NOTHING BRINGS A MOTHER OF sons more feelings of things left undone than the thought of handing one of them off to another woman. I did it for the first time on August 31. Perhaps if I’d done my job better, this would have happened earlier. Are wet towels mildewing on the floor of their apartments a factor in this extended bachelorhood? The empty toilet tissue roll with no spare in sight? The toothpaste-encrusted bathroom sink? The little piles of used Kleenex, gum wrappers, Post-it notes, and pocket change always accumulating on every flat surface?
Give me some credit. They’re out of diapers, bathe and brush their teeth regularly, and do their own laundry. Two of the three can fold clothes better than I can. One can iron. (I’m sworn to secrecy.) Yes, I know, one just pulls what he needs from the clean pile in the corner. All of them can cook breakfast, steam broccoli, boil pasta, and grill a hamburger. The one who irons also does excellent yard work. I have never packed a suitcase for any of them.
Such résumé details, however, only suggest a certain self-sufficiency, a hope that they will not be a burden to those around them. The larger question is whether my influence in this all-male household was sufficient to instill respect for and understanding of women. They respect me, but that wasn’t the assignment. I worry that I have given them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they expect.
I am by temperament and upbringing a low-maintenance woman. Writing at home doesn’t require a lot of clothes. I have never felt the need to hide extravagant retail purchases in my closet or the trunk of the car as I know some women do. I have no gift closet in which to store items to give spontaneously to friends. I never believed that one size fit all. I have no collectibles other than a handful of books signed by authors I greatly admire.
If the fashion magazine articles that I read in doctors’ waiting rooms are any indication, I’ve done an exceedingly poor job of preparing my sons for the expensive beauty regimens that seem to be standard for women today. With my middle son, Drew, in tow, I once sat at a counter at Henri Bendel’s in New York letting a makeup artist transform me. Drew thought it was hilarious. “This is so weird. My mother never does this,” he kept saying a bit apologetically to passersby. As the salesperson totaled up the products that my transformation required, my customary indulgence of eight good haircuts a year and drugstore lipsticks seemed a Lenten discipline. That a woman might also require regular and costly hair coloring, eyelash dyeing, waxing, collagen injections, massages, nail applications, pedicures, liposuction, and spa visits—well, don’t hit my boys with this all at once.
Low-maintenance moms fit comfortably into male households where shopping is neither a recreational outing nor a bonding experience. The only regular shopping boys’ mothers do is to replace items that have been lost, broken, torn, or eaten. Boys require only two pairs of shoes. Beyond having the prescribed, suitably distressed jeans, they never worry much about what is in their closets. Guys rarely give each other gifts. Once zits are banished, their grooming requires about four items. Their idea of decorating their rooms in their teenage years is a beer can pyramid and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. Spend 25 years in this environment and your God-given female ability to sweat the small stuff is greatly impaired.
I REALIZE, OF COURSE, THAT I am not the measure of all things female. For many years, however, I had to be the interpreter. Girls intruded in their lives long before they were ready to take much notice. One early phone conversation with my youngest son went something like this:
“William? Do you like Sarah?”
“Nope. Who is this?”
“Do you like Alice?”
Getting nowhere, the young lady changed her tactics.
“William, I’m going to name five girls. If you like any of them, just say ‘yes.'”
My boy was totally baffled by this conversation, but I recognized the ploy. One simple scrap of a “yes” from the uninterested male could fuel the romantic speculations of all five preteen girls attending the slumber party. I have tried to translate complicated female behavior for my sons, but in a house where talk about feelings once veered off into a discussion of dental fillings, I made little headway.
They were frequently puzzled by girls’ questions. They still relegate certain female queries to the category “up or down,” an allusion to a time in the fifth grade when a girl asked my eldest son if he liked her hair up in a ponytail or down. He was struck dumb by the question. Was he supposed to have an opinion on that? I occasionally forget where I live and ask similar questions of my menfolk about a new lipstick color. They respond, “I don’t know, Mom, up or down, I guess.” They have promised to tell me, when I’m in my dotage, if I’m going around looking like a clown with too much cheek color, but I’m not sure I can trust them.
A father of three girls once asked me, “How did you find time to write books? All of my wife’s energies were devoted to engineering the girls’ social lives.” In high school, boys would have no social lives if the girls’ mothers didn’t do this elaborate planning and engineering. Would the boys miss it? Probably not. This arranged social world is fraught with complexities and underlying agendas that boys don’t understand. Most boys don’t think about or even mention an invitation until it’s almost too late to rent a tux or order flowers. I once saw five guy friends work up the courage to ask a girl to a required social engagement by making a game of the asking. They made up lists of off-the-wall words and bet money that nobody could use all five words in the conversation with the girl. Surrounded by witnesses, the victim received his list (“panties, goalpost, bicycle, throat, carburetor”) the moment the girl answered the phone. The sting of rejection could at least be mitigated by winning the pool of money.
If my sons did get dates, they worried that sending flowers might send messages they didn’t intend. “Do these flowers we’re supposed to send before the homecoming dance represent a lot of commitment?” Drew asked.
This sounds like the cover of a woman’s magazine, but I thought a moment and advised, “Well, I think sending roses is a bit more romantic than sending cut flowers in the school colors.”
“I think I’ll get her the school colors,” he said with some relief. “Do you think they’ll wilt by Tuesday?” Was this the day he planned to break up with her? Was I an accomplice?
Sometimes my advice is apparently off the mark. “Is the first week of December too late to break up with a girl?” a son once asked. “I mean, is it going to look like I just didn’t want to give her a present?” I responded confidently, “Look, girls want you to be honest. Regardless of the time of the year, they would surely find it humiliating to be with someone who was just pretending because of some perceived obligation.” Later I compared notes with female friends on this and was shocked by their swift reproach. “Absolutely not! He can’t break up in December. What is he thinking? She’s already bought her clothes for the parties. I remember a guy tried to break up with me before the holidays. I told him that he could just do all of this in January, but he was damn sure not copping out now. We got through New Year’s Eve. I didn’t miss a single party, and he dumped me in January.” Maybe I need more estrogen.
LIVING IN A HOUSE WITH NO other females has occasionally been isolating and frustrating, but I have to admit I was well suited for it. I grew up with a brother, and as the mother of sons, I was allowed to continue my lifelong membership in the No Girls Allowed club. The benefit of this membership is the understanding of the male psyche it brings. The downside is that one grows accustomed to the laconic speech, the no-frills simplicity, the guileless honesty, the slapstick vulgar comedy of boys and begins to view her own gender with disloyal objectivity.
My friends who also have only sons tell me I am not alone in this accommodation. Thrust into an all-female environment, the Dallas Woman’s Club or a breast cancer fundraiser, mothers of sons can often be found hiding in the restroom. Suddenly encountering the higher-pitched shriek of several hundred Texas women in a hotel atrium sends us straight to the stalls to rearrange our antennae. The frequency signals in this crowd are initially unfamiliar. We emerge from consummate girly affairs, a wedding shower or an exquisite tea party, wondering if we’ve completely lost our feminine credentials.
As comfortable as the No Girls Allowed club is, I cannot in good faith abet my sons’ natural inclination to flee from the constraining qualities of grace that women impose. And yet mothers of sons are often enablers. We rent the tux and purchase the date’s flowers for them and after reviewing a basic list of manners that we have encouraged but not always enforced at home, we shove them out the door.
A young female friend looked on one afternoon as I neatly wrapped a gift that one teenage son would later give to his girlfriend. “I never knew that mothers of boys did the wrapping,” she remarked.
“The wrapping? Who do you think selected the gift?” I said, wondering if I should invite her in some Christmas morning to see the caliber of gift-swaddling my sons offer. By overruling my teenage son’s impulse to give his best girl a Blockbuster gift certificate, I like to think I am teaching him something about what might please a woman. Perhaps I have only taught him that gift selection is beyond him. That was not my intention.
In a household of males, the teaching cannot be subtle. Take something as basic as “Women would like to be remembered on their birthdays.” It doesn’t take long in a houseful of males to know that you have to post the date on the refrigerator early. Once they all could read and write, I instructed my husband to back off. No more purchasing the card for them and extracting the signatures. (They always signed their last names, as if it might be used in court.)
That first year of my “Let’s see how thoughtful they are on their own” experiment was a disaster. As my birthday approached, each time the older two left the house, I bade them farewell by saying, “I know you’re really going to buy your mother’s birthday present, but you can pretend that you’re going to play video games if you want to.” The eldest, Jack, in a moment of real martyrdom, promised he would accompany me to church since my birthday fell on Sunday. When the day arrived, he woke up late and mumbled that he’d come in his own car. Of course, he was a no-show.
Returning from church, I fixed Sunday lunch and waded into the pile of laundry that invariably accumulates on weekends. Any boy who passed me in the hall heard me remark that my car needed washing and I would consider that a lovely birthday gift. Jack was nervy enough to ask for help in using my computer. He probably didn’t even hear my teeth grinding as I sat beside him. At five o’clock I baked myself a birthday cake, which they happily consumed.
Later that evening, I exploded on all of them, including hapless William, who had just returned from a weekend Scout camp-out. I told them that I didn’t want to be misunderstood, so I would not be speaking to them subtly or metaphorically. I told them that I felt totally unappreciated and rather lousy as a parent who had brought up such thoughtless males. (Note how quickly I began to assume responsibility for their failure.) My wrath seemed to take them entirely by surprise. I saw that fuzzy look come over them that says, “What is she talking about? What is it with women? What does she want?”
They averted their eyes, so I grabbed their chins the way I once did when they were errant toddlers with three-second attention spans. “What do I want? I’ll tell you what I want, and you’d better listen up because this is what all women want. I want to be surprised, not by a lavish gift, but by evidence that someone observed and loved me enough to know what would lighten my load and brighten my day. My car is filthy, for starters. Your insistence on taking over the Sunday laundry chores would delight me, even if you didn’t sort the clothes. Somebody could make me a cake. A cake mix is fine. You can all read and set the oven at 350 degrees. Two of you who went to church last week heard me exclaim over the John Rutter Requiem on the way home. I think I even wondered aloud if it might be available on compact disc in the classical section of the music store. Your mother writes. She never tires of nice paper and interesting pens. I didn’t even mind the year that you collectively decided that I wanted a Whitman Sampler box of candy, except that you ate the best pieces and left the lid off the box on a low table so that Rosie [the dog] devoured the rest and threw up all night in the living room.”
Blindsided, William ran to his room and returned with an offering of his much prized “fake snot.” Drew kicked at the carpet and said, “Sorry I blew it, Mom.” Still in the throes of adolescent rebellion, Jack, who has been with me longest and consequently retains the greatest capacity to wound, provided the capper for the day. Returning to his homework on my computer, he said over his shoulder, “You can draw some money out of my savings account tomorrow and get yourself something nice.” I retired to the front porch, howled at the full moon, and had a good cry.
In subsequent years, all they seemed to retain from this scorched-earth display was the Whitman Sampler idea. I must have been too effusive the year it was bestowed, giving them the idea that they had this gift-giving stuff knocked. Apparently this is the way the male brains in my house work: If she liked the gift last year, she’ll like it again next year. (At least they remembered to put the chocolates out of the dog’s reach.) Their Christmas gifts to me became similarly predictable. Although I can’t remember expressing any affection for the artist, I inexplicably received Norman Rockwell wall calendars. One year they waited too late to get the Norman Rockwell and had to settle for Native Americans. Mothers of sons eventually slip into thinking this is somehow endearing. I know their wives will not.
Tears, of course, are the teaching tool of last resort. My sons are confused, frightened, and repelled by them. I hope I used them sparingly enough to retain their effectiveness. All of my boys learned to recognize what they called “the cry point” and cautioned each other to back off before the dam broke. I acknowledge that I contributed to the confusion, however. Once, many years ago, when I had retired to the bathroom to repair my tearstained face, a consequence of some thoughtlessness on their part, one of my three knocked on the door to make amends. In his small hand was a little tin box with a message taped to the top. He had intended to write, “It’s for you, Mom,” but in his first-grade dyslexic scrawl, it came out more poetically, “Tis for you, Mom.” Inside was his treasured Eisenhower silver dollar. To his utter bewilderment, his gift brought more tears.
IF THEY FOUND GIFT-GIVING AND crying so baffling, I despaired of their ever understanding that women would also like a little romance. They, of course, thought that my advice was absurdly dated. My husband, John, and I offered counsel from an era when men had to take risks and do the pursuing, when nice girls not only didn’t, they didn’t even call.
I still think it’s instructive to tell my sons our corny courtship story: John was dating my beautiful blond roommate at UT who broke his heart by saying one evening, “You should go out with Prudence. You’re too smart for me.” We met six months later at a wedding. He was the groomsman who took me down the aisle of the church where we married three years later. Noting that I had come to the wedding unescorted, he seated me and whispered, “If you’d like a ride to the reception, I can take you.” We danced the night away at the reception, and after too much champagne, he lectured me on the rise of the right wing in American politics. The next day he drove to Mexico with an old friend to whom he confided that he had met the girl he intended to marry.
My groom, who still calls me Great Beauty, employed a lot of imagination in that sixties courtship. Once, I found a cryptic note in my college dorm mailbox. “Contact a man named Jace in the basement of the University Co-op. He will instruct you further.” The man named Jace, a student clerk in the campus bookstore, handed me a matchbook with some rhyming lines scribbled in the cover, something about “the source of wisdom holds your next clue.” After some puzzling, I remembered a statue of Athena in the back yard of my sorority house. Propped in her hands was a small portable radio with another message attached, something about “Bring this with you. The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king . . . James, that is.” That clue was biblical, but the “James” also had a 007 meaning, since James Bond movies were all the rage. I was not romantic or sentimental enough to have saved all of the clever clues, but I remember that the game ended with his waiting for me in Eastwoods Park beside his faded blue VW Bug with a picnic. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou?” No, we weren’t that corny.
My sons maintain that this is all fabrication. They think that I won their father as a consolation prize in a poker game with Elizabeth, the lovely blond roommate who became their godmother. Despite daily evidence to the contrary, they refuse to believe that the man who embarrasses them by standing in the front yard watering the dogwoods with his boxer shorts hanging beneath his Bermuda shorts can ever have been the perpetrator of such romantic devotion.
THESE YOUNG MEN ARE NO longer under my roof. If I wince at the occasional jerky boy behavior that remains, I also glory in their sporadic grown-up thoughtfulness. They have always been funny and spontaneously affectionate. The Whitman Samplers no longer appear on my birthday. Even the bookstore gift certificates, which are always welcome in my house, have been replaced by a genuine effort to locate a book I’ve been longing for or, better yet, one they found provocative and worthy of discussion. They know the power of flowers to cheer and disarm a woman; they even know not to send the standard FTD bouquet. Aside from the hilarious practical jokes they inflict on her, they are attentive to their surviving grandmother, Jane. They listened patiently to their grandfather’s genuinely funny tales (funny the first time, at least) of life and love as he knew it in the twenties. After what seems like decades of forced thank-you notes, I am certain that they know that life requires gratitude. They can offer it now with wit and grace. If this has been long in coming, I beg forgiveness. Remember how outnumbered I was in this good ol’ boy locker room.