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The Second Half

Alice Graves: I want my college son to still need me

Sometimes I feel like everything I know about life I learned from TV, movies and popular music. As a mother I've always tried to be more Claire Huxtable and less Roseanne.

When my son was born I couldn't wait for him to start talking so he could tell me all his thoughts. I would talk to him and he'd smile his big pumpkin grin and he seemed to agree with everything I said.

We were in complete agreement for many years. In fourth grade he loved the Beatles and we'd sing along in the car. Hey, Bungalow Bill, what did you kill, Bungalow Bill? Later at night, he'd sing the song to his dad, also named Bill. My son preferred the edgier, psychedelic songs of the late Beatles to the innocence of their pre-Sgt. Pepper days.

This should have tipped me off.

I kept him up on Thursday nights so we wouldn't have to miss Seinfeld, and before long we were quoting lines from that fab four. It was his idea to tape the final episode.

At 10, he wrote a Mother's Day poem describing me as Astounding Lovely Intelligent Caring Excellent, using each letter of my name to describe me.

Then came adolescence and suddenly all of my Intelligence and Excellence melted away along with my tight skin and perfect vision. I became clueless. Now swimming in a sea of hormones, my son knew more than I did, his friends knew more than I, and all of my beliefs became irrelevant and outdated.

"I wasn't born old," I told him. "I was once a rebellious, sarcastic teenager." He shook his head and smiled.

Now he's 20 and a junior in college. He's doing well, is focused, and he'll graduate on time, unlike me. It took me seven years to complete my B.A.

The problem is this whole issue of independence. He wants it, and I sort of do, but mostly I want him to need me.

The summer he was 18, his wisdom teeth were removed. Afterward, he was lying in bed, mouth full of gauze, still drowsy from the sedation. I walked into his room, sat on his bed and said, "Want me to read to you?"

When he was little, we'd snuggle in his bed so he could look at the pictures while I read. We marveled at the vehicles in The Truck Book. We named all the objects in the room in Good Night Moon. My favorite was a poem about bats hanging upside down in a belfry, the mother bats hugging their babies close. That poem always made me teary.

Needless to say, he did not want me to read to him after the extractions.

Last summer he was offered a paying job as a camp counselor. But then he got a harebrained idea to hitchhike to California with his friend Keith. He assured me this was absolutely safe and would cost next to nothing. They would sleep outside and scavenge for food.

"What do you think?" he asked.

I didn't go all hysterical and ask if he was trying to drive me insane. I didn't even raise my voice. That would be too Roseanne.

Instead, I pretended I was actually weighing the pros and cons of earning money in a frighteningly unsure economy against possibly getting picked up on a lonesome desert highway by Jeffrey Dahmer's evil twin.

"I don't think it's such a good idea," I said, channeling a rational Claire Huxtable. My voice was so even and calm, Meryl Streep would have cried and handed me her Oscar.

"Why?" he asked.

I was being tested, and I had to stay cool, calm and collected, like Claire when she had to reason with Theo.

"I think you want to earn money this summer," I said. "Imagine how great you'll feel to earn your first paycheck."

"Let me think about it. I'll call you tomorrow," he said.

Of course, I knew what he'd do. I knew he'd remember the previous summer, when he and his two hitchhiking buddies were stranded in a small town in France and had to sleep outside after being ejected from a Holiday Inn lobby where they were found snoozing on the sofas. (They returned in the morning for the free breakfast buffet.)

The following evening he told me he decided on the camp counselor job.

"Sounds like a good idea," I said, hiding the triumph and relief in my voice. Meryl, give me that Oscar!

Parenting an older child is a delicate pas de deux. I have learned to be keenly aware of my son, step lightly and keep to the beat of the music. And we all know that Claire Huxtable was a really good dancer.

St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves can be reached at

Alice Graves: I want my college son to still need me 11/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 3:30am]
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