A glance toward the back seat of my car the other day proved to me something that I already knew. My son was in the back seat. But he wasn’t just in the back seat, sitting as he would have years ago, resting in a smaller chair meant to hold him tighter to that larger seat, no, he wasn’t in the back seat as much as he was occupying it. My son, my only son, was not just a small boyish boy in the back seat of my car, he was a neat mess of strong arms and long legs with feet planted firmly on the ground, no longer forced to dangle and rock over the ledge of an adult sized seat. My son has grown and today he has turned 8 years old.
Children grow up, this is not unusual. But something happens long before the obvious changes that produce too much acne and deeper voices, and it’s happening to my son right now. Or, as may be the case, it has already happened to him. As a young parent, I became accustomed to my son and his looks and his age appropriate growth patterns. But my son, after graduating from infant to toddler, has pretty much looked the same to me until recently. Round face, innocent but cautious eyes, and a tassel of light brown unkempt hair. He has grown like a weed, yes, but the weed was always familiar and it was always manageable- no matter the size of this weed it was still my weed and it still looked like very much the same weed that I have always known. Toddler’s are like this. They grow, sure, but they remain toddlerish for those years that seem to play out over decades.
My son, age 8, is no longer the toddler that I remember. He looks the same, but he is different. His face is still round and boyish, but there is definition now that hadn’t been there before. There is personality and subtlety that go nicely with his oversized feet. Had this been the 1800s, and if I were a native American and my son, by default, was as well, then I would have been foolish to have named him at birth. I would have been better served to wait until he was 8, or 7 at least, as one glance at his 7 or 8 year old feet would make the naming of this Big Foot easy. He is tall too, but not so tall that I fear for his future coordination. He runs with a lumber now, neither fully the slowest but far from the fastest, probably as I was at a similar age, contentedly average. Not the last picked, but first pick status only came through bribes and successful lobbying.
I argue with my son, lots. He doesn’t look people in the eye, which bothers me. He disobeys his mother and me often, daily, hourly. I judge the degree to which he is spoiled by his refusal to go on boat rides some days. And if we’re heading to dinner and I tell him we’re going to Gordy’s, he throws his huge head back in the seat that he nearly fills and whines about the horrors of being held captive by a father as horrible as his, a father who wishes to take his family on boat rides over deep blue waters and to dine at lakeside restaurants that I didn’t know existed until I left my parents home and learned that Red Lobster was not the end all be all of restaurants. Though the cheddar biscuits are delicious, thanks Mom and Dad.
Thomas swims as a fish, a large flesh colored one without scales or gills, but as much ease and movement as any creature who spends much of its life at sea. Watching him swim gives me great pleasure, at least for the moments when he isn’t fighting with his little sister, which is a growing problem that he isn’t in any hurry to personally outgrow. He fishes better than most adults I know, and he’s rapidly learning to respect life in every form, even if that form is a helpless little fish that might have greedily swallowed a hook (hint, don’t dig the hook out like you’re rooting through a box of sand with a spade searching for a loose nugget of gold , just cut the line right by the fish’s mouth and return it to the water quickly). Thomas knows this, and I count it as one of the more valuable things I’ve taught him.
I found a note that Thomas had written a week or more ago, crumpled on the floor in the office of my parents home. The hand written list titled, “Bad Things Dad Says”, went on to read like an indictment of everything sour that spews out of my unguarded mouth. Jerk. Stupid. Crap. Two other less innocent words, and a few others. I apologized to him for letting him hear me say those and other apparently unforgettable words and in his typical fashion, he didn’t seem to care what I said or how I said it, but the list reminded me that he listens to everything, good and bad. That said, I probably tell him I love him too much, since he ignores that verbal offering most of the time. He means everything to me, and watching him enjoy the lake the way he does gives me great hope that he’ll always remember the youth that was made possible only by his grandfather making the necessary sacrifices that led him to a small brown cottage on the western shore of Williams Bay.