the years?
Love that young man, and his flair for the dramatic. Blessed to be his uncle. Kudos to all involved.
Friday, June 24, 2011 – 07:45 PM
Reading this, I am so moved because I have let one of mine go, too. You give them your all, impart every last drop of love, patience and wisdom you can muster, then watch them go their way.
I remember one spring when a little wren decided the wreath on my front door was a perfect spot to build her nest and lay her eggs. Fortunately for us, the peephole gave us a “birds eye view” (sorry, had to say it) to the center of that nest and we witnessed the hatching and rearing of those darling little babies. As they grew, the nest couldn’t hold them anymore, and one by one their mama gave them flying lessons as she darted from the nest to the big tree in the front yard. I recall cheering them on, saying, “C’mon little one … your mama taught you all you need to know to fly.”
I learned alot that spring watching the nest. Mostly, I learned that it’s inherent in all of us to grow and go out on our own. Mothering is serious business … I know without the help of God, I never would have been able to hug and kiss my daughter goodbye and watch her drive away.
bam … you are an amazing mother. Never apologize for writing about these things … it’s a part of you that we all find so endearing. Much love.
Saturday, June 25, 2011 – 03:28 PM
I find myself saying this time and again … but what pjv said. You ARE an amazing mother. I think often of how you make celebrations for everything — that Teddy made it through his week away at camp and what a brave thing it was — you know how to celebrate life, and your blog — though I don’t think of the table as a blog, because it seems such an ugly word for such beautiful renderings of your heart — helps us all to step back and take notice. You’re right — these pieces the boys will tuck away forever and you will have them to look back on and feel all the feelings all over again. You are a blessed family, people who live in a thin place, because you make it that way — heaven nearby every day, because you pay attention, to one another and to the world, blessing everyone as you go. May all you give return to you manyfold. xoxo
Saturday, June 25, 2011 – 04:11 PM
nancy, you just made me cry at seeing the word “thin place,” as utterly breathtaking a term as i’ve ever known, irish or rather celtic in roots, as i understand. a place you go where heaven is within reach. my arms feel weightless as i sit here trying to type, that was so unexpected and so beautifully put in a conversation about the homes we try to create, as blessed magnificent (missed YOU!) pjv put it, the nests we build for our baby birds…..
i think the word “thin place” has deep and everlasting resonance for me because i first heard it used by this magnificent woman i once wrote about, a woman who turned to farmer after her beloved firstborn son was killed while home on leave from iraq. she grieved by tending to and harvesting the earth, and as we walked her farm–a beautiful place, a place she had stitched with her own carefree whimsical soul sparks–she told me the hayloft was where she went to cry, even years later. it was her “thin place,” she told me. and she couldn’t believe i’d not heard the word before, what with the last name mahany and all. so to hear it used for this humble house i have here, just took my breath away. it is what all of us here want to create for the ones we love. is not our purpose about living in such ways that we can reach out and grab a fistful of heaven, whenever we are so inspired?
and pjv, i love love love your nest story. no matter how many times i hear or contemplate stories about mama birds and nests, i marvel at the great act of courage of sending off the ones you love, sending them off, while holding your breath, while sending up prayers like smoke from a chimney. postscript: my boy got there safe as could be. was met at the regatta by that gorgeous magnificent uncle up above, bam2, who told no one that he and his bride were driving 3 hours to be on the river bank and take in the action. that kind of love is some kind of magnificent all right. it’s why i will say till my dying day: it’s been a village that raised that child. a village of love, that rests on the shoulders of uncles and aunts and grandmas and a grandpa and friends and teachers and the occasional stranger who have stepped in time after time, and taught lessons no one else could have shared….
i too hate the word, blog, by the way. it sounds like a bodily function, like a burp. so we will go on not knowing what the table, or the chair, really is. and thank you for kindly saying my love letters are acceptable fodder. they are all of our love letters. i’m merely the typist.
blessings to each and every one of you, the ones who leave love notes, and the ones who read and tiptoe quietly away..
Sunday, June 26, 2011 – 08:20 AM
Another “blessed to be his uncle” here…
Will’s comment to his Mama simply blew me right out of the water. How many kids have enough wisdom to know what he knows at his age? I daresay, not many. And a smile, and a tear to punctuate it..But his comment reflects back at all the love and wonder his Mama (and Papa) poured in for 18 years…WOW!!!
Thank you for recording these milestones. Don’t ever stop.
Couldn’t stop if you tried… 🙂
Monday, June 27, 2011 – 01:47 AM
Heart Open Wide
I love Will’s freedom to speak his heart.
And how his parents fostered/foster that.
Knowing you will be honored, when your heart opens wide.
That’s a defining moment.
28 years ago, I opened my heart all the way and told Mom privately “I’m going to move to Arizona and study Classical piano with John.” She looked at me, nodded “Alright, Michael,” and embraced my dream…and that’s a blessing to be able to let ‘er rip and be encompassed by love on such a scale.
Thursday, June 30, 2011 – 11:10 PM