Keeping the Door Open

While we may believe that an old relationship with a child no longer has meaningful content, whey might have a different--and more human--perspective.

My husband had arranged an all-ages soccer game. I was a little worried about how out-of-shape I’d gotten, but was looking forward to playing together with our boys and our friends. When we got to the gym and the other teenagers began pulling on their long socks and shin guards and fancy shoes, I started to get intimidated. I’d forgotten that these two, in particular, had been living and breathing soccer for years.

We’d known each other well when they were four and five, going on weekly outings with my boys and their father all over the city. With a common passion for the Revolutionary War, we’d done a shared birthday party at Valley Forge when they were eight or nine. I’d roughhoused with them, explored with them, played chase games and ball with them, fed them, mediated their conflicts, helped them with their fears, admired their drawings. We really knew each other in those days. But then they’d gone to different schools, pursued different interests. We’d drifted apart. And now they were teenagers.

I probably hadn’t had a conversation with this one young man for a couple of years. He had a mature look that I’d never seen before. He was nearing my height. He had always been intensely passionate about sports, eager to win. It was going to be much harder to think about him now that his skill had so clearly surpassed mine. And we were on opposing teams.

I didn’t know how to act around him. It felt like he was a stranger. I felt like a stranger. I was sure he wouldn’t like me any more. After all, I was just somebody’s mom from a long time ago. Luckily we didn’t have to make conversation. I wouldn’t have known what to say.

It was a little easier when we started to play. Though my lack of stamina is embarrassing, I can still do a respectable job on defense, and I’ve always liked to play. But he was playing against me and he was very good. At one point, without even thinking about it, I pulled out an old trick--making loud aggressive noises to camouflage my weakness. He smiled broadly, then made to duck and run, saying “Oh, no--Pamela’s after me!” just as he used to say when he was little.

I was stunned. Here I’d been using up tons of emotional energy trying to come to terms with my lack of relationship with this young man. And here he was assuming that the relationship was completely intact. All that time I’d spent with him during all those years, he’d been there too, spending it with me. All the things I had done with him he had done with me. They were as clear in his memory as they were in mine. The only difference was that he hadn’t assumed we’d become strangers just because he was a little older.

It was a delightful moment, and transformed the tone of the game for me. It was also a sobering reminder of how quick I had been to close the door on a relationship. There are a lot of factors entwined here: my assumption that, when I was in a parent-type role with other people’s children, I somehow wasn’t there as myself--that those relationships didn’t count; the strength of the societal forces that encourage us to isolate ourselves from teenagers; the strange idea that adolescence brings with it an automatic and insuperable cultural barrier, as if all of a sudden we become different species.

The reasons may be varied and complex, but the result is the same. If my door is closed, all the openness in the world on the other person’s side won’t give us access to each other. I was grateful that mine was open enough that day for this young man’s foot to slip in, so I could peek through the crack and see his welcome.