I might cry a lot this month.
I needed an anchor for this column, so I pulled something I’ve had hanging inside my bedroom closet for years. It’s a handmade greeting card, disguised as a laminated placemat. My first-born made it for Mother’s Day 2001. He was in kindergarten then. In a few weeks, he’ll graduate from high school.
A dozen years might have passed, but I remember the day he gave me this artwork. The school held a Mother’s Day Tea, an annual kindergarten event with a choir concert followed by treats in the classroom. The kids, so many with missing front teeth and babyish cheeks, had practiced a few “surprise” songs for many weeks. Like most mothers, I came with a video camera.
As the children gathered on the risers, I spotted my little guy. I zoomed in and held the camera steady so I could pull my face away to watch with both eyes. It was the most adorable gathering of crooning cherubs ever, but I quickly noticed my son was the only kid not singing. He would offer nervous yawns, look around, maybe sway his body to the rhythm, but he was clearly voiceless. I might have commented about this to another mom nearby or maybe she said something to me first — that part I don’t remember — but I do know I was perplexed. Somewhere I have priceless video of my child not singing through two or three songs.
We went back to the classroom to share our treats. On that day, I didn’t realize how remarkable his hand-designed placemat was. I remember silently comparing his handiwork to the masterpiece of the girl who sat next to him. She filled all the white space with plenty of flowers and tons of color and dazzle.
My son’s placemat looked slightly dashed off in a quick comparison, but it wasn’t. Along with a smiling sun wearing sunglasses and other cute, small portraits with words and arrows explaining who was who, he attempted some relatively sophisticated punctuation.
The title of his placemat said, “Happy Mother: Day!” I find this fascinating.
“Happy Mother: Day!” Sure, it turned out awkward according to any grammar stylebook, yet it showed at the time my son was trying to decode and apply punctuation symbols the grownups use. It took me a while to absorb this, though.
So what has happened between then and now? Where did that little boy go? I could brag about him for a thousand pages, minimum, but my son would be appalled because he is the most modest person I know. (See what I just did there? I bragged about his modesty.) I could also tell newbie parents that raising children can be such a ride, that sometimes you re-experience your own young heartaches or even travel to places you’ve never been before. You make mistakes, like expecting your child to sing because everyone else is singing, or to use every single crayon like the kid in the next seat.
But children, they push back, and because we’re so caught up in what we think our kids should do or be, they sometimes have to fight to show you who they are. And if you’re lucky, like I am, you learn to understand your child.
In a mere three months, my kindergarten boy goes off to college. Yet even this spring, in one final sputter of amateur parenting, I tried to convince him to reconsider attending school X or school Y, but he’s certain he wants to go to school Z. I think, at last, I have learned to trust his instincts.
Back to that precious day in May 2001. When we got home, I casually asked my little boy why he didn’t sing. He told me when he and his classmates rehearsed, some teachers came in to watch them perform, but the teachers started crying. He told me he didn’t sing because he didn’t want me to cry.
Good luck with that, kid.