Monday, August 24, 2009


Yesterday my daughter, my oldest child, turned sixteen. She wanted a "Speed Racer" cake:

She and her friends thought this was hilarious. Several of her friends drove themselves to her sleepover and birthday party. They parked all over the driveway and went in and out of the house at all hours. Four of them went to a store in town to get Eleanor another present (in addition to the perfectly nice ones they'd already brought her). Several of them were out sitting in the cars and in the trunk of one. One girl got up and left at 7 am without waking us, because she had to go with her family to take her older sister back to college.

As the party host parents, we felt responsible for the safety of these kids, but I barely managed to get them to tell me who was going where with who and Ron stayed up to lock the front door when everyone was, we thought, in for the night.

Much like the girl herself, the party required a light touch to keep everyone happy and also safe. It made me think of Karl Shapiro's poem about a car as female, partly because the family car I was allowed to drive at sixteen was a Buick, and partly because the poem is about possession and ownership and other feelings that parents tend to have when their children are small, but must learn to give up when the children grow and turn into strange and fascinating people that we can't predict, much less control with a tight fist. My daughter doesn't always do things the way I think she should, but she usually manages to do them the way that's right for her, and sometimes I need to step back and see the difference:


As a sloop with a sweep of immaculate wing on her delicate spine
And a keel as steel as a root that holds in the sea as she leans,
Leaning and laughing, my warm-hearted beauty, you ride, you ride,
You tack on the curves with parabola speed and a kiss of goodbye,
Like a thoroughbred sloop, my new high-spirited spirit, my kiss.

As my foot suggests that you leap in the air with your hips of a girl,
My finger that praises your wheel and announces your voices of song,
Flouncing your skirts, you blueness of joy, you flirt of politeness,
You leap, you intelligence essence of wheelness with silvery nose,
And your platinum clocks of excitement stir like the hairs of a fern.

But how alien you are from the booming belts of your birth and the smoke
Where you turned on the stinging lathes of Detroit and Lansing at night
And shrieked at the torch in your secret parts and the amorous tests,
But now with your eyes that enter the future of roads you forget;
You are all instinct with your phosphorous glow and your streaking hair.

And now when we stop it is not as the bird from the shell that I leave
Or the leathery pilot who steps from his bird with a sneer of delight,
And not as the ignorant beast do you squat and watch me depart,
But with exquisite breathing you smile, with satisfaction of love,
And I touch you again as you tick in the silence and settle in sleep.

It's probably a willful misreading of the poem to think of the car as a daughter, but that's what came to mind when I was thinking about my experience of the automotive-themed sweet sixteen party (at which we managed to avoid actually saying the phrase "sweet"). She is "all instinct" with "streaking hair" and alien to the malleable and dependent creature she was at her birth. She's still a month away from being able to drive on her own. But on the day she is able, it won't be a big step. It will be another in a long succession of steps leading up to the moment when she can "tack on the curves with parabola speed and a kiss of goodbye." And any parent who focuses on the sadness of goodbye and neglects to admire the curves and the speed is missing it.

Any parent will sometimes be "missing it," as Moira keeps saying to Peter at the beginning of the movie Hook, when he's not paying attention to his son Jack--Hook later uses this to try to turn Jack against him:

Jack: This is for... never letting me blow bubbles in my chocolate milk!
[smashes his father's watch]
Captain Hook: Good form! Bravo!
Jack: This is for never letting me jump on my own bed!
[smashes another clock]
Captain Hook: Make time stand still, laddie.
Jack: For always making promises and breaking them!
[smashes another clock]
Jack: For never doing anything with me.

As parents, we sometimes miss a game, or a recital, or the declaration that our kid doesn't need any help at all (or "hepitol," as I used to refer to it, like it was medicine). But do you give yourself credit when you do get it? When your "foot suggests" something to your child, and the child takes off in a way you'd never have anticipated, in a "blueness of joy"?


Harriet said...

A very sweet post and another lovely poem I've never heard before. Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Harriet said...

Also, I keep meaning to ask you if you are familiar with the online journal, The Smart Set. They have a regular advice column called "Ask a Poet." Here's the most recent one.

Jeanne said...

Until today I'd only read The Smart Set at Maud Newton. What a great idea, the advice column with poems as answers!

lemming said...

E's handwriting fascinates me - definitely that of an older person

bermudaonion said...

I well remember those days and they're not always easy. Our mailbox was taken out several times by our son's friends.

Jeanne said...

Lemming, everybody thinks E. is older than she is. I was that way too--when I was sixteen, a waitress brought me a martini, which caused great hilarity at the extended family table.
Bermudaonion, our mailbox is across the street. I never thought of that as convenient until now.

Anna said...

Please wish your daughter a happy (belated) birthday from me!

Diary of an Eccentric