It was just beginning to snow by the time I browbeat thirteen-year-old Thing1 into a clean T-shirt and into the car last Thursday. We were headed to Hubbard Hall for a pay-what-you-will dress rehearsal of 'King Lear', and, for the first time all year, Thing1 had decided he really wanted to do homework.
“Who are you and what have you done with my son?” I asked as we got into the car. He rolled his eyes at me. Any other night, such devotion to homework would have prompted me to call a mental health professional, but we had to get to dinner before the show, and I decided not to spike the ball.
Thirteen has made Thing1 unrecognizable somedays. A winter ago on the same road, anticipating another winter Shakespeare tragedy, this same young man regaled me with the intricacies of modifying his favorite computer game. Thursday night, he kept his own council.
I asked about his day at school and got mostly monosyllabic answers to my questions. Finally, I asked the right question.
“How are you liking The Crucible?” The two of us had seen that play a year earlier at another local theatre, and I hoped the experience was enhancing his classwork.
“I'm just bored with it,” he finally answered.
“With the play?” I asked. “Or the class in general?” I thought I knew his answer. Thing1 loves math and science and considers English classes state-sanctioned torture. But I didnt know him as well as I thought.
“I'm bored with school,” he said, and my head nearly exploded with the questions that were forming. For the next fifteen minutes and then the next hour at dinner and in the theatre as we waited for King Lear to disown a loving daughter and a loyal servant only to realize he didn't understand their motives all that well, I uncovered a wealth of curiosity and dreams that my son had been quietly nurturing these last few months.
Instead of a knave bent on defying his parents' entreaties to take homework seriously, I was seeing a boy hungry for inspiration at school but determined to find it on his own if necessary. I was seeing a spark and, with it, the boy I thought I knew.
We don’t have a furnace, but we do have an amish-made wood cookstove that burns about five cords of wood every winter. Over the last few years, thirteen-year-old Jack has increasingly enjoyed the triple-warming feature of our chosen heat source.
As Jack’s body has grown, so has his part in the stacking, hauling, and burning. Some years he even takes on the lion’s share of the stacking in hopes of earning some cash. Even the small income, however, has not taught him to appreciate the woodpile.
Monday we each had a day off. I decided to lend him a hand. After lunch, we each donned work gloves and earbud and started ferrying logs to the woodshed.
It was quiet work. Each of us was listening to music, but, as Jack has grown taller, he has also become more introspective. Spontaneous utterances are rare. He meets most of my queries these days with monosyllabic answers.
As the first cord formed in the shed, however, Jack volunteered the remark on the increase in speed when there were two stacking. I concurred, adding that it was almost pleasant when you got moving. Jack retreated to silence again. I asked what music he was listening to, extracting an answer after repeating the questions several ways.
I entertain no illusions about my hipness as a mother (only my fitness as one), and I was glad just to know a little about Jack’s evolving music tastes. In the next hour we would chat about his English grade, the computer he’s been working toward over the last year, and his favorite video game. In the end, the wood stacking warmed each of us, but in completely different ways. For Jack, it was still just a chore. For me, it was one more thing in my life that reminding me to feel thankful.
Thirteen-year-old Jack and I have always been able to bond, not just over the mother-child kissing of boo-boo’s or doling out of hugs after a meltdown, but because we have a lot of the same interests. Lately, Jack’s primary interest has been focused on all things computer. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this interest. I love that he has a hobby that lets me bond with my son while we discuss digital life. I hate that his passion has also become a wedge.
At the end of the school year, Jack brought home a less-that-stellar grade on a final exam, and the Big Guy and I lowered the boom. He had already enrolled in computer camp (his first sleep away camp), so we let him indulge his obsession over the summer. When he got home, however, we made it clear that until a satisfactory first progress report came home from school, he was grounded from the computer. We live in the middle of the woods and any social event requires us to act as chauffeur, so traditional grounding is redundant. Jack’s obsession revived the punishment as a useful stick.
We’re not shy about removing privileges or assigning extra chores when the occasion arises, and, in the past, Jack has seen the error of his ways and usually accepted our punishments as just. Something about being thirteen, however, has made the enforcement of this sentence much less pleasant.
The punishment has inspired tortured looks of betrayal from my first born. It’s prompted legal arguments about the wisdom of ending the punishment earlier and, as homework requires more time on the computer, it’s also inspired him to attempt head-on defiance of the punishment. No longer are we the people he trusts without question. No longer is our judgement sound. In his eyes there is now the constant question that, if we are so wrong about this punishment, what other things have his parents been wrong about? I don’t think he questions our love for him, but, for the first time in our relationship, he’s actively questioning if we know what we’re doing. I have that question all the time (and I can write it because I know he doesn’t read this blog).
I remember my parents using similar carrots and sticks and how they became wedges as well. It didn’t take becoming a parent to see around the wedge, but I think it did take walking this mile in their moccasins to see that the wedge really brought us closer because at that point they weren’t trying to be my friends. They were being my parents. And that’s ultimately what any kid needs.
I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years and was more than a little nervous about the prospect of spending 3 hours riding on mountain trails – however flat they were. The last time I was on a bike a motorist had literally run me off the road into a ditch, and, after limping my bike home, I stuck to walking. But this has been a summer of redemption for me, and it would continue to be from the first 10 minutes of our journey.
Fortunately, you really don’t forget how to ride a bike, and my summer fitness plan – intended to make sitting in a standard-size train seat more comfortable – paid off once again. The mechanics were in place, and we would be riding in a converted railroad bed, ensuring there would be no maniacal motorists. Faking the absence of fear was getting easier as we got closer to the starting gate, and then the trail guide began giving us the rundown of the road we were about to travel.
We were to start with a 1 1/2 mile ride through a tunnel with no light save for our headlights. There would be several tunnels throughout the ride, and several of them had trenches running alongside them. I listened and smiled, taking courage from the relaxed faces of my family, but my stomach was already beginning to churn.
The safety warnings noted, we mounted our bikes and headed for the first tunnel. Thirteen-year-old Jack and his eighteen-year-old cousin, already thick as thieves despite having only met a few days earlier, charged ahead. Fearless but not reckless, Jack sped towards the tunnel. I was still getting my bike lets and was happy to pedal more slowly. The Big Guy was trailing our youngest son, and went between us.
The darkness closed in around us quickly. Behind me I heard one of my nieces struggling with her own fears, and the mom in me slowed to try and comfort her. Her father, however, was just behind us and, falling back on his twenty years of military-instilled discipline, barked at her to get moving. It worked for both of us. I began peddling and calling back encouragement to my niece.
Jack and his cousin got to the end of the tunnel first and were waiting for the adults. One by one, we emerged, blinking at the summer sun. I was shaking a bit, but when I looked at my oldest son, there was only excitement and happiness with the day and the mountains around him. There was no fear, and I could see there hadn’t been any. Part of me pondered how he got so brave with a mother who constantly lets fear govern her life – and his sometimes. The other part of me was absorbing his excitement.
We snapped a few shots of cousins and then pedaled further. Every mile featured breathtaking views and, often, equally breathtaking drops that seemed incredibly close to the road. The further we traveled, however, the less I even felt the fears that would normally have me thinking about the size of the drops and what it would be like to fall from them.
The sun in the cloudless sky that framed the majestic peaks that surrounded us drenched the day’s palette in intense blues and greens. It also brought everything into sharp focus.
Jack and his cousin remained in the lead the rest of the ride. And, while he was busy growing the part of me that had absorbed his excitement and joy realized that I was busy being reborn.
This is a Thank You note from a long-time fan and a grateful parent. About three weeks ago, our entire family traveled from Vermont to Boston to see you perform at Fenway Park. We were a little nervous – it was our first visit to Boston in over a year, and we had high hopes. Thanks to you, they were met in ways we hadn’t begun to imagine.
We got to our seats in Fenway just about quarter to seven and not before shelling out a sinful amount of money for T-shirts. I rationalized this was the only time we may get to see you perform. And, even though a friend who had been to your sound check earlier in the afternoon had warned us that you were late, we decided it was more fun to wait inside a ballpark that had so many memories for the Big Guy and I than to stand around Yawkey Way.
About forty minutes after we sat down, an introductory slideshow began scrolling up the two massive screens on either side of the stage. I’ve been listening to your songs since I was in the womb, and my husband has been a fan since seeing you perform on Ed Sullivan, and loved seeing the photos of you and the Beatles and your more recent years. We’ve done our best to move the tradition forward to our kids, and even they loved seeing the photos of you growing up and growing your own family.
Our six-year-old, lovingly known as Thing2 around our house, waited as patiently as I have ever seen him wait for anything. When the first song began, about an hour and a half after the scheduled time, he was just starting to want to go back to the hotel, but when the first notes began to echo through the ball park, you brought him back. You also brought me and the Big Guy to our feet. The three of us were singing and dancing and clapping as you belted out, “‘Eight Days a We-e-ek.. ‘Eight Days a We-e–eek””.
My older son, twelve-year-old Thing1 who is about to be thirteen and, while not your oldest fan could possibly be your most devoted one, was sitting in his sit trying to cover his face with his hands so that he wouldn’t be recognizable if pictures of his parents dancing like idiots made it onto a concert tour DVD. But we kept dancing, and despite himself, Thing1 began to silently mouth the words to the song.
Everytime I peeked at him, he rewarded our dancing a look of mortification. But somewhere between ‘Eight Days a Week’ and ‘We Can Work it Out’ and your soul-lifting introduction to and rendition of Blackbird (I can scarcely remember a more uplifting moment than sitting in the dark with 30,000 people singing along with your guitar), Thing1 had an epiphany that could only have happened here.
As the Big Guy, Thing2 and I were dancing and clapping, Thing1 and I glanced across the aisle and noticed another set of parents with a pair of young sons around 10 and 12. The mother of the family was also dancing, but the dad – about the same age as the Big Guy – was lost in the music and the moment. Clapping his hands, waving his arms, and stomping his feet as he sang along, word for word. He looked younger than his two horrified boys sitting beside him.
For me it was confirmation that we had all found the fountain of youth for a night. For Thing1, it was something different. Watching the other two boys trying to obscure their own faces as they tugged at their dad’s sleeve, begging him to dance less effusively, it dawned on my twelve-year-old that all kids have the same problem. They have parents. And they can’t get rid of us until they get out of the house.
Any other night that knowledge might have been depressing. He might have thought about his future independence, but that night, Sir Paul, that knowledge became freedom. And for the first time ever, I saw my son begin to sing along – out loud – in public. For the first time in a long time, I saw him shed the inhibitions he had begun to take on with his adolescence, and, as he did, he began to find his way back to himself.
So, not only for the unrestrained joy I got to see on the face of my six-year-old, but the serenity Thing1 got from accepting the parents he can’t change, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.