You’d think I would be used to it by now, the simple fact that my children have grown up. Yet time after time the bittersweet truth hits me again, in some new and unexpected way. A memory surfaces, vivid and fresh as this morning’s sunrise–Henry at twelve, wearing a too-big Hawaiin shirt and a pair of cool sunglasses, playing Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” on the piano; or Jack, fourteen and all intensity and focus, as he reaches down to turn up his amp for a guitar solo on “Autumn Leaves.” And in a flash my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells up, as I realize how far we’ve already traveled from those moments. Life rushes forward. Except for those rare and precious circumstances when it affords us, instead, the poignant pleasure of circling back — back to a place we’ve been before, a place that’s stayed the same even while we ourselves have changed and grown and moved on.
Nine years ago Saturday, Steve and Jack and I drove into the woods of western Maine for our first Parents Day at Camp Encore/Coda. We took our seats in the dimness of an old post-and-beam barn on the shores of a quiet pond, and watched our son Henry play jazz keyboards for the first time in his life. The song was Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” He took a little solo, glanced out to where we sat in the audience, and flashed us a grin.
Music camp had been my idea, not his. Three weeks earlier, we’d delivered our boy into the hands of a couple of friendly college students, who promised him a fine time in Starfish cabin. And then we hugged him good-bye and left him there, shy and frightened, with a nervous stomach ache and a black trunk full of carefully labeled shorts and tee-shirts, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for letters home, bug spray and sweatshirts and music books. As we pulled out onto the dirt road beyond the parking lot, I realized that my own stomach felt kind of queasy. And I wondered if, in my desire to expand our son’s world and build his confidence, I’d perhaps pushed a little too hard and a little too soon. It wasn’t until we returned and saw him standing on the corner of the Old Music Hall stage, holding his own in a jazz band comprised of a bunch of other eleven-year-old kids, a look of pure joy on his face, that I knew for sure: painful as it had been to insist that our boy leave home for the first time in his life, the journey now belonged to him.
Jump forward nine years. It is Saturday, and I am in the audience at Parent’s Day again. My son is a senior counselor, with piano students of his own to teach, a jazz workshop to lead, concerts to perform and camp musicals to play. The memories come rushing back as I sit in the old barn — all the years we have returned to this camp that both of our sons came, in their own turn, to love. All the times we’ve gone through the very same ritual, arriving at the gate early on a mid-summer morning, parking the car in a freshly mown field, following the signs into camp, eyes peeled for one of our boys. How strange, and perfectly wonderful it always was, to sit in a shed in the deep woods of Maine, listening to children and teenagers and adults all making music together. A handful of young string musicians performing the Brandenburg concertos with exquisite nuance. A group of kids in shorts and t-shirts, intently focused on their conductor as they sing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” in pure six-part harmony. A big band comprised of musicians whose average age is fourteen, swinging through intricate jazz arrangements with the panache and creativity of pros.
It’s been four years since Henry’s last sumer here, when he spent seven weeks working his tail off as a CIT. Three years since Jack played lead guitar in the Zappa Rock Band. Camp vanished all too quickly in life’s rearview mirror, another part of childhood that had been lived and loved and left behind. And so, part of what gives rise to so much emotion on this particular morning is my own sharp awareness of time passing. It is not exactly jealousy I feel, as I watch a new generation of parents greeting their children, exclaiming over summer tans, growth spurts, and shaggy hair. I had my turn. And yet I am overcome, as I walk up the familiar path and hear the sound of a solitary violin being tuned in a practice cabin, both with gratitude for this unexpected homecoming and, at the same time, with a profound, heart-breaking sense of how much is already over.
My challenge now — as it seems to be every day this summer — is to release my hold on what was, so that I can be grateful and at peace with what is. How well I remember the acute, visceral joy of these reunions. But there is a different joy awaiting me here now, if I can only allow myself to feel it. Not the joy of bringing a much-missed child home at the end of the weekend, but rather the joy of being a mother who has done her job, and is now being offered an opportunity to catch a glimpse of her grown-up son doing his.