Open and Closed
A selected essay from our new Fall Issue
The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.
I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.
It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.
“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”
“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”
“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”
“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.
When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.
Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading?as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.
And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.
Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, Ã la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.
Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.
After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.
Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.
Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.