Summer of Independence
By Zsofia McMullin
It’s still weird, the silence in the house. I wander around the living room, puttering, putting away toys and books and crayons. I make tea and sit by the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil. I suppress the urge to peek out the front door, walk down our driveway and look across the parking lot to the grassy area where Sam is playing with the neighborhood kids.
It’s a recent development, this sudden burst of independence—last year, at four-and-a-half, he was too young to wander far from our front porch. But this year, it’s a regular occurrence. A couple of kids knock on our door and Sam swooshes past me to put on his sandals, standing still just long enough for me to smear some sunscreen on his neck and face.
He usually returns sweaty and muddy, with the names of new friends and tales of new adventures spilling from his lips, as he chugs ice-cold water and kicks off shoes.
We have our rules: You don’t go into other people’s homes. If you see a gun or anyone playing with a gun, you run home like a motherfucker (we don’t use that word, of course, but in my mind that’s how it goes.) You don’t get into anyone’s car. You don’t accept candy or food or drink without asking me first. You don’t help a stranger look for a puppy or a bike. You don’t go out onto the street.
* * *
I always believed that something magical would happen to me during the summer. It was during the summer that I read my first novel cover to cover on a balcony overlooking Lake Balaton in Hungary where we vacationed. It was during summer months that I learned to swim, ride a bike, walked to the grocery store by myself, went to my first rock concert. First time at a bar, first crush, first time holding a boy’s hand, first kiss—all happened during warm, perfumed summer evenings.
I always felt more grown-up once summer came to an end, as if all of my maturing and growing was limited to those few warm months. Once school started and my freedom was taken over by schedules and after-school lessons and homework, it was harder to feel that forward movement, that sense I was really changing.
I see that in Sam, too. We are not even halfway through summer and he’s gotten taller and stronger just over the past few weeks. His skin is darkened from the sun, his knees are scraped and skinned, and his body is filling out with muscles. In May he was a baby. In July he is on his way to being a kindergartener.
I watch him run off with his friends and wonder what kind of magic will happen to him this summer, the next, the one after that, and after that…
* * *
“You should take a bath by yourself. You are a big boy now,” my husband tells Sam and instructs him on how to wet washcloth, lather soap, scrub toes and ears. “But I want Mama to give me a bath!” Sam protests and I am right there with him. “What is this hurry with independence?” I ask, only half-joking.
Of course, he has to learn to bathe himself. But not yet. Please not yet. He still has baby thighs and soft skin. I can still kneel next to the tub and let the warm water from the washcloth trickle down his neck, chest, and belly. He still lets me wash his hair, the soft slope of his shoulders, his twig-like arms. He has tiny toes that look like shrimp and when I look at his knees it’s hard to tell what is a bruise and what is dirt.
I am already letting go of so much that it seems impossible to let go of more right now. Especially because he gives this time, this moment of closeness so freely, willingly, giggling as I tickle under his arms and at the bottom of his foot. I towel him off and put lotion on his sun-kissed skin, dress him in soft PJs.
Is there a simpler pleasure than a freshly-bathed, sleepy child?
* * *
The day camp where I drop Sam off is new to both of us. It came highly recommended, but I don’t know any of the camp-counselors or the other kids or parents. We get there early and the kids are already gathering on a large, open field.
Sam doesn’t hide behind my back as I talk to the camp counselor—what is she? Nineteen, maybe?—and I can tell that Sam likes her long, dark hair and friendly smile. I stand around for a bit, but Sam is already chatting with another little boy. “So, are you ready for me to go,” I ask after a few minutes. “Yes, go!” he says without even turning around.
I walk back across the field to my car and sit there for a moment, watching as Sam and the other boy chase each other with their bug spray bottles. I want to run back and say, “Be careful! Don’t get that in each other’s eye!” But I stop myself.
I drive off wondering if maybe I have done something right with this parenting thing, after all. Isn’t it a good sign when your child separates from you easily? Doesn’t that mean that he is attached to me, that he feels safe and confident? I think I read that somewhere.
I pull over and inhale my ice coffee to stop myself from breaking out in loud sobs.
* * *
During the summer I paint my toes rainbow colors, drink beer on the back porch, eat ice cream every night. I wear pants with elastic waists and slip into comfy flip-flops. I pick up Sam early from daycare so that we can hang by the pool or eat snacks and watch TV on the couch together. I make him lemonade with sun-shaped ice cubes. We stay up late, play with the water hose, plant flowers, eat tomatoes off the vine, roll down the car windows.
* * *
From time to time, Sam gets scared of his own independence. He hates the conflict of wanting to do things on his own—tie his shoes, ride his bike—and his inability—as of yet—to do so. “I can’t do anything! I am stupid!” he yells as he tries over and over again. He wants to roam farther afield—walk to Taekwondo class from my car parked a few doors down, ride the tilt-a-whirl alone. But some of these are just too scary, so he returns to my arms sad and disappointed.
That’s when I remind him of all the things he can do by himself, that he couldn’t do before: sit up, walk, talk, chew solid food, pee in the toilet, put on his clothes, make his bed, build with Legos, operate the remote control, play soccer with his buddies.
“It will come,” I tell him. And I want it all to come for him quickly. But I am also secretly thankful every time I have to zip his jacket, because when I bend down to do so he is just at the right height to bury his nose in my hair and whisper: “Mama, you smell so good.”
Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.