They have a few things in common, my sons. There were a couple of years there when backyard baseball, MLB Showdown, and Magic cards were mutually beloved pastimes. They both recall the same antipathy toward a certain elementary school Spanish teacher. They share a passion for music, and sometimes, after dinner, Jack will tune up his guitar and they will play jazz together. They are big on Jon Stewart (the two of them will sit at breakfast, the laptop open between them, watching last night’s Daily Show as they eat their cereal). They love “House,” the Beatles, President Obama, our dog Gracie, pancakes, the Peanut Blaster at Dairy Queen, the state of Maine. They hold a reverence for tradition, adore their little cousins, and look forward to big family dinners. At this moment, I’m pretty sure that Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” is the most-played song on both of their iPods.
But the thing that still amazes me most about the two human beings I gave birth to twenty and seventeen years ago is how different they are. It’s as if the God of Parenthood set out to see how wildly diverse he could be within one gene pool — and fully succeeded in the effort to create two opposite-ends of the spectrum guys. As one of their early babysitters, a sweet young Hungarian girl, once said after a long night of trying to accommodate two utterly different agendas and temperaments, “Take these two little boys, put them in a pot, stir them both together, then you have a reasonable child.”
And yet, for years our family life was all about trying to make things work for both of them. We shared a house, a life, a schedule, and somehow we needed to get to the baseball games and the piano recitals, come up with one homemade Halloween costume and buy one gross-out scary mask, kiss one boy goodnight before he conked out in his bed and produce a multi-chapter goodnight saga for the other, give up on the idea of hand-me-down clothes in order to allow each to pursue his own particular style. (You can’t ask the boy who wants to wear bright orange to dress in his older brother’s sage green castoffs.)
It’s easier now. They’ve grown up, gotten drivers’ licenses, attend different schools in different states, and increasingly live their own lives. But I do kind of miss the old negotiations and the juggling, not to mention the variety of our days. Henry and Jack, together, were a spicy mix. Raising them, living with them, wasn’t always easy but it was always interesting. Being their parents stretched us, in ways I’m not sure I fully appreciated in the moment, when I was being asked to test out yet another original board game created by Jack, or to attend one more puppet show produced by Henry in the bedroom. But now, looking back, I realize that the activities they poured their hearts into when they were very young were the precursors of their passions today.
Jack would spend hours painstakingly making masks, inventing playing cards, drawing whacky animated figures on tiny pieces of paper to make a flip book. A few weeks ago, he emailed me his first animation project.
Henry conducted symphonies behind closed doors, a chopstick in his hand, his tape player turned as loud as it would go. He would corral the neighborhood kids to perform in his musical productions, put together notebooks of his favorite show tunes, envision musical revues. The other night he carried his laptop into my bedroom, to play me a recording of a song he performed last month at a school concert, the only jazz number in an evening of classical music.
I was talking on the phone yesterday with my friend Carole. Our children, exactly the same age, grew up together. I remember her Alex at ten, masterminding the construction of a K’Nex ball machine in our playroom. Today he’s a computer science major at Princeton, creating a computer game that he intends to sell this summer. “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “that our kids are so capable? That they have totally surpassed us in so many ways, doing exactly the things that, given who they are, we would have expected them to do?”
Carole admitted that, when it comes to math, Alex has been out of her league since he was in eighth grade. But she knew what I meant. Our grown children are just coming into themselves, stepping up and finally beginning to realize those ambitions that first took shape years ago, in the long, dream-filled hours of childhood.
I have to say, being a witness to this process of claiming and becoming is turning out to be one of the high points of parenthood. And since I’m a mom, and this is what moms do, I’m sharing what my boys are up to these days with you. Click here for Henry’s song “Blue Sky” and here for Jack’s Bubbling Mud animation. And pay attention to the messes your own children are making, and how they spend their time when there’s nothing much to do: you may be catching glimpses of their futures.