By Elizabeth Speth
Once upon a time, two people who were mere children themselves decided to have children. Or they did not decide. Either way, it happened.
Babies were born and they were wonderful and terrible things. Tyrannical, foul-smelling, inconveniently spewing. Riveting, too. The exhausted parents couldn’t tear their bleary eyes away. Suddenly, the babies were everything. Something had sprung up out of nothing, and taken over the world.
The infants stretched into toddlers, and then pre-schoolers, and that took about five minutes, give or take. The parents watched closely, and it was a time of fear. The ‘What if…‘ time.
What if… something happens? What if… there is illness? What if… someone hurts them… ? What if…
Holidays were fun, though. There was squealing, and the slap of little feet in the hallway. In summer there was the chlorine smell of swim lessons (to eliminate a ‘what if…’) and flushed early sleep while crickets throbbed, and the sun hovered low in the sky. The lawn mower choked on army men hiding in the grass, and died. Even that was amusing.
Then a tooth or two went missing, and the children changed. They looked different. Elongated. Angles replaced curves, there was some awkwardness. They kept secrets, whispered to their friends in the back seat, eyes sliding away when a parent looked a question into the rear view mirror.
Elementary school a blur, a little time in the classroom for the parents, a ride on the bus to a science museum, the underlying disapproval of their presence emanating from the children. The beginning of the Time of Hostility.
Which stretched into junior high school, the first dance, don’t ask them too many questions, don’t look too long, don’t love too much, don’t worry (but worry!) because they look like adults but they still have tantrum-throwing, unreasonable, magical-thinking toddler brains behind those braces. And they are still heartbreakingly beautiful.
High school. The ‘Whatever‘ time. Each child a little different, all of them preferring the cool teachers as parents, and it’s all about the friends. The parents watch them drive off alone for the first time. Pick a college. Pick a career. They are terrified. They make poor choices, and the rest of the time they make no choices at all, it seems. Somewhere in there, despite the parents’ subtle surveillance, they sneak their milestones. First drink. Maybe first drug. First sexual fumblings. Maybe heartbreak. The only clue is that they grow more or less surly, inexplicably.
A last summer of separation. Which they feel passionately about spending with friends.
College. A terrible wrench, some internal bleeding.
After a long pause, a stony silence of independence, the calls start. They miss the parents. They appreciate the parents. Home for the holidays, which are joyful again.
The parents think: “Well, we can do this. We like these adult children. They are pleasant. And we can turn our thoughts to other things.”
Then things don’t go according to plan. The ‘What the…?’ time. Courses of study are changed. Schools are changed. Someone has decided he doesn’t really want to go to college at all. Maybe a ‘gap year’. Maybe trade school. Maybe get a dog and hike for a few months.
Dad, tuition-drained, a child suddenly gray at the temples (when did that happen?), asks in exasperation: ‘What the hell is going on in our kids’ heads?’
Mom: “As if they should have it all figured out somehow. By the late teens and early twenties? Please.” But she is very worried. This is how things stand, as she sees it, with the children:
1. They are poor. Which is appropriate. Isn’t everyone at this age? Some of them will struggle with poverty for only a short time, some forever. The world is made up of both types of children.
2. They want adventure. This is a great time for that. They are children, yes, but with no children of their own.
3. They also want the world to be quiet, so they can think for a minute, so they can figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
The parents decide to be quiet. With difficulty, they try not to hold youth against itself. That would be the height of hypocrisy.
They mutter, they grumble. They work to be grateful. And be quiet.
Someday, though they are but wrinkled, waning children themselves, there will be grandchildren. They want in on that. And they want to see the process repeat itself. They figure they’ve earned it. The ‘What did we tell you?‘ time.