Sunday, June 10, 2012
My son is my partner in crime for all things, mainly because I have no choice but to haul him along on all of my adventures. There is a distinct absence in my life of people chomping at the bit to tend my son so I can have adventures on on my own; I’ve not been to the grocery store alone since he was born, and I rarely ever make it out to Starbucks for a solo coffee. But after seven and a half years, I have grown accustomed to it. I like thinking of how his life, personality, and experiences are being shaped by being my constant companion and listening to writers, artists, and poets discuss their passions; seeing wild animals in the wild instead of on Animal Planet; hearing hushed conversations about life's realities between my friends and I at kitchen tables (this is tall talk, go play) ; by watching me win, lose, succeed and fail, but always, always try. The older my child gets the more I reflect upon my own memories from childhood, and I feel on display to him somehow…everything I’m doing now he’ll remember, just as I remember my own mother, sitting around the kitchen table with my aunts, drinking coffee, giving one another permanents, and talking about someone’s surgery, divorce, or who was having a baby.
The men, on the other hand, were always outside, and that’s where I usually ended up. They were loud and their laughter was prefaced by expletives that felt dangerous on my tongue. I saved the words for later, when I was alone in the woods, and could say them out loud without reprimand. The men caroused outside the main houses, always in shops or sheds, lords of grills and pots of hash, denizens of poker games at card tables without chairs, sitting on 40 gallon drums or large engines turned on their side. I’d always inevitably be drawn away from the kitchen table female chatter and the mindless girl-play of my cousins to the backyard where the men were, because they always seemed to be having so much more fun. There was always a smoky haze around them from grills, cigarettes and cigars; it clung to their hair and clothes; it followed my father down the hall when he came in for the night and became a scent I still associate with all things masculine. I can remember, as a child, preferring to be where they were, even if I was merely hiding out somewhere unseen, listening.
I have very few memories from childhood that include men and women being present in the same room; this was primarily reserved for solemn occasions, like funerals or hospital visits. Inside, the men seemed larger than life somehow. Like animals in a cage, they paced and cleared their throats. They bumped into things and thier boots made scuff marks on slick linoleum. They'd shoot outside the first chance they got while the women rolled their eyes and said, “Good riddance.” And this segregation of the sexes makes perfect sense in the South, a place where men and women really have precious little, if anything, in common. So it’s funny, now, me always having my son in tow. Were we a typical Southern family, he’d be at the age where he’d begin to spend most of his time with men, sitting around smoky grills, practicing swearing (don’t you go saying that ‘round your Mama now, yah 'ear?) and learning how to be a man in the South, which is a unique lesson, for I’m not sure anything like Southern men exists outside the Mason-Dixon line and Animal Planet reality shows. But my son’s been on my heels alone since he could walk, so it stands to reason he will end up being just like me…I thought.
Last week, I took him with me to the salon, and he asked for a haircut as well. I was hesitant; I love his long curls, and have only trimmed his hair 4 times in 7.5 years. But then I remembered my philosophy on parenting (which is basically to just do what makes sense to me) and I told him okay. I gave him complete freedom of choice. He took a book of hairstyles to the chair and picked one out without showing me. I watched his curls fall to the floor in horror, and I nearly cried out when I heard the trimmers. When he came bounding up to me, he was another child. I was astonished. He’d chosen a typical short cut, nothing trendy, no faux-hawks or surfer flips like I was expecting. In the car on the way home later, he announced proudly, “I want to have short hair from now on because men are supposed to wear short hair.”
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded, adding, “And watch football.”
The day before the salon trip, he’d pitched a fit in a store for a Clemson shirt. I bought it, because it was a resale shop and the shirt was only $2, but I was surprised he wanted it so intently. While he has a natural agility and stamina that screams ‘high school star,’ his only experience with watching any sport, ever, has been a few brief glimpsing of football games at a friend’s house. I did not grow up around men who stayed inside and watched sports, save for the occasional Nascar race, which was usually listened to on the radio around the grill rather than watched on television. Guys who were into sports were foreign to me. They were the boys who ruled the schools, who elbowed and disregarded you in the halls when their friends were around but told you deep secrets about their plastic girlfriends and alcoholic fathers during study hall when no one was paying attention. I could hardly see my child fitting into the mold that all the star athletes of my alma mater seemed to pop out of, clad in thier Clemson shirts with hair that never touched thier ears.
“I’m gonna play football, too, when I’m bigger,” he says. “And baseball. Boys do that.”
Two nights ago, we found a mourning dove that had been injured by a cat. I held it in my hands while he ran inside and got a box and a blanket. We settled the dove in safely. My son didn’t hover as some children might; this is not an unfamiliar experience. He knew the animal was in shock and needed nothing at the moment but a calm, safe place, just as he knew not to even touch the box the hawk was secured inside of, lest he risk losing a finger. The next morning, we carefully carried the box outside and opened it. I’d fully expected the bird to fly out; the injury did not seem to be severe. When it didn’t, I carefully lifted it and held it in my hands, where it sat, motionless, until it heard the soft, low cooing of another dove. She then stood and opened her wings, and that’s when I noticed the odd angle of the right one. She couldn’t - and possibly never again will – fly. I gently placed her back in the box and called the same wildlife center where we’d taken the hawk.
“Why can’t we just let the vet fix her wing and keep her, mom?” My son asked in the car. I have known people who did keep doves or other wild animals they’d found as pets, but this simply wasn’t an act I was going to put my stamp of approval on.
“No,” I said. “It wouldn’t be right, or fair to the bird.” And that it's okay to tame the wild is not a lesson I’m going to teach you, I thought. Truth is, there was something similar about the idea of keeping the bird as a pet and my own internal reaction when my son announced his desire to be an short-haired athlete. What flashed through my mind, at that moment, were my own memories of obnoxious high school superstars, and the idea of my son being like them made me cringe. I had, until this week, been operating under the misconception that he would be like me, that as a teen he’d want to wear long floppy hair, t-shirts with the logos of Indie bands and cartoons no one has ever heard of, and the only sport a sport he’d partake in would be riding skateboards he’d painted himself. But no…he wants his hair cut so close that it doesn’t need to be brushed and prefers football shirts with jeans and plain sneakers to anything I pick out. In his own words, he wants to be 'just like all the other boys'. The child whose mother would freely allow him to express his individuality in his appearance and not bat an eye chooses instead to blend in with the crowd.
I could not have predicted this any more than my own mother could have predicted that, during family gatherings, I would refuse to stay inside playing dolls under the kitchen table with my cousins like a proper little girl. So be it; I bless my child with the freedom to be the person he chooses to be.
I wouldn’t dream of caging a dove.