Moment of realness

A quick sketch of the complexity of people.

The boychild and I were at a stationary supply store this morning, getting the nicest congratulations on completing Kindergarten/ congratulations on starting preschool gifties I know to give these kids: spiffy little hardback notebooks and fresh felt-tipped pens with which to fill them. Per usual, the boychild is in a dress. Today, it’s an especially pretty one, since it’s the last day of school for the big sister and he wanted to be fancy for the school’s Friday morning community meeting. It’s got an empire style cut, with forest green velvet on top and white organdy below, layered over a built-in slip dealie. Twirls nicely. Over it he’s wearing a plaid shirt-jacket, under it, striped cotton tights. All per his request.

Other relevant matters: in the past month or so, perhaps because he’s bigger, perhaps just because, our son has drawn more and more attention from kids around him,ranging from stares to snickers to derision.  These kids are all either a little or somewhat older than him, since kids his age continue to either not notice or not care much.  We’re at the point that I pretty much have my feelers out the whole time we’re in public, and anticipate some management/intervention/dialog of some sort with other kids.

Also: it’s a small stationary supply store, an independently owned one, very much like the kind our mother took my sister and me time and again throughout our youth, usually under the most tissue-thin of pretexts. Stationary supply fetishism: it’s born, not made. I’m doing all I can to exert what influence I can on my kids.

Further: Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 is playing on the store’s tinny overhead stereo. Somewhere around the mid-1980s I made a cassette tape recording of the Gymnopédies for my mother, along with some other music I know she loved — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, maybe some David Oistrakh — to be played on a little portable cassette tape player.  These I brought to her when she was in the hospital recovering from a near-death experience, or at that point the nearest we’d gotten with her (cellulitis run amok).  She didn’t really use the tape player much after that, maybe even not so much in the hospital room. Not the equipment type, her. But I remember she at least seemed transported when we brought classical music into that fluorescent lit, metal- and plastic-filled space.

I still have the tape player, and use it sometimes when I’m doing indoor, manual work. Lately I’ve played it a lot, late at night, classical or jazz, while painting rooms in the house I plan to raise my kids in, both of which — house and kids — my mother has never seen and never will. I’ve thought about that a lot, and about the pockets of emptiness that can develop or appear inside of families, and how home-making and milestones make those empty spaces echo audibly, no matter how accustomed we become to their silence.

Satie’s music (and the tape player) always reminds me of my mother, and the poignance of this attempt — and others like it — to bring her love and peace during what would be the last decade of her life.

Okay, so there’s that.

Finally: yesterday was the one year anniversary of the sudden, unexpected death of an old friend, Nancy, my dear friend Ann’s long-lost and recently re-found life love. I wrote the tiniest bit about it around when it happened. I’d spent the day before at a memorial for Nancy in Ann’s new home, and then yesterday morning in lengthy, open-hearted conversation with Ann about love, life, death, healing, perseverance, what the dead teach us and what we owe them in return, and the oceans of grief we all cross in our lifetimes, guided finally only by the stars (when we think to look up). The conclusion was the same as every conclusion to every such conversation: life is equal parts joy and pain (or as Buddhists say, like licking honey off the edge of a knife blade); and love is the overarching, abiding truth, the sun up behind the clouds.

On top of all this, or running along in the background (sometimes underfoot): my children are each taking these large leaps, from one stepping stone of their youth to the next. They get older and older by degrees every day, but some days it all just tumbles together, and they are suddenly a lot older all at once. One day, if we’re all lucky, they’ll be safely on the other side, and their youth, back there on the other shore, will be as impossible to grasp as the stars.

So. I’m at the stationary supply store counter purchasing the goods, and two young men walk in, knit hats scrunched down over straggly hair, skateboards in hand.  I’d been pulling out my wallet and beginning to pay for the supplies when they walked in and paused at the entrance of the store, staring at my boy.  Just after I’d given the proprietor my money, I felt their looking. I also saw one whisper something to the other, and chuckle a bit.

I turn to the one nearest to me, the one who was whispered to — he wasn’t that much shorter than me, so it was easy to make eye contact. And I just stare dead in his eyes. No “Hello,” at least not at first. No nothing. Just a dead-on, true, wordless, my soul is tired look.

I have nothing to say to him. Not with words. But I also feel like I don’t need to. Right now, at this stage of it all, and often, all I want to do is put the other young people on notice: I am watching you watch my child. What you do or say next will happen with that child’s parent’s knowledge.

Several moments pass, during which we are both looking in each other’s eyes, the young man and me. His are hazel-brown, darker than my son’s, lighter than mine. He has freckles.

Satie continues to play behind us; the proprietor is making change for me.

“Hey,” the boy says.

“Hi,” I say back.

I take the change, and look back at him as the proprietor puts the stuff in a bag. I drop my hand down and finger my son’s hair as I wait.

The boys are still standing pretty much in the same place, but the other one is paying attention to something else.  I exchange one last look with the boy.  No words: for each of our reasons, we have nothing to say, or nothing we can say, there and then.

Except I sense some kindness in the boy’s eyes.  He is young, but on the verge of his own individuality. He is entering the peak years of the crucible-hot formation of his masculinity: ad agencies, media empires, every force in the culture around him is ramping up first to tell him who he is, then sell him what he needs to be who he is. Male femininity is not part of this onslaught.

Except he is himself, and for a flicker, I see this in his eyes, and I wonder perhaps whether when he was looking at my boy, he didn’t see an object for derision, but maybe himself, a dozen or so years ago.

8 thoughts on “Moment of realness”

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! My DS is 5 and he loves dressing up in a lovely dress before going out to eat, shop, etc. So far, no one has really given him any trouble for it. I hope I can be there if someone ever does – you have modeled a wonderful response! Thank you, thank you.

  2. A quick sketch with so many layers. So much poignancy. It made me smile and ache at the same time.

    I had lots to say, but after writing and deleting a bunch of attempts I’ll keep it to this: we are stationery store people, too.


  3. I think a lot about the affect kids have on one another, for good and ill. I mostly think about how my daughter’s friends impact her, and how she will impact her younger siblings, but certainly the responses of older kids (even strangers) mean a lot to younger ones.

  4. Last week at the airport food court I was waiting with my son for his burger and a slouchy young teenager boy came in and some internal part of me tensed up, as i often do around young men. I was feeling queer and travel worn and tired and unconscious. 2 minutes later who comes up but this youth’s two moms in matching pastel polos and lesbian haircuts. So here I am feeling queer & weird, and there he was, probably feeling somewhat reflected, but not getting any love from me. The universe keeps offering me this lesson, but i have a hard time learning it!

  5. (late reply, but better late than never, etc. etc.): I am sitting right there next to you in the universe’s worn one-room schoolhouse, dipping the gal in front of me’s braid into my inkwell, missing the crucial lesson over and over again. Takes opening the heart, and keeping it open, which is a very hard thing to do. Easier to take a breath and keep holding it and holding it, methinks.

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