My children are busy cleaning out their rooms. It all started when my husband built a desk for my younger child, who will enter middle school in three weeks’ time. The introduction of the desk into the bedroom necessitated a certain amount of reshuffling and uncluttering. My older son wanted in on this game. So now the boys blur past me as they carry toys, books, chairs, and lamps to the basement, which is fast becoming impassable. My ten-year-old brings me a pile of books and slaps it down on the kitchen counter. “Do you want to keep these, or give them away?,” he asks. I am silent. He grows impatient, tapping his foot and sighing.
But I am dumbstruck. Here in front of me are treasured books, books he once loved so, books I once loved so. My son seems to understand my conundrum, and, with a softer tone, he points out that he is just too old for these books. I nod and tell him to put them in the basement. Is that because I’ll want to pore over them, someday, or because he will? I can’t tell.
My fourteen-year-old takes down a print of the Mona Lisa that had been hanging on his wall. We’d bought it at the Louvre last summer, when we visited Paris. “It’s not that it’s bad art, Mom,” he argues, by way of explanation, “but it’s just obvious. It’s too well known, you know? Overrated.” I nod. My mouth, fish-like, opens, then closes. It’s been doing that a lot lately.
And I haven’t even mentioned the dinosaur sheets. How my teen used to love dinosaurs. Once, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, when he was perhaps six, he and I watched some fourth and fifth graders, city kids, on a tour of the dinosaur exhibits. “Who knows,” asked the guide, “what the word ‘pterodactyl’ means, literally?” The question fell on silence, until my son yelled, “Winged lizard!” “Right!,” beamed the tour guide, without realizing that the child who’d answered her question wasn’t even a member of her assigned group.
That same kid slept in dinosaur bedding for years. A year or two ago, while making his bed, I told him that when he was ready for different sheets, he should let me know, and I’d be happy to buy him some new ones. He agreed. Last week, he told me that his friends had been teasing him about his sheets, and he wanted a new set, a set absent dinosaurs. I laughed. “About time,” I proclaimed. And then we went to Target and bought him some solid navy bedding. At the store a man browsing in the bedding aisle offered my tall son this: “Good luck in college.” “Not quite college yet,” I murmured, shocked.
Today I am washing and folding that dinosaur bedding, in preparation for… well, I’m not sure, exactly. I want the bedding, which is still in wonderful shape, to go to a child with dinosaurs in his, or her, eyes, to go to a child who knows the meaning of the word ‘pterodactyl’ and forty other facts about pterodactyls, besides.
No, what I really want is to see that boy again, the one who hated to leave the Museum of Natural History, the one who made sure to stop at each and every set of dinosaur bones when it was time to go, to say, “Goodbye, plesiosaur, goodbye, velociraptor, see you next time.”
With one son set to begin middle school and the other high school in fewer than twenty days, I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the one-way signs posted along time’s road. I watch each of my children asserting himself, rejecting somebody else’s notion of his identity and staking out new territory. I watch my children’s rooms being transformed from childhood sanctuaries to teen lairs that will serve to define their maturing selves to their friends. I watch my children as they expand their own worlds, minute by minute, book by book, toy by toy, painting by painting. I can think of nothing to do. Witless, I continue opening and closing my mouth, waiting for words that never do arrive.