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Warning Signs

June 6, 2011

Among the volumes of poetry Harriet sent me a while back was Callings, by Carl Dennis, and I have been loving the various poems about what kinds of vocations call to people, and why, and in what way.

This weekend Eleanor graduated from high school with her parents and grandparents there to watch, and Walker (traveling with the family of one of his chess students) took first place in the open section of a chess tournament in Dayton, which sent his rating up enough to make him a Master. Now she’s aimed at college and he’s aimed at becoming an International Master and then a Grand Master.

They are so adult. I feel like whatever mistakes I’ve made with them, they’ve compensated and turned out fine. I’m less worried when they’re not both safely home in their beds at the end of the day. They’re over some of the things I used to worry about, like Eleanor’s fear of wind and Walker’s virulent objection to shirts with buttons. Now I can laugh in a rueful way about parental worry as described in this poem, Warning Signs:

Neatness isn’t a virtue to be disparaged,
But if you note that your ten-year-old
Prints her address in her storybooks
As well as her name, and locks her toys
In her toy chest at bedtime,
You may have a problem. Can you think
Of something you’ve done to suggest
That the world beyond the door of her bedroom
Is a wilderness of swirling eddies
Where anything left untended goes missing?
Has a remark of yours about thieves
Filling high places left her concerned
About thieves filling the low as well?
When she wakes before dawn with a dream
Of finding the house pulled down,
Do you tell her everyone feels that way,
Given the gang of wreckers in Washington,
Or do you remind her that the house she lives in
Is made of bricks and mortar, not straw?

As for the virtue of thrift, it too
Is commendable. But if your daughter
Is saving half her dollar-a-day allowance
So as not to be penniless in old age,
You may want to ask what part you’ve played
In making the future appear less promising
Than the past. Maybe you’ve lectured her
Once too often on the long-term effects
Of nitrogen runoff on lakes and rivers,
Or on the threat to the Norway maple
Shading the house if warmer winters
Smooth the way for weevils to creep north.
Other fathers might use the tree as a fine example
Of what a maple can be when it makes the most
Of an average portion of sun and rain
Falling on average soil.

Caution should be preferred, of course, to recklessness.
But confidence too is a trait to be encouraged,
So when she’s old she can look back on her life
As an adventure. So she has a story to tell
Of how once, instead of hugging the shore,
She sailed out where the waves
Crashed over her sloop and broke it open;
How the coast she floated to on a spar
Proved rougher than the coast she’d been steering for,
Less settled, less civil. And then the story
Of how far she progressed in her efforts
At closing the gap between them
And how big a job is left to do.

The milestones they’ve reached this weekend show me that I have to be finished with worrying about how “far from shore” they go. And this is timely information, as Walker just this minute came in to show me an email from his Serbian chess teacher about taking him to Europe next year, and Eleanor is sorting her possessions in terms of what will stay here and what she’ll take with her in August.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 9:39 am

    Wow, this poem hit home this morning. Congratulations to both Walker and Eleanor. AJ has been eagerly following Walker’s chess triumphs. And congratulations to you for surviving any impulse to hold on to their moorings and anchor them to shore. I’m sure that must be a challenge. I know it will be for me when I get there.

    • June 7, 2011 9:23 am

      Part of what I was trying to say about the poem is that it’s less of a challenge than I thought it would be, because they’re showing me how competent they are already.

  2. bookgazing permalink
    June 6, 2011 9:52 am

    Congratulations on the way they’re making it so successfully through the world. Down to a nice mix of you, Ron and them I’m sure.

    • June 7, 2011 9:24 am

      Oh, they are their own people! And you will get to meet them soon!

  3. Carol Schumacher permalink
    June 6, 2011 9:53 am

    Wow. I loved this poem. Strangely, it made me think of how some parents err in the side of making their children too fearful and cautious, whereas others may fall off the horse on the other side. Traversing that thin blade in the middle seems so hard some times.

    • June 7, 2011 9:26 am

      I read in John Duffy’s book The Available Parent that if a parent seems too competent, the teenager may despair of ever being as competent. I think there’s no danger of that at my house, so it made me feel better!

  4. June 6, 2011 9:55 am

    Congrats to both of them! I always worry about whether I’m doing the right thing with my daughter, but she seems to be doing okay so far. 🙂

    • June 7, 2011 9:26 am

      Anna, clearly there’s no one “right thing” which is why parental guilt is so easy to spark.

  5. freshhell permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:14 am

    You done good.

  6. Mumsy permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:39 am

    When they live elsewhere, you find yourself worrying less about them – at least, I do. Loved the poem at first because I thought it was going in an ironic direction (about how parental guilt is foisted on us, no matter what we say or do) and then i realized that the poet was actually just heaping on another layer.

    • June 7, 2011 9:28 am

      I like that ironic misdirection; I think the poem intentionally takes you through some of that guilt morass as part of the experience of reading and contemplating.

  7. Mumsy permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:40 am

    Oh! And CONGRATULATIONS, job well done with both! They sound like amazing kids.

    • June 7, 2011 9:29 am

      They are amazing, all right. You have some amazing kids too, so I think you know what I mean when I say I’m not bragging so much as standing here with my mouth open.

  8. June 6, 2011 11:06 am

    Aw, that poem’s sort of mean. I feel guilty reading that poem and I haven’t even got any children. If I read that poem while having kids I’d feel super duper guilty because I know if I had kids I’d have anxious kids (because of heredity), and then I’d feel like I’d done it to them by warning them about bad things. 😦

    • June 7, 2011 9:31 am

      My kids were quite anxious–and still are, about some things. Eleanor will not go into the Atlantic because she can’t see through the murky water and is almost pathologically afraid of sharks. I spazz out in airports; Walker was actually helping me with that when we flew through O’Hare the last time. So I didn’t read the poem as mean, but more as “this is something that’s going on at a low level all the time.”

  9. Elizabeth permalink
    June 6, 2011 2:24 pm

    I wondered how this weekend was for you. I realize I’m the outlier partly because I had my children so young but the angst that others have expressed over children graduating and leaving home is foreign to me–that’s not to say I think you are being angsty. That’s not my opinion at all.

    Mostly I was curious how the start of this next bit of your life as a mother was going.

    PS No one ever warned me that parenting does, in fact, continue on for years after school. In fact some of the toughest things I’ve faced as a mother occurred seven or eight years after the child in question graduated and moved out. Consider yourself warned!

    • June 7, 2011 9:33 am

      Thank you for the warning. It’s timely, since my parents are here with me this week, in between the graduation and the party that we’re having with the family of one of Eleanor’s friends next weekend. My brother is even coming down next weekend, so we’ll all be here–no doubt reverting to nuclear family roles some of the time.

  10. June 6, 2011 7:49 pm

    <i?Loved the poem at first because I thought it was going in an ironic direction (about how parental guilt is foisted on us, no matter what we say or do) and then i realized that the poet was actually just heaping on another layer. Ha! I think I agree! Congratulations!!! I think it’s all true — you do worry less when they’re not actually at home, but the fact is they seem to continue to need you. It’s exciting, though, to see what they come up with. Which is never what you would have imagined —

    • June 7, 2011 9:34 am

      The excitement is a good substitute for the anxiety, isn’t it? And yes, that feeling that you can never imagine what they’ll come up with is part of the fun.

  11. June 6, 2011 9:02 pm

    I really loved this poem. Loved it.
    And thank you for the reassurances that the kids will probably turn out just fine. I’m still fairly early on in this mothering journey and I worry all the time that I am making horrible, irrevocable mistakes that will mess my child up forever.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      June 7, 2011 9:05 am

      Jenners, my brother has a way of putting it. When his children have done really well, he’ll say “it’s not my fault,” and when they fail, he says the same thing.

      We do affect our children but not nearly to the extent we sometimes believe.

    • June 7, 2011 9:36 am

      Yeah, I love Elizabeth’s brother’s philosophy (which is funny, because I still tend to think of him as a little brother, rather than a grown-up person). There aren’t too many irrevocable mistakes. And even if you make one, like a comment I once made about one child having no “obvious talents” (there was a context, I swear!) it becomes a family joke, and something to disprove, at least.

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