Twenty-One

There are fruitless phone calls to the local package store, to the Parents Office, to the main switchboard where a sophomore with a high-pitched voice is sympathetic and sweet and makes suggestions, but none of them will do.

And you wonder why you didn’t manage to find the number for the roommates, why you have no knowledge of his schedule for purposes of a singing telegram, no adequate budget for performing jugglers, for bright balloons and an exotic cake, or what you had in mind originally – twenty-one bottles of beer from Germany and Mexico and Belgium and Jamaica, or at the very least a few six-packs of Sam Adams, lined up at his front door, with a banner for the big day he was waiting for.

Twenty-one.

It isn’t that you want him drinking and it isn’t that he hasn’t had his share of Cabernet and Calvados and Hoegaarden and Guinness, all of it since sixteen and no doubt before, considering the summers with cousins in Europe and the misadventures you decide are best left to his own mythologizing.

Still, you imagine his grin if only you could execute on this gesture as you kick yourself that you cannot accomplish it from hundreds of miles away. You failed to recruit a co-conspirator in the celebratory scenarios you spin and now discard, each in their insurmountable obstacles as time ticks down and distance stretches the invisible cord between parent and child, naturally, in ways you are still learning to accommodate.

So you settle on a hand-written note even as you wince at language you cannot elevate to originality much less wisdom or eloquence; your mind is a blank except for a thousand images you will never misplace, and you ultimately resort to the ambiguous verb “love” and the uninspired adjective “proud,” then walk your meager offering to the post office and slip it through the metal slot labeled Domestic.

Not only are you unsuccessful at arranging for twenty-one beers or twenty-one balloons or a salute of any notable display, but your wallet is incapable of stamping the day with a monetary statement of significance so he may purchase some marker of his own choosing. This fact is more stinging than you anticipate, as you later hear about the Great Gift received from his father’s Second Wife in the Second Life that you have only the tiniest glimpse of, and when you do, you choose to turn away with your eyes cast elsewhere and your tongue trained in appropriate silence.

*

He joins you at the holidays and the presents seem paltry though he is gracious, and you know this is your own sense of inadequacy and little to do with his reaction or response. There are two sweaters plucked from the sale shelf at Target, there is a three dollar Slinky because it makes him laugh, there is a chocolate orange because it is family tradition, there are the keys to the car whenever he asks because he loves his freedom and that you can give him and always have, the measure of his judgment and the gift of your trust.

*

Your parents bestow nothing and everything though even the void is foundational: rage insures that you are small; absence instructs in the art of abandonment. Yes, there are paintings and books that engage the senses, and curiosity to fuel your escape.

If there are mileposts, they stand unvisited on a deserted road you barely remember, admitting to the dirty tricks of the mind’s map-making over the years, and so you treasure one Polaroid with your long dead father, and you cherish a tiny gold box from your long dead mother, still containing a pottery vase for your dolls and a note in her florid cursive – signed with love and decorated with a heart.

*

You wonder what your son will recall as much as what he will forget or distort; you content yourself knowing that when he is home he claims your sandwiches are “the best” and he fills your narrow rooms with friends; all are welcome, as are the sounds of their laughter. While you may see the freckle-faced ten-year old who roams the neighborhood on his bike, and you may hear the voice of the boy who reassures you he will build a house in the backyard and live there with his family, perhaps “love” and “proud” however banal will be good enough, because they’re all you have in the echo of your shared bonds, in acts of allegiance and of letting go, in your acquiescence, your occasional melancholy, your embrace of aging as the inevitable companion to acknowledgment of his coming into his own.

Perhaps milestone birthdays are less important when the arrival is marked by tenderness and constancy in their path.


Flash fiction is a very short story of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 words. This is a quick writing exercise, a “flash” in fifty minutes or so.



© D. A. Wolf

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Comments

  1. I can think of nothing more priceless for any son than what you’ve just written. Beautiful.

    I so understand these feelings from mother to son.

    This is just beautiful.

  2. Your last line says it all. Milestone birthdays come and go. Consistent, unconditional love of a caring parent lasts forever. And that’s what he will remember most. Happy Birth Day, Mom!

  3. I love Flash Fiction, BLW, and this is a beautiful example. I know all too well the feelings of inadequacy when the Great Gifts are bestowed by those who are happy to make sure you remain as small as possible…

    That said, I was going to say the same thing lisa said, your last line says it all: “Perhaps milestone birthdays are less important when the arrival is marked by the tenderness and constancy of their path.”

    Material things that come in the name of vanity, those bestowed with little or no true sentiment eventually disappear. But the nature of unbridled love will remain. It is a gift that lives on for eternity in the stories of gatherings in narrow rooms, in the recollections of the laughter, and in the memory of being loved and welcomed…as I have always told my children, “aways, forever, and no matter what…”

    BTW, I celebrated my boy’s 21st with much the same anticipation and dilemma…a note of my undending love, and, yes, proud… I also ended up including as an aside, a $5 bill with a sticky note on it: “Enjoy your first (legal) legal beverage on us.” ;) The Others sent Mega Bucks and Lord only knows what other gaudy and enticing gifts-with-strings-attached…

    You are not alone…

  4. One of the best gifts we can give our children is to be kind and loving towards ourselves.
    He loves you, you love him …
    It seems simple but it has to be enough.
    It’s not what you say, or what you do – but how you make him feel.
    Congratulations on his and your birth day :)

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Thanks, Vicki Lee. We were – for so many years – this little team, the three of us. My boys are close in age and get along well. That fact is good for them (though they may not yet realize to what extent), and a gift to me.

  5. May son turns 21 on May 1….all I have to say is a heartfelt thank you for this post! i wasn’t sure what I was going to do for him…now I know.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      21 bottles of beer…(not on the wall?)? Enjoy your 21-year old, @Pam! My other son was home for his 20th just recently (after that crazy all-night journey to get here). That’s what he wanted for his birthday, I think. To be home. To sleep in his own bed. (To make my car keys and see his oldest friends.) And then there was cake… :)

      Who doesn’t want a “home” to be able to return to? Perhaps that’s what we give. Home in us – in being there for them, wherever “there” is. When they need it.

  6. we hesitate to write this – and we do so only because it feels safer doing this here, in your place, than leaving it on ours – but the greatest thing you do throughout this lovely piece of flash fiction is remember the occasion and think about how to celebrate and then the small pains and great virtues and show such care and beauty and motherliness.

    we just had to survive another birthday (gulp) where the card arrived over two weeks late and there was a paltry moan abut the postal service and we wanted to scream “you were There!! couldn’t you get the date right?”

    eek.

    thanks for listening.

    seriously.

    thank you.

    tg xxx

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      I hope it always feels “safe” here… for everyone. (And a belated happy birthday hug to you… )

  7. You gave me the glimpse of what Motherhood really is in the gorgeous piece of writing and I thank you for it. But I think you said it best, or at least best for me in your response, the finest gift, the one that is never, ever forgotten is that of “home”–the unwavering one in you.
    Merci, encore…
    H

  8. D

    *receivingHug*

    bless you.

    and thank you.

    _tg (and s xx)

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