It’s been an interesting winter with my sixteen-year-old son. He directed a play, fell in love, applied to colleges, took over the scheduling of the chess lessons he teaches to younger children (most of them in the city an hour away) and progressed from showing active scorn of everything I say to quietly retreating from it.
I love the way I can still make his eyes light up by saying I’m glad to see him when we arrive home at the end of one of these long days in which it snows and everyone ignores it, so it’s extra-hard to get around in and we’re all in danger of our lives driving up and down the driveway that no one has made time to shovel in the dark. I love the way he will still allow himself to be a little cheered up after adult disappointments by the old traditions of cheering up, like having two desserts.
I don’t want a grateful child; that usually means the child has been unlucky enough to know when things are good. Every once in a while, though, when the bedroom door is shut against me, I miss the hand that was so often searching for mine, usually full of little, squashed flowers. Every once in a while, when we’re eating supper, just the three of us, I call it “eating with Mr. Spock,” because the conversation has to be based on logic and about things that can be proved with science, and the teenager gets very stern with me about it; he and his father know a lot and the idea that a non-scientist might know anything worth repeating has been dismissed, for the moment.
This is why a mother drifts off into memory.
The Lanyard, by Billy Collins
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of my room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
and here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
and here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
As a mother, I try to stay even, rather than get even. Some days, though, it’s hard to be told “it’s my life, mom” and have to be the adult, and not try to clutch that life to my chest (suddenly and comically bigger than I am) and run back to my own bedroom with it shouting “no, mine, MINE!”
Keeping an even keel. How do you stay even with the ones you love?