Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At Eighteen

Old Age And Youth, 1878
Sir John Gilbert

Count no day lost in which you waited your turn, took only your share, and sought advantage over no one.

---Robert Brault

The best things in life are nearest: breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties in your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.

---Robert Lewis Stevenson

Yes, spring has come---
this morning, a nameless hill
is shrouded in mist.


Dear Ilona,

By coincidence lately, I've been reading and hearing that once a young adult leaves home, the communication with Dad suddenly changes. The transition didn't happen in my own exodus, so I'm a bit inexperienced as it seems to occur now. My telephone conversations with my father tended more toward the Garrison Keillor Scandinavian model in which Mom hands the phone to Dad, who mutters, "Hullo...so you're OK? Well, here's your mother again."

With son and daughter, once you both were out there, magically the old man is revealed a sage, loved and respected. This isn't new exactly. My father quoted Mark Twain to me often: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.” Well, Twain may never have said it, but there's a mysterious truth to it. Today I see there is much more I have to learn, and my children have taken on the responsibility to teach me. Now I have to be paying the attention I should have all along. I have to learn to say "I love you" more often...and I acknowledge that and am trying.

Fifteen years ago we had you registered in public school. We had discussed it because we knew you would be entering while still 4, and this probably would make you the youngest kid in the class the rest of your education. The alternative was to wait a year...and then you always would be the oldest. We took the first option because we figured you could handle it. What we hadn't considered is now you are turning 18 away from home already. It turns out this is hard on us.

Eighteen is coming of age, although 21 continues to be the big one. At 18, boys had to register for the draft. I don't know if there's anything like that you have to do now. In New York, I could walk into a bar and get served. I didn't do it much but I came to appreciate the experience, because I never was tempted to act up on weekends the way kids from states with older age limits did. We New Yorkers didn't need to break the law. We were too cool. You can vote now. That's new. I had to wait til 21 to do that. In between, a generation came along that said, "If I have to go off to your expensive wars and get killed, I should be able to vote on the people who want to send me." Students became vocal and involved as my generation, at 18, never was.

You're a young woman today...and no longer the girl who liked to rearrange the furniture and desktops without asking. When we can't find something today, we have to take responsibility for it...and I'm sure our abilities to remember aren't going to improve. The silence in the house sometimes is deafening...and of course we have to swallow hard when, by habit, we still wonder what time you're coming home. The reminder that you aren't brings tears.

I guess it's human nature not to really appreciate someone until they're gone. Maybe that's a common emotion that is uniting us now. We're sending a birthday cake by courier. We won't be singing and watching you always blow out every candle. Maybe we'll sing here anyway...and pretend. Maybe Mom and I will hold hands, sing the song, and have ourselves a hug and kiss in your honor. That sounds like a good plan...until we're together again.