by Julia Buckley
This week, as one of our spring break festivities, my family went to see a movie together. We thought it might be crowded, so we got there twenty minutes early and then sat in a nearly empty theater, crunching our popcorn and watching truly inane television promos on the giant screen.
"I can't wait for the previews," I said.
"Mom!" my 14-year-old son said. "Don't talk in here."
Surprised, I looked around at the twelve other people spread across the theatre, all of whom were talking, too. "Ian, this isn't a library or a church. And the movie isn't starting for twenty minutes. We're allowed to talk."
He shook his head and rolled his eyes slightly, looking to my husband for verification. "Dad, no one likes people who talk at the theater." I shrugged, then continued talking in a whisper to placate him. The fact is, anything I do embarrasses my son, beginning with inhaling and exhaling. Perhaps I should do it in the opposite order?
In an effort to understand my teen, I cast myself back to myself at that age and managed to dig out some surprising similarities. I remember treating my father in particular (because he drove me to school each day) to some sarcastic sighs and eye rolling on a pretty regular basis. I loved my dad, but I think I saw him as rather nerdly with his AM radio morning talk shows and his constant adjusting of everything on the car dashboard, as if he fancied himself an airline pilot. I criticized his driving, as I recall, and I didn't really approve if he kissed me goodbye in front of my friends. It seems mean and obnoxious now, but it's helpful that I can recall it and make myself admit that I was the same sort of teenager my boy has become.
My mother, too, bore the brunt of my teen cruelty. She was neat and I, with the disdain of all work that every teen seems to feel, was rather sloppy. Once she came into my bedroom, my lair, where I sat at my desk, probably writing moodily in my journal.
She took one look at my dresser and the thick coat of dust upon it and expressed dismay (my mom was big on dusting). "Julie! Look at this--the dust is so thick I could write 'Pig' in it!" she exclaimed in her rather sweet German accent.
"Why don't you do that, Mom?" I asked, staring into my book.
She sniffed and left the room. She was putting away clothes, I think. My mother was always, always doing chores and I never once thanked her for her household maintenance, just as my son never thanks me.
When I left the room later, I saw that my mother had indeed written "Pig" in her beautiful script-like printing, as a basic symbol of our clash of ideologies. It made me laugh then, and it does now, but these days I understand my mother's side of things far better.
The nature of teens is to look outward at the world, at opportunities and new people and new horizons. They do not so much look at the people in their own homes, but when they do it's generally to accuse them of hypocrisy (and oh, does my son love to use his prodigious vocabulary against me!) or absurdity or some other objectionable abstract. They are learning that they are clever, but they have not yet reached the point at which they can look inside themselves and assess their own behavior.
My teen, like all teens, is both horrible and loveable. He is a pubescent Jekyll who occasionally and without warning becomes Hyde. But when I am ready to judge him for any number of infractions--selfishness, moodiness to start--I am haunted by an image of myself at the dinner table of my teen years, bursting into tears when someone said something that I perceived to be offensive. I remember the blank stares of my parents and my siblings, who viewed me the way one might a dangerous snake--fearful of making the wrong move or saying something that might elicit more crying, or perhaps a primal scream.
Over break my son and I got along quite well, except for one explosive fight during which we launched our verbal weapons at each other (I admit to using the word "crap-ass" as an adjective about my son's behavior) and then, in the aftermath, we were oddly calm and repentant. We faced each other like weary duelists and exchanged apologies and then, as though we'd been exorcised, we had a nice time for the rest of the evening.
While both of us must navigate the stormy seas of his teenhood, I think we can manage to stay afloat if I tell my son I love him, even while I'm angry at him, and if I somehow manage to convey the idea that not only do I understand him, but that at one distant point I was him, in many, many ways.
As my own mother did, I often express my love by feeding my children. Before I started writing this, I handed my son a bowl of rice pudding, a favorite snack since his babyhood. He accepted it happily, and somewhere in his psyche he is storing it as one of many acts of love.
Until he thinks of those acts, though, he will continue to be embarrassed by me, his rude and inconvenient mother. :)