I’m wearing blue plaid golf shorts that my grandpa would have said are a little “loud,” the very same shorts I wore on our first golf outing here 11 years ago when Jack was 4 years old and about the same height as my putter. There’s a picture of us in front of our golf cart that has always been one of my favorites, both of us grinning, just about to head to the first tee.
Now he’s 6’1”, almost as tall as I am. Now he drives us around the island in the Subaru piling up the hours he needs to qualify for his driver’s license in the spring of next year. He used to beg me to let him drive the golf cart. I’d let him sit on my lap and steer, with my index finger surreptitiously on the bottom of the wheel, out of his view.
Parenting is still kind of like that, though it’s all I can do anymore to keep one finger on the wheel. Pretty soon, he’ll have to take total control and we’ll have to let him go. We both pretend that this is exactly what we want. Well, at least I am pretending. With him, I think it varies from day to day.
We’ve already been through this with our daughter, who left for college about a year ago and is now dealing with all kinds of life decisions that are hers alone to make. As a wise person informed us a while back, our role has shifted to that of “consultant” in her life. Sometimes she consults with us, sometimes not. Uncharted territory, you know.
Our first day on the beach, we put up our canopy, set up our chairs, and pulled out our books, headphones and bottled waters, just as we have for so many years here. By now, setting up at the beach is an art form for us. We don’t need a list of what to bring. We can set up or tear down the entire shebang in less than five minutes, where it once took us a full hour.
Right away, we saw a family with small children, the parents fussing over their swimsuits and checking their sunscreen coverage. One of them suddenly bolted for the ocean, a little girl shrieking as she ran, her mom just a step behind, hands outstretched.
That was us not long ago, delirious from lack of sleep, overwhelmed in just about every way but also exhilarated, living on adrenaline and black coffee and protein bars. We learned pretty quickly that vacations at the beach were not really vacations as much as extended photo shoots for our young children.
We learned that the real vacation is the week you come home, when you can finally slip back into routines as comfortable as old pajamas and find some time to rest and relax, which you can never seem to do while at the beach, since your children need your undivided attention every minute that they are awake.
Being parents of small children at the beach is like being in a play on opening night, having barely read the script, much less memorized or rehearsed it. You may think you understand your role, but you don’t really. People expect you to know what you’re doing, but you don’t. When your children need something or want something or misbehave at the grocery store, you should say something, but you don’t really know what. You can’t remember your lines.
You’re performing in front of a crowd, trying to be convincing, trying to pull it off, trying to get through the damn thing without embarrassing yourself, trying not to poison your children, trying not to print some trauma on their blank little slates that will have to be examined in therapy sessions in 30 years. It’s not so much applause you seek. No, your standards are not that high. You’d just like to avoid being revealed as a complete fraud, to have the hospital nurse materialize on the beach right in front of you demanding the return of this child.
We remember these days with fondness, but also with fear and trembling. We’re happy to go back in pictures and in stories remembered, but not in reality. We’re plenty content to enjoy the people they’ve become, even when they get on our nerves or we get on theirs.
In short, we’re fine with being consultants. It’s nice to be able to read novels and contemplate the undulating formations of pelicans for minutes at a time without jolting yourself back awake in a panic to see where your son got off to. Because he’s right there in his own chair, feet propped up, headphones on, in need of a shave.