“Mama,” he repeats, over and over, as he presses his body closer to mine. He speaks my name like an inquiry, like he’s trying it out to see if it still fits.
I wonder if the days of “mama” are numbered, if soon I’ll become “mom” to my youngest just as I did to my oldest. I wonder if he senses this too.
I continue reading aloud, running my hand through his wavy hair, remembering the ringlets of his toddlerhood. He has an undercut now, and likes to style the top in a mohawk with blue hair gel. He says he wants a man bun.
“I’m glad I’m finally man enough,” my oldest son remarks about a newfound privilege he has earned in our home. I suppress a grin, careful not to let him see. He sees and hears everything these days, and is keenly aware of any hint of patronization.
But the grin erupts despite my best attempts at containing it. I welcome it, because it goes down easier than the knot in my stomach that is its alter ego.
I’m nine years old and we’re moving to a new house in a new state and that new house has a microwave. I am sad to leave my friends and the life I’ve known and I’m nervous about going to a new school but I am also breathless with anticipation about this new kitchen appliance. My daydreams about my new life include a log of Velveeta cheese that I’m going to melt in that microwave entirely on my own. My new friends will come over and we’ll eat nachos while we start a Babysitter’s Club and field phone calls from my bedroom with my very own baby-blue corded telephone.
Because when you are a kid, your daydreams are future-oriented. Nostalgia is not yet linear, but circular and you can pine for a future you’ve yet to experience the same way adults can be transported back in time with just one glimpse of a firefly or whiff of a campfire.
When you are a kid, your daydreams are independence-oriented. And so the word “man” keeps tumbling out of my boys’ mouths. Man bun. Man enough. When I’m a man. This is the vocabulary of our home. My youngest is tentative, using mama and man in the same sentence. My oldest is eager, certain that manhood holds the keys to the independence he seeks.
I’m twelve years old and coming home from a weekend visit at my dad’s apartment. The initial siren call of the microwave has lost its charm. I can operate it in my sleep, along with the stove and the oven. That baby-blue phone that I wanted has become a refuge from the confusion of puberty and newly separated parents and the weight of bearing witness to addiction. The window is rolled down and I smell the aftermath of a firework someone set off in the street, and for the first time, my nostalgia moves on a backwards trajectory.
The word will float in the air in our home until it is inhaled so thoroughly that it becomes living truth. Until the day my boys bend over to kiss the top of my head on the way out the door. “See you later mom,” with no hint of mama. Just like “the babies” became “the little guys” and “the little guys” became “the boys,” so will my boys become men.
But oh, let it come in waves. Let it roll in on a high tide and let them splash around in the surf of manhood, and then let it slip back in low tide so they can still search for shells on the wet shore of childhood. Let each tide come in a little deeper than the last, and each gained measure of independence hold fast and firm, but let it roll back to sea for just a moment so they can inscribe the wonder of childhood on their hearts, tattoo it on their gangly limbs.
Because when you dive headfirst into the tide of adulthood, or when you are pushed into the uncertain waters by circumstances outside your control, wonder can slip away from you in the undertow.
I’m nineteen years old and my stroke is sure and strong. I’ve been swimming for many years in deep water. I lift my head up to measure my distance to shore, careful not to drift too far. Something glitters in the shallow waters, near a little boy chasing a seagull in the surf. It feels like both a memory and a prophecy, and I swim toward it with wonder, my nostalgia once again circular.