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Tag: childhood

old blue rides into the sunset. end of story.

old blue. sunset

some time today, a hungry tow truck will roll into the back lot of kenney’s automotive on coates avenue in south deerfield, massachusetts — some 771.668 miles away on the odometer — and the scrunch scrunch scrunch of the metal tooth biting into the rear bumper of an old blue wagon will pierce my heart, all the way from here, inside the old gray house nestled along the alley from which that old car drove away just last summer.

car died a smoky death, rolling into the left turn lane of a country road, near midnight the other night. i found out when the little phone by the side of my hotel bed jangled me awake, and my heart ripped through my chest when i saw the name pop up and heard some degree of alarm as the voice on the other end of the line, a voice i know to be my firstborn’s, yelped: “mom, the car’s smoking. how do you pop the hood?”

he explained, in a bit of a rush: “we’re heading to a diner (at midnight, mind you). and all of a sudden the ‘check engine’ light went on. when i touched the brake, the whole dashboard lit up and smoke started pouring.”

how odd that just the night before, under the halo of a streetlamp in a soggy college parking lot, we’d all made a pilgrimage to that old wagon, paid our last respects — though we didn’t know it at the time — all under the premise that i was applying the $101 village sticker to the windshield and the kid brother, who is sentimental about these things, said he really missed the old car and just wanted to stretch out in the back seat for a minute or two. never mind that the college kid — who’s never been keen on housekeeping — tried to convince us that, really, the car wasn’t in shape for visitors; there were a few remnants strewn around the seats, items the kid brother wasted no time in spying, inquiring about, loudly — in service of his father’s enlightenment and the college kid’s deep chagrin.

i, motherly and not trusting that the job would get done before the old sticker expired, climbed behind the wheel — a wheel i’d climbed behind umpteen million times in the 20 years since we’d bought the sturdy scandinavian vessel — and slapped on the sticker. looked around. climbed back into the pouring rain. the kid in the back seat inhaled — breathing deep of the rare perfume of sweaty rowers who’d made the car into their team shuttle — and then he sighed. he didn’t want to leave the car alone, there in the college lot. fact is, he wanted to take it home.

but we had a big city — boston — to get back to, and a long two-hour’s drive in pouring pouring rain. the car would be home in a few months anyway, when it was motored back for the summer.

when the call came in on sunday night — when whatever it was did whatever it smokily did — my second thought, after telling the midnight caller to be sure not to stand on the side of the road, was “thank god, he didn’t drive into cambridge (the original plan), or this smoky thing would have likely happened while he was alone on a god-awful rainy night along the side of the mass pike where guard rails keep you from driving off what midwesterners would call ‘the cliff.'”

fast forward through a flurry of phone calls, and a keen friendship struck up between me and dear gerry, the massachusetts car mechanic who tells me “the news is bad”: the car we bought before our firstborn’s first birthday has finally bit the dust.

we might get $250 for parts.

now i know it’s little more than a heap of scandinavian steel and a few still tufted cushions, but that old car ferried us clear through two splendid childhoods: drove one little boy to preschool, kindergarten, straight to college. drove the other one home from the hospital, for crying out loud. and every day after. until the car itself went off to college.

at about year three, when we thought there’d never be a little brother and a cat seemed a solid substitute, it drove one mewing striped kitten — stuffed for safe carriage inside the cardboard slot of an ice house beer six-pack — from farm to city house. and it made like an ambulance the bloody afternoon we got the call that the firstborn had somersaulted over the handlebars and was found lying limp on the side of a trail in the woods. from the front seat, that boy whose neck we didn’t yet know was broken, moaned: “mom, am i going to die?” and the little one in the car seat one row back just whimpered and prayed his mighty little prayers, he would later let me know.

it’s the car in which one boy learned to drive. and where i do believe he sealed a first kiss. it lugged groceries by the ton, and broken bikes, and giggling boys. it’s where one or two of us have turned when a good long ride, with the radio on loud, was the surest cure to chase away the blues. it’s carried us through storms and snow and crying jags that would not stop. it always got us home.

it almost hurts to peek at the picture up above, a beauty shot if ever there was. and i can’t bear to imagine the grinding of the gears as the tow truck hoists the wagon to a tilt and rolls it to the burial ground of old, much loved and trusted carriage rides on wheels.

with its bumps and bruises, it’s rolling off in glory. a car that earned its honor. never once did one of us get hurt inside that vessel. it did the job it promised: it rolled two boys, one cat, a mama and a papa safe and sound through all the twists and turns, the hills and downslides of being a happy family that dearly loved what was hoisted on its axels.

i’d planned on telling you about our adventures back in the land of 02139, where for five intoxicating days we inhaled dear friends, cobblestone streets, even a shakespeare class in old harvard hall. but the death knell for the old blue wagon tolled. and i can’t much think beyond it. it’ll be a long sad summer pedaling my bike. my heart will always pine for old blue, the car that turned me gray.

do you have a car you loved? a set of wheels that carried you much farther than mere odometer miles?

“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?

the power of replay

in the picture show that’s been spooling through my head these months, these weeks, these past few days, i find myself looping forth and back.

from birth, to backyard sacraments (the morn we laid to rest the baby bird, before that the afternoon in our city garden when we blessed our newborn babe), to long hours after midnight, as i lay awake and worried.

i’ve remembered sounds — the swishing of the screen door on the old-world bakery where we used to stroll for an oatmeal-raisin cookie bigger than my little one’s pudgy hand.

and i’ve remembered breath-taking moments — the early morn in bed when his papa and i stumbled on what would be his name, the name that to me, then and now, sparked the picture of a tall, honest prairie boy, which in many ways he has become.

or this: the golden-lit noon when the call came from a stranger, she’d found my boy, limp, bloodied, mumbling, on a bike path in the woods.

they’ve all come tumbling, frame after frame, sight and sound and swirl.

as we near the marker labeled graduation, i find this time affords that rare chance to riffle through the picture box i carry where i go, the one inside my head. i pick up frames, i examine once again. i lay them in a row. and shuffle them through time.

it’s what we do, we humans who are gifted with a heart and with capacity for replay, rewind, fast forward.

life moves swiftly when we’re not watching — and even when we are. and suddenly we find ourselves at a so-called seam in what is, through knots and stitches, becoming someone’s patchwork quilt, the story of a life that we know so very well, that we hold as if our own.

these benchmarks, these stitched-together places, this is where we pause, and slip into double time, meaning we live in the moment on one plane, and in the inner plane we live on whatever speed we choose, as we so naturally fall into the sifting, stitching, marveling that got us all to here.

it’s why, as a civilization, we mark all sorts of time, of episodes, of chapters. from year to year of sun, or month to month of moon, we grab hold of any chance, it seems, to measure who we are, and how we’ve grown, as we pass the mile marks along the way: birth. birthday. end of every school year. holy anniversary.

we seem to want, to need, to play it back again. to spiral back and forth in time and space, if only in our minds and hearts, as we press into our souls the whole of who we love, and watch anew from every angle.

i know the time-trick well. i’ve been watching, playing, for awhile, these past few months and weeks.

only now, with days to go, the tempo’s picking up, the hours of sleep are dwindling, i am hard at work sorting through the picture show that is the life i’ve loved so deeply dearly: my firstborn’s years at home, my firstborn’s school years, his growing up years, his baby years and toddler years, his going-off-to-school years.

the ones i’ve known so intimately. the ones i alone recite, in the incantation of motherhood, the shadows and the light that got us here.

the tickets now are tucked in the slot where all the mail is kept. the white dinner jacket will soon hang in the upstairs closet. the grandparents should be walking in the door any minute now.

the time has come.

and i’ve milked the richness from the marrow. i have played and replayed so many scenes. i’ve stockpiled all it took to get here.

and when, on sunday eve, i look down on that flowing river of white gowns and white dinner jackets, i will more than likely be awash in joyful tears, satisfied tears, knowing tears.

i will have gathered up the frames, one by one, of the whole of this boy’s life with mine. and i will whisper holy thanks for the riches deep inside that this picture show has brought. the looping story that will never ever end.

i must bow on bended knee, and open wide the prayers inside my heart, to thank the Lord on High, who brought me long ago my deepest dearest hope: to be the mother to a child who would forever be my teacher.

and now, if you care to let it spill, what’s the picture show playing in the house that you call home?

that’s my firstborn, up above, on his first day of kindergarten, outside the gothic castle that is the laboratory schools of the university of chicago. that’s his best chumley from those sweet sweet days and years, more like brother and sister those two, and her mama, my beloved motherfriend, the rarest of gifts she was and is. they’ll both be here on sunday morn as we mark the moment with a family brunch.
it is just those snapshots that have filled me up so very much in recent days, as i hold each to the light. and marvel.

freeze frame

i am holding onto moments, freezing frames, as if compiling a loop of kodacolor film i will hold, rub my thumbs along, raise up to the light, memorize, when he is gone.

i am stopping at the edge of his room, soaking in the tableau–the jumbled socks, the soggy towel–knowing that in half a year, there will be no messy room.

i am driving to his school, climbing stairs, entering the gallery where his art hangs on the wall. i am standing, neck tilted back, looking up, eyes wide, soaking in the art, his words, his name on the label on the wall.

i climb downstairs, take my seat in the dim-lit auditorium, look toward the stage, see the curl of his bass, the slick-down curls of his own head, still wet from the shower after rowing.

i lock my eyes on his silhouette in the darkness, as the stage lights come up from behind, as i study that head that i have held, have known, since the hour when i reached for him, newborn, and took him in my arms.

nearly 18 years i have loved him more than anything, have been a player in the story of his life. have known the scenes, most every one. and now, the ones i enter into, i hold onto in my mind, in my heart, as i commit to memory, yes, but even more to soul, the whole of this chapter of mothering. of being the moon to his orbit, his every day rotation.

i hear the drumbeat in the background. soft at first, muffled, but getting louder by the day. as if the dial’s being turned.

the last this. the senior that. final season.

two months and two weeks till graduation. all around me, high school swirls. he swirls. my firstborn, love of my life.

i pore over each and every frame. take time. stop, in mid-conversation, as he lies, stretched out at the end of a long day, reaches for my popcorn, tells me silly stories. i stop and marvel. take in each syllable, but witness too the quirks and gestures i have known for so very many years. the way he taps his thumb, crosses his leg and kicks his foot.

i marvel at the mere fact that at the end of these long days we can unspool together, i can hear in real time, without phone line or typed email. i can, for a few more short months, take in his life in 3-D, full-plane topography.

and so, as if storing for the future, for the days when he won’t be here, won’t be coming home soon. for the days when i ache to see his shining eyes, when i’ll give anything for a jumbled pair of sweaty socks to be dropped across his room…..

i am gathering the frames, the moments of his wholeness, one facet at a time. i am doing what we do when someone we love is leaving, and we are making room inside our hearts to store the memories, the sense, the wholeness.

i am holding onto time as i feel it slipping through my fingers. i am scaffolding my heart for when it’s aching, and these days are no longer……

the window up above, with the candles and the russian cross, that is one of will’s six photos in the art show. or it’s a part of a photo, taken at a louis sullivan russian orthodox church on chicago’s west side. i sat up in the choir loft as will clicked away in the jewel-box of a church, where sunlight played on golden threads and gold-painted doors.

as i try to wrap my head around this leaving, around this chapter coming to a close, i can’t help but reach for words, to try to shade in the outlines. i know there are those who’ve walked this way, did the letting go settle in slowly? did you keep watch as the time drew nearer? or did it come up from behind and catch you unawares?