(This essay was originally published in Main Line Life on 4/9/08.)
“Mama, can you come in the pool? Mama, can you come in?” “Watch this, mommy! Watch this!” As I sit alone reading Valerie Martin’s novel Italian Fever in my chaise by the pool I have one thought: I’m glad I’m not the mother being summoned.
Actually, I have more than one thought. I also think been there, done that. And I also have to look up from my book and watch the adorable kid in the pool, who undoubtedly wouldn’t seem so adorable if he were mine.
I have often found it useful to observe others who are either in the stage of life ahead of me or the stage of life behind me. I learned many valuable lessons about how to live a graceful and meaningful old age from my now deceased mother-in-law Louise in this way. And as I surreptitiously watched the harried young mother near me at the pool I was reminded of those often conflicting facets of young motherhood – the wish to wrap yourself around your child and cherish each moment, and the wish to be left utterly alone.
The little boy in the pool became even more animated, by turns cajoling and pleading with his mother to play with him. “In a minute, honey,” she said. “Just let me finish reading this chapter.” Her tone was firm but also tinged with exhaustion and mild annoyance. She had already had to run interference numerous times between the boy and his sister; she’d gotten up for several trips to the bathroom and snack bar. Mom, can you come in now?
The look of naked eagerness on the little boy’s face breaks my heart and makes me smile. I think of my own son, now a young man living and working in Washington, DC after studying for a year halfway around the world, and I miss him with a punch to the gut. Or maybe I just miss what he was? Who I was. Now over six feet tall with his father’s easy smile and a self-assurance that he will make his way in the world, he was also once a slippery little eel bouncing around the pool just like this kid. Mom, come play with me. Watch me, watch me!
When my son and daughter were small we spent countless hours at pools during spring breaks and summers at a swim club. We used to play a game called “tippy chair” which entailed me holding my arms like a cradle, one of them sitting face-out in my arms, and then me swinging them back and forth in the water as much as possible while calling out “tippy, tippy, tippy chair.” On the last tippy chair I would launch them into the water as hard as I could. We also played “horse,” a game where I was the horse, and they clung to my back and neck, often strangling me and savagely poking my eyes in the process. I would “gallop” through the pool and then (you never knew when) dive under, taking them with me. I can immediately bring to memory those younger versions of my now grown children – their red-hued chlorinated eyes, their shiny sunburned noses, their sleek wet hair, their plump and slippery seal bodies.
Part of this game of watching a family in a stage you have passed through, is that you can simultaneously feel good about being where you are (happily alone) and also good about having experienced all those good times. So much of being a parent is just being there – for games of tippy chair, for soothing skinned knees, for sharing an ice cream. You can have the memory, but rather than being a sad memory, it is more bittersweet and satisfactory. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything, but I’m also glad to be where I am right now.
The boy now hops lightly and comically from one leg to another in front of his mother. Water is streaming off him and he bites his lower lip. He is at once heartbreakingly vulnerable and happily persistent. Mom? He twirls a bit and then scampers back to the edge of the pool, looking coyly over his shoulder as he readies himself. He is missing his two front teeth. Mom, watch this!
And he flies.