Near the end of the school year my nine-year-old son Hardy had a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science. As I drove him to the ferry I put on some traveling music, Billy Bragg singing Woody Guthrie tunes. As we drove I told Hardy about the origins of Woody, about his wandering the country with a guitar, living with migrant workers and singing their stories.
It was just 7:30 a.m., but Hardy already declared it the best day ever.
When I dropped him off at the ferry most of his classmates were there, about 30 third and fourth graders. I have watched these kids grow up, many since kindergarten. They are not quite teenagers but already they have begun to wear the faces of the people they will become.
I found myself rushing away from the Steamship terminal as a wave of emotion hit me. When I reached my car and was safe inside I even began crying. To be a parent, I have learned, is to discover unknown pockets of feeling. Most of the time the days float by in a blur of schedules and exhaustion. But then, when the wind is right and time is allowed to sit still for a moment, the tears begin. It seems to be the only possible answer to the enormity of parenting.
The other night, after Hardy had fallen asleep on a drive home from a friend’s house, I found myself staggering under the weight of him while carrying him in from the car. When and how did he get so big? Wasn’t it just a moment ago that we first met in the delivery room? I remember how he entered the world screaming, his fingers outstretched wide like jazz hands in a theatrical production. He seemed both frightened and raring to go.
When Hardy returned home from his field trip to Boston, he told me every detail about the day. As he spoke I couldn’t help noticing yet again that to be with my son is to always experience two parallel worlds. In one I am his father taking in the world as he sees it. And yet at the same time I often find myself traveling backwards in time. After all, I was a young boy once, too, and to hear Hardy talk about a class trip is to see again my fourth grade friend Bob N. standing there.
Bob was the kid who always threw up on those trips, the bus rides going straight to his stomach. The pastrami coming out of his nose during a visit to the Museum of Natural History is forever etched in my mind. But on this day the memories did not stop at Bob. I also saw Tammy K., the girl I fell for in fourth grade, the exact age Hardy is now.
Hardy doesn’t seem to know the opposite sex exists yet, unless it is to complain that the girls have done something annoying to him. But to see him each morning get on his bike to ride to school is to see myself again riding my bike past Tammy’s house, hoping she would notice me and come out to talk.
Tammy and I shared a desk pod in fourth grade, a cluster of four and she sat in the one diagonal to me. She wore colorful macrame vests and was very particular about her pencil shavings, always collecting them into neat little piles of three.
At the end of fourth grade I prayed that the forces of education would put Tammy and me in the same homeroom class again the following year. I promised God a piece of candy from Sam’s, a small store full of treats just down the block from our elementary school, if my wish was granted.
The next fall Tammy and I were not only assigned to the same homeroom, we were assigned to sit next to each other, too.
Immediately after that first day of fifth grade, I rode my bike to Sam’s and picked out the largest gumball I could find. Then I biked to a deserted dead-end street and spent the next 20 minutes throwing the gumball into the sky offering it to God. But the gumball kept falling back down to earth, landing each time with a smack on the pavement.
Eventually I gave up, unwrapped the now broken piece of candy and put all the bits into my mouth. I was pleased with God. I had been given the girl and the gumball, too. I remember that day as if it were five minutes ago, not just the events, but the feeling of being 10 years old and completely content with the world and my place in it.
When I look at my daughter Pickle, age six, I do not carry the same freight of memories with me. I was never a young girl and so her whole existence is a mystery to me. If I am being honest with myself, and now going to a darker place than I thought I would, I can look at Pickle and say truthfully that the only thing I want for her is to be happy. With Hardy it is not so easy, the complexities of my history intersecting with his own clouds my judgment, even though I know these two journeys have nothing to do with each other.
Consider how just a glance at him when he sits reading on the couch, his posture and ability to sit there for hours turning page after page, reveal a vision eerily similar to my younger self. Or how something as small as his class field trip sends me back down the rabbit hole of my own history.
As I write this, Hardy joins me in the basement. He’s an early riser, too, and he takes up his position in the chair next to my desk and begins reading his book. I’m tempted to turn to him and apologize for all the lapses in parenting I have and will continue to commit, most of which will be a direct result of all the ghosts I see every time I look at him. But I wonder if I will only confuse him, and besides I also want to thank him for giving me this second look at who I once was.
In the end I decide it best to simply give him what I am writing and allow him to experience what I am trying to say without any direction, often the hardest thing for a parent to do.
I watch as he reads, his hand cupping his chin, just like I do when absorbed. I am surprised by how nervous I am, allowing my son to be my first reader. He is careful with the pages, and I take this as a good sign.
When he finishes, Hardy shrugs his shoulders. “I’m done,” he says. “Now can I go back to my book? It’s a very suspenseful part.”
“Any thoughts?” I ask.
“You’ve done better, Dad,” he says. “Way better.”