His Own Man, His Father's Son


It is a cool, clear Sunday morning. Crisp. No humidity. In August. In Maryland!

We sit out on our deck and enjoy the invigorating air. We warm ourselves over mugs of hot tea, listen to music and read the paper together under the bright blue sky.

In our family we call a day like this a "Sunapee Day." My face can almost feel the breeze blowing across the New England lake.

Around 9 o'clock our 18 year-old son comes out on the deck. His appearance at that hour surprises us more than the cool weather. He looks a little surprised about it himself. Since graduating from high school in June, Richard has burned the candle at only one end. We can't remember a day this summer when he has stirred before noon. I offer to call a doctor, but he assures us he feels fine.

He explains that he woke up so early because he was cold. He couldn't get back to sleep. Instead he started thinking about those brisk August mornings on our camping trips when he was a young boy. He remembers waking up in the tent and pulling his sleeping bag up tight around his neck while he listened to the sounds of his father getting breakfast started down by the campfire. When he would finally get up, he'd put his blue hooded sweat suit on over his Superman pajamas.

I ask him what else he remembers. He talks about the blueberry pancakes. He was usually the last one down to breakfast. His sisters would both complain as he climbed up on the bench between them at the table. Before he could grumble back at them, I'd hand him his orange juice.

I can see that little boy's face. He'd hold his cup up to his lips with both hands. While he drank his juice, his eyes would watch me flip his pancakes on our Coleman griddle. The fresh berries had come from the blueberry bushes along the path which ran in from the main road to our campsite on the lake.

We took our children on summer camping trips when they were young. Some good friends let us pitch our tent on a point of land on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. Our campsite was right on the water. As we ate breakfast together, we looked out across the lake at the surrounding mountains.

We took our children camping because we loved it and because we wanted family vacations. But I also had another purpose. I wanted them to remember the smell of blueberry pancakes cooking on the griddle, the sparks rising from a campfire in the dark after dinner, and the soft sound of rain falling on the tent in the middle of the night.

While the three of us reminisce on our deck, we can hear the music from my stereo. I play masses on Sunday mornings. Richard calls them "dirges." He jokes with me about them and says he'd rather listen to Led Zeppelin.

I respond with a teasing prediction: When he's 35 or 40, he'll look up from his paper some Sunday morning and realize he wants to hear Bach's B-Minor Mass. He laughs and shakes his head. But I tell him there's nothing he can do about it. The music is already implanted within him. Like the Messiah at Christmas. Like camping.

He dismisses my prediction, but I can see him thinking about it. After all, he's grown to love the outdoors. During high school, he took three summer trips with Outward Bound. Last year he went backpacking for a month in Montana and Wyoming. He's decided to go to college at the University of Colorado, right at the foot of the Rockies.

While he considers the horrifying possibility that some day he might actually prefer Baroque music to Hard Rock, I wonder about what else I have passed along to him. He has lived his whole life under our roof and under my wing. In a thousand subtle ways I must have shaped and molded his attitudes about himself, about what it means to be a man, about how to live a life.

Although he probably doesn't know it yet, I'm sure I'm already the parental voice in the back of his head. Is my tone impatient? Judgmental? Do I criticize him? Or is my voice encouraging, supportive, caring?

I love my son and like him too. Those feelings must be as deeply embedded in his heart as anything I ever taught him about how to cook over a fire or set up a tent.

I like the independent spirit he's developed. Last spring he decided to defer college for a year. This fall he's going to go to Africa. He'll spend three months as an assistant school teacher in a rural village near Lake Victoria in Kenya. Next spring he'll go backpacking, rock climbing and ocean kayaking in Mexico with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

He leaves for Africa September 1. He says he'll come home by Christmas. But I know my teen-age boy will never come back. He will grow into the young man I'll pick up at the airport in December, just as the little boy in his Superman pajamas somehow grew into the 18-year-old sitting across from me on our deck this morning.

A few more weeks. Then he'll go. He's leaving home. It's a boy's pivotal passage. The first step on the mythical journey. I've done my best to prepare him for it. And I know that as he sets forth on his quest to become his own man, he carries within him his father's son.

Tim Baker's column appears here on alternate Mondays.

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