In recent family photos I look like a pudgy dwarf posing with a basketball team. Sixteen year old Spuds has shot up even more, seemingly in the last few days. He asks me if his pants are too short and I assure him that they're just fine. But he knows I'm a cheapskate and the Urban Outfitters catalog keeps mysteriously reincarnating, no matter how many times I toss it into the recycling bin. I move the driver's seat up nearly a foot after he drives. His brother went berserk when I was teaching him and I pounded the imaginary brake and grabbed the shoulder harness in a vicelike grip. Spuds is diplomatic when I sit on my hands which involuntarily dislodge themselves from under my butt and grab the harness at every close shave,. Spuds, I will note, was fast asleep in the backseat of the car for most of my driving sessions with his brother. The trainee drives to school every morning and is bored by the same route. I tell him that gas is so expensive that we simply can't afford to drive around willy nilly but he knows it's really more about my nerves. On the way to school a woman pulls her SUV out a mini-mall parking lot and cuts us off. Spuds glides adroitly into the other lane. I doubt if my own reflexes would have been as nimble but Spuds just mutters, “What the fuck are you doing at a liquor store at seven in the morning, skank?” I have no idea where he learned such vulgar language but I guess, even with just a permit, he meets all the criteria for an L.A. driver.
I turn off the radio when Spuds drives although I fill the dead air with yammering that is probably way more distracting than Morning Edition. There were chilling rides with big brother before he got his license and I prayed hard for him to pass the driving test. But I'm wistful too because there's been a lot less sustained conversation since he's been licensed. The older boy has an early spring break and is off with college friends on his first road trip. The destination is Salt Lake City via Santa Cruz and Berkeley. I am delighted for him. Less so for myself. I text him every couple hours with admonitions about drinking, drugs and driver safety. The gang is marooned in Santa Cruz for several days when the car owner flushes his car keys down the toilet. The boy calls finally from Salt Lake City to report having received a “very minor” speeding ticket in Nevada, downplaying the severity and thus provoking me to maximize it. I end our third static-filled phone conversation pertinent to the matter by abruptly hanging up. The scofflaw fails to recognize how useful I am at slapping the whitewash on for Dad. I am tempted to compose a nasty e-mail about how irresponsible and disrespectful my little speeder is but instead I tap out a breezy text attributing his petulance to fatigue and wishing him a happy trip. A guilty child is more malleable than an angry one.
When my own mother descended into dementia so utterly that she did not know my name she still called out, “drive carefully!” when I said goodbye to her at the board and care. Before her decline I found her controlling and felt diminished by her lack of confidence in my preparedness to navigate the world. I perceived her as so bitter and disappointed with her own life that she begrudged me any happiness that I could possibly leach from mine. Now that I am the parent of two teenagers, the truthiness of this is somewhat less true. When I was nineteen, like my college boy, my hubris led to a lot of decisions that seem to prove the adage about God protecting kids and fools. I remember how abridged and revised was the version of my life that I meted out to Mom. So is Joe College is up to a lot of hijinks that he doesn't tell me about? Duh.
I try to play both sides of the fence and offer practical advice but also encourage my kids to avail themselves of those pleasures that are particularly pleasurable for the young. But still, I find myself quite often in a state of hyper-vigilance. I am less obnoxious to them and also improve the quality of my own life when I chill out a bit. But my force of will is not the strongest with regard to chilling. I suspect that this is more than the Jewish mother gene and that there is some brain chemistry in play. While I do market at Super King, I generally don't forage and fight for my food. Therefore, my brain chemicals encourage me to sit on the couch and yell for the kids to fetch me things from the fridge. My brain really couldn't care less if I eat properly and partake of regular exercise and therefore my inclination is not to. However, by forcing myself to change my diet and walk a couple of miles every day, I seem to have brainwashed my brain. Suddenly, making better food choices and padding up the hill has supplanted somewhat the urge for indolence and ice cream. Ditto, the brain chemicals associated with mothering seem ratcheted way up so that we protect our offspring in order to propagate the species. Now I make a conscious effort not to obsessively fret about the hatchlings when they aren't grasped firm in my talons. I will myself to focus on having faith in the people they've become. God looks out for the young and foolish but, an equal opportunity employer, the old and smart too.
Postscript: While completing this I receive a contrite call from Salt Lake City. Road Tripper finds it weird he confesses, after a week of crashing at the homes of college friends, to be mothered by me. He has known the parents of his L.A friends since he was in diapers and their homes are merely extension of ours. Although he reassures me that the food isn't as good. On this trip he meets parents of friends who see only the young man, not having witnessed the often embarrassing toddler-to-teenager trajectory. “So,” I ask him, do your friend's moms still treat their own kids like babies?” “Oh yeah,” he admits. I tell him I love him and hear him slip out of his friend's earshot so he can say it back.