Sunday, November 29, 2015

Remember Me

A pickup truck pulled up in front of the sidewalk table where John was peeling the foil off a burrito as thick as his shoe. The boy who got to with his father had a thatch of dark hair that looked like it had been trimmed with a weed-whacker. He was about five, all arms and legs, the way boys are when they begin to stretch out. He moved cautiously, though, with none of the freewheeling energy that usually comes with that transition from toddler to colt.

At a table near John the boy sat in a chair with a broken weld, and when he began kicking his feet back and forth the chair wobbled like it might collapse under him. John held up one hand to warn him to be careful, but the boy didn’t notice, or didn’t understand. His dad gave John a puzzled, slightly hostile look. John nodded genially—No worries, I’m not some pervert—but this only seemed to irritate the man further. He clamped his hand on the boy’s leg and told him to quit fidgeting. He didn’t say it in a nice way, like “Be careful, son,” but with a harshness that had the dead tone of habit.

John thought: No, why don’t you quit talking to your son that way.

The boy’s quesadilla arrived with two ice-cream scoops of guacamole and sour cream on top. He lifted one side tentatively, as if looking for a prize underneath. The father took another pull on his beer and told him to quit playing with his food. John could see the disaster coming. He made a little involuntary motion with his hand as if to reach out to the boy, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the sour cream and guacamole from plopping into the boy’s lap. 

They were both so still, the man staring obliviously into the street, the boy looking at his lap; it felt like they were controlling John’s breathing. He scooted his chair back and stood up; he should just pay his bill and leave.

“Oh, hell, son,” the man said when he saw what had happened. 

There was a quaver in his voice. Maybe John had misjudged him. Perhaps his wife had left him and he had brought the boy here to tell him his mother was gone. He was drinking to get up the courage.

John was still standing, staring at them stupidly. The man looked over and said, “Piss off.”

“Sorry,” John said.

The boy was watching him, imploring him, he imagined: Don’t mess with my dad, I’ll be all right.

“Come on,” the man said. He grabbed his son by the forearm and jerked him out of his chair.

The boy resisted. “I want to eat.”

As they came toward him, John stepped into their path.

“I told you to piss off,” the man said. 

His freckled cheeks and thick neck darkened. A long strand of ginger comb-over fell across one eye. The boy was practically swinging by his arm.

John said: “Why not let the boy finish his food?”

Monday, November 23, 2015

You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em

Remember that old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler"? It was running through my head this morning as I was thinking about my children, who are all grown up, all launched. But as anyone who has lived past thirty knows, there's not one launch in life, but many. A pogo stick might be a better analogy than a rocket.

Here’s the shocking truth I offer all parents of young children: when they grow up, they’ll be the same as they are now. One thing will lead to another. The difference is that you won’t be there to guide them.

I remember as clearly as if they were still towheads each passage of each of my children: first lost tooth, first stitches, first misdemeanor, first cap and gown. Those early years of parenting are so close, so intense, it’s hard to back off when the time comes. My kids have generously helped me by moving away. It’s a good strategy on their parts. Out of sight, out of nag.

Yet, still there are times when I feel like that father I used to be, kissing a hurt, wiping away a tear. Children heal faster than adults. Maybe that means adults need even more care when they take a tumble, not less. But how to deliver it is complicated; the old routines aren’t available.There’s no hot chocolate, no cozy bed to tuck into, no familiar picture book to read out loud. Where’s Spot? Is he behind the clock?

You want to do more for them than you would for a friend—more than a pat on the shoulder and a “You’ll be fine”—but children never really get over the reflex to break free of parental control, so well-meant counsel can go bad pretty easily, and then you’re left feeling like a failure as a parent and having even less idea about what your child is going through. 

I suppose adult children aren’t that different than toddlers. They want love and approval, without strings. That’s easy when they’re very young, when there’s no conflict between approval and the instinct to keep them safe. If a five-year-old resents being told he can't do something dangerous, he forgets about it in an instant and launches into some other only slightly less dangerous activity. 

A grown child doesn’t want to be told not to play in traffic, though. Like a toddler, an adult child doesn’t want to be told what to do at all. So, as when they were young and too high on the monkey bars, you bite your tongue, maybe look the other way, and cross your fingers.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to scold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when you’re done.

You never count yourself finished,
When they’re making it on their own,
There’ll be time enough for finished,
When your race is run.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bringing Home the Beds

Meg and I are selling a vacation home that we bought when our sons were young. We spent many happy summers there wth them and, after they went off to college and got too busy for summers with Mom and Dad, we went for weeks at a time throughout the year. I thought that without the boys I wouldn’t like going there, but we loved it: walks on the beach with our golden retriever, who loved that beach better than anything, candlelit dinners on the patio, long soaks in the spa under the stars. And for some reason we both wrote well there. Maybe it was the absence of the distractions of everyday life. So we kept the house and rented it to others when we weren’t there to make it affordable. Recently, the city banned vacation rentals and our beloved old dog died, and now, with no boys, no dog and no income, it’s time to move on.

As part of fixing up the house for renters, we took out a double bed my grandfather made a hundred years ago as a wedding gift to his bride and replaced it with a modern queen bed. We put my grandfather’s bed in the bedroom in Palo Alto that the boys shared growing up, thinking it would be nice as a guest room. But when they both come home for a visit, we had to set up another bed for one of them, one of the kids beds that was part of a bedroom playground set. And with my grandfather’s bed in there, it didn’t look like their bedroom anymore. It was disturbing, really, for a sentimental slob like me.

In their room at our beach house, we had two lovely camp beds made by a local furniture maker as prototypes for a summer camp. They are simple, handsome beds for boy or man, so we are bringing them home to our sons' old room in Palo Alto and putting my grandfather’s bed in the attic. If we have guests who are also lovers, they can push them together.

I am unreasonably happy about this. I imagine it as kind of an aesthetic blending of their bedrooms in the two houses, the best of each, the best of my memories of the times when I tucked them in, read to them, checked to see if they were sneaking time on the Game Boys after bedtime, picked up after them, washed their sheets, opened the windows to let in fresh air.

They won’t be there in those beds, or not that often anyway, but my memories of them will be. I don’t want to sound too maudlin; they’re not dead, just off in their lives, for which I couldn’t be happier. Just like my three older children. Just like Meg and me. But I was a father to young children for so long that it’s an old sweater I still like to pull out of the closet when I feel a chill. It’s worn and ratty, and I don’t wear it often, but it still makes me feel warm and happy.