One night many decades ago when I was a teenager, I dreamt I was riding a bus in Manhattan with my future daughter sitting next to me. She looked exactly like my school picture in second grade: wispy brown hair, earnest green-eyed stare, pale skin that begged for sunscreen. I knew, in the way so much is terribly certain in dreams, that this girl was good and kind and serious.
For years afterward, even during my twenties, when the thought of having a child seemed horrifying, I regarded that long-ago dream as a kind of promise. If I had a child—of course, I wouldn’t, I thought to myself—but if I did—it wouldn’t be just a girl. It would be the best version of me. It would want what I wanted (piano lessons), love what I loved (fairy tales), and aspire to my own ambitions (to gather the courage to spread the word of Jesus, as encouraged by the nuns at my elementary school). But this child would do all those things with more sparkle, more confidence. She would also regard me with an unmitigated sense of awe and love.
That distant chortle is the sound of the gods laughing.
When I was forty-two I gave birth to twin boys. They recently turned eleven. As it happens they have never been burdened by the delusion that their mother is in any way ideal. Nor have they embraced the things I extol.
Here is what they love: Video games. Pizza. Bacon. Funny movies where ridiculous villains attempt world domination. Harry Potter.
About a year ago, I asked the boys, “How would you like it if I got you guys piano lessons?”
“Oh, my,” said Henry. “Are you forcing this on us?”
“Of course not,” I said. “That’s why I’m asking.”
“Then, no,” he said. “No way.”
“I hate classical music,” said Philip.
Exhibit A, demonstrating how vastly my sons differ from me: they shudder at most music, especially if it was written before the year 2000. Meanwhile, I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition. I took fourteen years of piano lessons, and I still sing in my church choir. Moreover, I nurture a fantasy in which a camera crew from some late-night talk show approaches me on the street and asks me to sing something. I respond with a perfect rendition of “Though You Are Young,” by Thomas Campion, who was born in 1567, and who died in 1620. My fantasy ends there, because how could my life get any better after I sang a Renaissance song from the Book of Ayres on late-night TV?
“Well, you know,” I said to my sons, trying to sound mild and indifferent. “Quite a bit of the music that plays during your video games is classical.”
“It’s not classical. It’s electronic,” said Philip dismissively, in the same tone he will use one day when I am in a nursing home and he denies my request that he wheel me outside during his annual visit. “Classical music is just—you know—guitars—and clarinets.”
I flashed back to that required electronic music class I had to take for my bachelor’s degree. I hated being stuck in a tiny electronic music studio, forced to invent a piece using machines studded with levers and dials, and which emitted only whirs and beeps and groans. But with the practiced dexterity of a parent reshaping the past for present purposes, I now chirped, “Contemporary classical music can use electronic devices, too! And if you take piano lessons, then later you can use your skills to do whatever you want musically.”
The boys were unpersuaded.
Sadly, they are similarly unenamored with musical theater, a genre which, to me, is one of the main reasons to continue living. Although my husband and I have brought our sons to various musicals both on- and off-Broadway, they remain aghast at the sight of people voluntarily cavorting across the stage in front of witnesses. Of course they were thrilled during the recent blizzard, when the theater at which they were to see Matilda that afternoon cancelled the performance.
But the job of parents is to remain undeterred by the reluctance of children, at least for as long as is consistent with the preservation of mental health by all concerned. Thus at some point I wheedlingly invited the boys to attend a musical theater summer day camp.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to play one of the orphans in Oliver?” I asked.
“No,” Henry said with great firmness, as though suddenly gifted with the power of a seer. “It wouldn’t be fun at all.”
The boys ignore the books of fairy tales I’ve secreted away on their bookshelves. If I tried to read a fairy tale to them at bedtime, they would probably make loud noises—much like those electronic music machines—until I stopped. And they deny any desire at all to focus on religion.
Every couple of years or so, I ask them, “Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?” We chatted on that subject a few months ago. “It’s a pretty good job,” I said. “You get to help people. You get to be there for them when they’re dying, when they’re struggling. You get to think about God, and you get to pray a lot.”
I admit I was probably also thinking about all those great church hymns the boys would get to sing—every day if they wanted to!—but I knew better than to mention those.
“Religion is boring,” Philip said.
“Does the job pay well?” Henry asked.
“No,” I said. “It pays almost nothing. But you get to live in the rectory, and the church feeds you, so you don’t starve.”
Henry gave me a look of incredulity. “How can I be a priest, when I want to be rich and famous?”
“Maybe,” I said, “there are more important things than being rich and famous.”
Henry collapsed into laughter. Philip sidled away and picked up the iPad. “That’s a good one, Mom,” Henry said, lingering for a moment and wiping his eyes. “Oh, yeah. Good one.”
My sons are in no respect exactly like me. But then again, I’m by no means my second-grade self either. I don’t read fairy tales anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I discussed religion with anyone besides my children. I no longer even own a piano, although I’d like to get one again at some point soon.
The truth is that what I once wanted wouldn’t have been best for anyone. My children are something more than faded copies, second-hand versions, of me or their dad or each other. Each boy is himself: suffused with surprise and grit and feeling; forever mysterious and searching; forever coming into the fullness of what life will mean to him. If they had been a close variant of someone else, life would have been a lot less fun. Which just goes to show that real life, in its messy unpredictability, can be better than a dream.
Photo by Jose Chavarry