Sheryl and Sons

Sheryl and Sons
I told you they were big.

Monday, February 27, 2012

When I'm Dead

It started when my ten-year old son asked if he could ever get a motorcycle.  He knew how I felt about them: they were more dangerous than strangers.  We had seen a fabulous motorcycle coming down the street, driven by James Dean in his leather jacket with no helmet, being straddled from behind by a leggy Bond girl.  Even I could understand the attraction.  My son explained that he knew he couldn't get a motorcycle while he still lived at home, but he wondered if he might be allowed to get one when he was a grown man.

I loved the innocence of a boy who had never considered the day when his mother would not be in charge.  I imagined him all grown up, calling from his apartment, asking if he really had to wear his winter coat to work, or checking to see if he could have a snack even though it was awfully close to dinner.  I was reveling in my imagined power, but my son was serious.  He wanted to know about the motorcycle.

"Well," I said slowly, "Maybe when I'm dead."

My son considered my answer.  "Really?" he asked.

"Yes," I decided.  If he would let me, I would continue to make the rules as long as I was alive, but I would relinquish control when I died.  That only seemed fair.  It was my own version of "over my dead body."

That night we came home, and my son excitedly told his younger brother that they could get motorcycles just as soon as Mom was dead. Now there was something to look forward to!  My younger son was thrilled.  He wanted to be a police officer, but thought that the other officers would tease him because his Mom wouldn't let him ride a motorcycle.

Who knew anyone was listening to me?

That was the day we created the list of "Things You Can Do When I'm Dead."  Over the years, when a boy asks for something that is absolutely out of the question, I tell him oh yes, of course you can get tattoos all over your beautiful body, just as soon as I'm dead.  Pierce your nose?  No problem!  Just as soon as I'm dead.  It's so much easier than always saying, "No!"  We just added a new one to the list when my son asked if he could go to an unchaperoned co-ed sleepover at a Wisconsin lake house on prom night.

While I hope that I will live long enough for the boys to come to their senses on these matters, I have certainly entertained the idea of the two of them driving up to my funeral on their Harleys, with matching giant tattooed hearts on their arms that of course read "MOM."

Please just let them be wearing helmets.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Free Lessons

As a prospective home buyer, there were many things that impressed me about Wilmette---the excellent school system, Gilson Park and the beach, and its proximity to downtown Chicago. But the one perk that got me to sign on the dotted line was the free music lessons.

Our realtor told us that in District 39, all children could receive free instruction on the musical instrument of their choice when they began fifth grade.  With the undue optimism so often found in young mothers, I imagined my son could be the next Yitzhak Perlman.  I dreamt of play dates with ten-year old prodigies playing Mozart in our living room.

I encouraged my son's musical development.  We listened to all kinds of music and went to dozens of concerts.  My son was a good natured and easygoing boy, and although he didn't love these events, he never refused to attend.  He was much more interested in being the Kickball King of Romona Elementary School, but I was not deterred.

When our son began fifth grade, he came home with the flyer in his backpack announcing the musical instrument program.  I was very excited.  My son, not so much.  The children were invited to sample the instruments before choosing one.  Parents were invited to attend but it wasn't required.  I couldn't wait to go, but at the last minute I had to attend a funeral and miss it.

The night before we talked about the difference between the band and the orchestra.  My son felt he was more of a "band guy."  He was interested in the trumpet, and I thought he had the perfect lips for it. Louie Armstrong lips.

At 3:30 I could hardly wait to hear the news.  When I saw my boy skipping up the driveway, I opened the front door.

"What did you pick?" I asked before I even said hello.

My son looked confused for a second and then asked, "You mean which instrument?"

I nodded.

"The tuba!" he exclaimed.

A thousand thoughts ran through my head and I am proud to say that I didn't utter any of them.

"The tuba," I repeated.  "Huh.  What made you pick the tuba?"

"Miss D thought I'd be great at it!" he replied.  "What's for snack?"

The one benefit of the tuba was that the school provided one for our home use and we didn't need to pay for a rental.  The only thing I needed to purchase was a Tuba I instruction book and a mouthpiece.

I called Miss D to arrange to pick up the tuba during her free period.  I could see the school from my house, and since the parking lot was packed and the weather was good, I decided to walk over.  I knew I'd be carrying home a tuba, but I imagined myself resembling a member of a marching band as I made the short walk across the play field.

Miss D seemed a little concerned when I told her I'd walked over, and when I saw the tuba I knew why.  The instrument came with its own chair.  I had to walk home with a tuba and a piece of furniture.

I asked Miss D how she chose my son for the tuba.  "Well," she said, "we always look for a bigger boy. . ." her voice trailed off, "and we never choose a child who lives in an apartment building."

I later discovered that the children whose mothers had attended Instrument Day had somehow been better suited to the clarinet, oboe or violin.  Everyone in the flute section had an older sibling whose mother knew which instrument fit into a backpack and would not be left on the bus.  The mothers who had missed instrument day received letters about the tuba, bass, or heaven forbid, the drums.

Miss D helped me get the tuba/chair to the door, but then I was on my own.  I tried to carry the tuba in one arm and the chair in the other, but halfway across the field I abandoned the tuba, planning to come back for it.  I thought of leaving the chair but was afraid someone might steal it.  I had no such illusions about the tuba.

Practicing began.  The tuba score was a series of short blasts, never a melody or anything recognizable.  After the initial excitement of getting the tuba to make a sound, my son got bored with its limited range.  I asked the teacher if he could learn a tune, and she taught him the Jewish folk song Hava Nagillah.  I would have never pegged it as a tuba standard.  Who knew?

By February my son was losing interest in the tuba and was hardly practicing.  He wanted to quit.  I begged him to stick with it until the spring concert, but then his mouthpiece disappeared, and I couldn't justify investing in a new one.  I was prepared to admit defeat.

I called Miss D to tell her my son's tuba career was over.

"Oh no!" she said, "please, let's keep trying!"  Her voice started to quiver, "He's my best one!"  I understood then that being a middle school music teacher was one of the more difficult ways to make a living.

Years later, I found the tuba mouthpiece in the back of a bathroom drawer, inside an old retainer case.  When I showed it to my son, he did not seem surprised.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What I've Learned from the MOB

I'm a member of the MOB.  It's not what you are thinking.  MOB stands for Mothers of Boys.  We are a group of eight women who have sons--no daughters.  We meet on the first Monday of the month to reassure each other that whatever has happened was not our fault.

Our early meetings dealt with the sorrow some felt for not having a daughter, but I think we got over that pretty quick.  Mostly we enjoy a yummy lunch and give each other advice about the messy business of raising boys.  Among the eight of us we have 21 sons, and over the course of ten years I think I've heard just about every misguided, ill-advised, and idiotic thing that a boy could think of doing.

The following three are some of the common themes we've covered.  These are not the topics that require ER doctors, apology letters to the principal or bail bondsmen, but rather some simple wisdom that all mothers of boys are relieved to hear.

1) Girls Own Pre-School
Walk into any classroom and observe.
Music: Girls sing.  Boys poke each other and make noises with their armpits.
Art: Girls cut a leaf from construction paper in every color.  Boys amputate one leaf and have sword fights with the scissors.
Storytime: Girls listen attentively to the story of the rabbit in the garden eating carrots and peas.  One boy says, "Pees!" and everyone starts laughing and you find another note taped to your son's locker.

2) 8th Grade Boys Don't Shower
Beginning in junior high, boys start to stink.  They also resist the shower.  Beware that they sometimes go into the bathroom, run the water, but don't get in.  There's nothing to do but hold your nose.  Next year they'll go to high school and discover girls and then you'll be asphyxiated by Axe body spray.

3) Shut up when you carpool
While girls love to talk about who is going to Homecoming, who had  party while the parents were out of town, and who is flunking math, boys tell nothing.  But if you remain completely silent while carpooling, they sometimes forget you are there.  One day in my car, three boys revealed the name of the girl they liked and then asked my son.
"I don't know," he responded.  "Who do you recommend?"

The MOB shares math tutors, sport coats, piano teachers, orthopedic surgeons and soup recipes.  But mostly we share our stories and ourselves.  Mothering boys is an extreme sport.  Do not attempt it at home without a MOB of your own.

With love to Linda, Jil, Carine, Annie, Caryn, Margie and Deb.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Drive Bye

"Wait your turn," I remind my teenage son as we roll through a stop sign.  I try to keep my voice neutral, after all, he is still learning.  He is fifteen years old, and he has his driver's permit.  We wait as the choreography continues, as each car crosses.  I sneak a peek at my son's profile which seems to change every day.

Except for occasionally dragging his brother's bike out of the garage with the side view mirror, my son has been a good driver.  He has a great sense of direction, and he is remarkably calm.  He has been chauffeuring me around a lot these past few months, and aside from my sweaty palms and pounding heart, I like it.

I like the two of us sitting together side by side.  No radio, just us talking.  We don't look at each other; we keep our eyes on the road.  In this small setting, he tells me things.  Without the distractions of our household, I listen.  I try to take it all in, to remember these moments like I do his first steps.  We are on the edge of a seismic shift in our relationship.  It does not escape me that my son is in the driver's seat.

I try to be accepting of what my son wants to tell me.  In return, I give him advice without encountering too much resistance.  I find myself repeating things I haven't said in a long time.  They are the words I used when he was turning from a baby to a boy.  They work just as well as he turns from a boy to a man.

"Look both ways," I say as I encourage my son to make a left turn.  Years ago, we approached a busy street and the young boy in front of us ran out without looking.  A red van made a sickening screech, but stopped in time.

Neighbors ran over to see if he was okay.  In the commotion, no one else noticed that the van still had not moved.  The driver was hunched over her steering wheel, sobbing.

Ten year later, as we drive down the same street, I remind my son of this cautionary tale.  He knows that little boys must watch out for cars.  Now he must learn that drivers must watch out for little boys.  Seemingly in the time it takes to travel these few blocks, he has been transformed.  It's too fast.  I instinctively slam my foot on the floor while sitting in the passenger's seat, yet by now I know that I am unable to slow down the car.

Sometimes I think that the whole point of his childhood, from the moment he left my body, has been nothing more than a lesson for me in how to let him go.  This journey he has taken, out of my life and into his own, has been like watching my own heart walking away from me, with nothing to protect it.  "Be careful," I say each time he leaves the house.  This is my mantra.  This is my prayer.  This is what it is to be a mother.

I treasure my few remaining good nights sleep until he gets his driver's license.  Then, left behind, all I'll be able to do is to stand by the door and wave, hoping he will remember all my instructions.  Look both ways.  Wait your turn.  Be careful.  Feeling a familiar ache, I will watch my heart drive away with nothing but a seatbelt.