Raining and snowing and cold and wet outside. I should have warmed up the truck this morning, before bringing Alex to school, but I was (as usual) trying to do too many other things in that time between Bill Leaving For Work and Bringing Alex to School. Ah well, it's only water.
We arrived at the school, joined the slow parade of cars and trucks and SUVs, and waited our turn. There was also a bus up ahead, and a little ant-like trail of children emerging from within, hopping down the steps of the bus and entering the school by the side door.
"Mom? Did you want to say those words?"
I know that I, by virtue of being a mother, and an adult, and, probably, female, am Not Cool. I knew, when I gave birth to each of my two children, that I needed to soak up all the adoring looks, the spontaneous hugs, and cherry-popsicle-flavored kisses that came my way while they lasted, because there would come a time when those would be replaced by rolling eyes, cold shoulders and tweenager attitude. Maybe not all the time, but a lot more than I'd like.
I just didn't know when the shift would start.
Julia, at five-and-a-half, hopscotches (in her sparkly red Dorothy shoes) between snuggly preschooler "I just missed you!" and big girl "I can do this myself" confidence. Occasionally I get a glimpse of the girl to come – the nine year old, the eleven, the – heaven help me – thirteen. But right now, those older incarnations of Julia are a long way off.
Alex is seven-and-a-half. And he's a boy. But more than that, he's a sensitive little soul. Not overly so; he doesn't break down and cry at everything. But he is very aware, I think, of how his peers perceive things, and he is careful not to put himself on the receiving end of any typically heartless elementary schoolboy teasing.
And somewhere along the line, between last year and this year, I think he learned, somehow, that interacting with your mother isn't cool.
Back in September Julia and I walked Alex to school, returned home, and discovered that he'd left his library book (due back that day) in the kitchen. I looked at the clock. The bell (THE bell) wouldn't ring for another five minutes. Plenty of time for me to zip back to the school and hand it to him while he stood outside with his classmates. Back I went (with Julia) to the school, parked on the other side of the building, and fast-walked past the parking lot. There he was, near one corner of the building. He noticed me when I was about twenty feet away, and I saw a bit of "uh oh" and "don't kiss me" flit across his face. These little flashes of panic were quickly covered by a look of second-grade ennui.
It crossed my mind, I admit. The temptation was there, for sure. I could wrap my arms around him, smother his blond little head in sloppy kisses, and embarrass the hell out of him.
But I didn't.
I remember. I remember my own elementary school days. I was very quiet, very shy. Way more sensitive (and easily upset) than my son is.
So I didn't do anything other than walk across the parking lot, hand over the book, give him a smile that (I hoped) said "I won't embarrass you" and then turn around and go home.
Through the winter, I've been driving him to school most of the time. I have a bad habit of leaving things til the last minute, and if we were walking every day, we'd be late a lot. I think I just don't want to walk in the very cold mornings.
So we drive. The school has the traffic organized so that buses and parent-driven vehicles come down one street and all kids are dropped off near one particular door. It works nicely, as long as everyone drives the right way down the street. Anyway, we pull up near the door, in groups of three or four cars, let our kids out, watch them go into the building, and then drive away. Nice and efficient.
As Alex unbuckles himself and grabs his backpack and opens the door, I say my mom things. "Have a great day!" "Have fun!" "I love you!" "Bye!" He focuses all his attention on lifting the backpack over his booster seat, dragging it out of the car, and carefully shutting the car door. Before the door hits home, I holler "You can say 'bye!'" with equal parts sympathy and sarcasm. Such a struggle to be seven. "Bye," he mutters, and briefly makes eye contact before turning and jogging toward the school door.
"I love you, Mommy!" Julia tells me. She loves thinking she's the favorite.
A few weeks ago, and I don't remember how this came about, the topic of our morning goodbyes came up. I asked Alex why he wouldn't answer me when I was saying goodbye, even though I had a pretty good idea already.
"Well…other kids might hear it and laugh at me."
"They'd laugh at you just for saying "goodbye?"
"You know, boys are allowed to say "I love you" to their mothers. It's not like you're saying it to your sister."
"How about if I say it in the car before we get to the door, so you can say it back and no one will hear. Then when you open the door, we can just say "bye" and it'll be okay. How about that?"
He thought about it. "That would be okay," he said.
So we tried that on the next school day, and it was good. Sometimes I'd say it, sometimes I wouldn't. I didn't want to pressure him.
This morning, as we sat in the truck, waiting for the bus to move along and for the cars in front of us to roll forward, the three of us, shivering a bit, watched the wet snow splattering on the windshield and agreed that it was way too cold and wet to play on the playground today. A bit of silence, and then,
"Did you want to say those words?"
"Did you want to say those words to me?"
Ah, those words. I smiled, to myself – so Alex couldn't see and wonder what the joke was.
"I love you, Alex."
"I love you, Mom."
We were quiet again for a bit, and then it was our turn.
Alex unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbed his backpack, and wiggled out of the truck.
"Have a great day! Bye!"
He closed the door of the truck, and hurried into the school.
Julia and I drove home.