Both of my kids still eagerly anticipate the arrival of summer. I have grown out of this myself. Still, Labor Day always comes with a kernel of sorrow that the promise of another summer has gone unfulfilled. Joe College packs his stuff, five boxes of vinyl records, a turntable and a few garments, and returns to school. He has discussed the possibility of living off campus. He is intrigued but Himself and I tell him that he will have his whole life to worry about running a household so there's no reason to rush into it unnecessarily. I struggle all summer not to lash out in disgust at his indolence but when I return from work the day he's left, I weep a little. He is indeed returning home this weekend for a music festival but nevertheless, I get caught up in the symbolism and the knowing that each leaving brings me closer to the final one.
The night before Joe College returns to school I tell him that the dinner plan is up to him. Instead of dining out he requests a steak (which no one else in the household eats) and mashed potatoes. I sear the steak to a perfect medium rare. I press the potatoes through a ricer until my hand aches. My mother taught me to melt butter and then gradually heat it with whipping cream and I present a big bowl of perfect fluffy spuds. Spuds (the son, not the potatoes) needs to rush out and Himself is working. This leaves Joe College in charge of clean up. I sweat in a hot kitchen making foods I don't eat, so last night or not, he can clean the friggin' kitchen. Despite the obvious pleasure he has taken in his repast, he is not enthusiastic about the attendant KP. He has inherited from his father an uncanny ability to convey disgust through body language and facial expression. I mention that his distaste for kitchen chores is perhaps a good example of why he's not ready to live off campus. My recollection of this comment is that it is stated mildly but perhaps my irritation at his monopolization of couch and television all summer has seeped through. The boy explodes.
I am so gobsmacked that I am unable now to accurately recount the entire profane exchange but the gist of what the boy says is “Do not mother me!” and my fumbling, inarticulate response is to the effect that this is my job and that he will be better for it. The words “fuck” and “lazy” figure in the conversation but I do not recall the exact context. The boy stomps off to the basement and slams the door. Our plan has been to watch Breaking Bad together. I watch it by myself but crank up the volume extra loud so that he is well aware that I am watching without him.
He calls before he hits the road the next day. He says it's been a rough summer, returning to the parental home after a year of quasi independence. The “mothering” thing is troublesome he says but he doesn't want to leave with ill will. It's not me, he says. He apologizes. I acknowledge the weirdness of this in-between time. I am proud of him for reaching out. I am disappointed in myself for behaving so childishly.
While writing this I get a call from the boy in Redlands. His debit card has mysteriously disappeared from his wallet. He is broke and his meal plan doesn't kick in for a few days. I give him the number to call the credit union so he can cancel the missing card and order a new one. I tell him there's nothing else I can do and that he'll have to borrow some money from one of his friends until his card is replaced. He's waiting for me to yell at him but I don't. My calmness unsettles him more than if I'd gone off.. I refuse to remonstrate him so he makes himself feel more like an asshole than I ever could have. Undoubtedly there will be more screw ups but his reaction suggests some maturation and the experience perhaps will lead him toward increased mindfulness.
I recall a humiliating incident that never made it into the manuscript I am completing. I am sitting at the special 6th grade table, under a big umbrella at Riverside Drive Elementary School. The conversation is lagging so I mention that my mother has just been prescribed glasses. One of the girls snarls, “Who cares? You're always going on about your mother.” The other girls taunt me. “Mama's girl! Mama's girl!”
I was at the center of my own kids' universe for so long. They are becoming themselves now. More and more they will be called upon to take on the adult world. I shift from the role of dictator to adviser but they're at an age when any authoritative voice can feel grating and belittling. There is huge internal and external pressure not to be a Mama's boy. The inevitable detachment is always fraught. The summer is really over and in less than a year Spuds will leave us too, most likely for the East Coast. My boys will require less of me and fend more and more for themselves. It takes real maturity not to conflate dependence with love. I'm working on it.