“Aren’t you humiliated?” Clayton asks me.
I understand his question. I must look like a trained bear on this little bike, my knees barely clearing the handlebars. Until a couple of weeks ago, this was Clayton’s bike, but, like me, he is much too big for it now. I have given him my own mountain bike to ride on this camping trip to Huntington Beach on the coast of South Carolina, and now Dee Dee is riding Clayton’s old bike.
Except for right now. Right now, I am riding the bike that used to be Clayton’s and is now his sister’s, because I want to go for a bike ride with my son. My own road bike, sadly, is not here, as there was no possible way it was going to fit anywhere in or on our already overloaded van.
But I am not humiliated. In fact, when Clayton asks, I realize that it has not even occurred to me to wonder how I must look to all the people we pass. Suddenly I remember what it was like to be ten-years-old, and twelve, and even twenty, when just existing in the world with other people could so often feel like a test I knew I wasn’t going to pass. Are my clothes right? Not really. Do I fit in? Not quite. Do I look ridiculous on this bicycle that’s much too small for me? Definitely.
I am struck by how wonderful it is to be middle-aged, which is a quite a nice feeling to have a day after my birthday. And this small insight— that it is much easier for me, at forty-five, to ride a miniature bike around a campground without humiliation than it would be for Clayton, at ten— is only the beginning. Because I can’t seem to go camping without writing a blog, here are some of my other reflections on turning forty-five from this week away from home:
1) I can still sleep soundly in a tent! In fact, I have slept better this week than I have in months. When I wake in the middle of the night, as I always do, I notice the silhouettes of the trees against the moonlit sky, and my mind does not reach, as usual, for the same worn-out worries and tired to-do list. When I crawl back into my sleeping bag, the sound of the surf puts me right back to sleep.
2) I can wear the same pilly, stretched-out fleece for five days and not worry that my husband is going to suddenly find me unattractive. That said, I wish I had something else to wear, as this fleece is smeared with soot, egg yolk, and pancake batter, and, wearing it, I can’t help but find myself unappealing. (Are my clothes right? Definitely not.) Unfortunately, in my haste to pack— I got home from Denver only eleven hours before we left for the beach— this is the only warm layer I brought. I scope out the overpriced tourist sweatshirts in the gift shop, but in the end frugality beats out vanity and I’m stuck in the ugly fleece all week. When we go for a walk on the beach in the evening of the coldest day, I wear a skirt around my neck as a scarf. I feel lucky both that I’m old enough not to be mortified by my own outfit and that my kids are young enough that they don’t even notice.
3) I can embarrass my son without meaning to! Somehow, this feels like an important parenting milestone. When we go out to dinner on my birthday, I’m surprised to see that my veggie burger cost nearly fifteen dollars. I ask the confused young waiter about the up-charge on the sweet potato fries, which I’m sure he’d said was only ninety-nine cents.
"It is. Ninety-nine cents. Plus $2.49.”
“So why isn’t that $3.48?” I ask, genuinely puzzled.
“Because it’s ninety-nine cents.”
He blushes and apologizes, while Clayton buries his face in his arms.
“Momma,” he mutters. “Just pay it. Please.”
I do, much to Clayton and the blushing waiter’s relief.
4) After ten and a half years of parenting, I can still screw up pretty badly. Dee Dee is my weakness, easily pushing my buttons with her moodiness and moping. Here we are, camping at the beach under cloudless skies, and yet somehow she can still find a reason to sit around, frowning, or bike off somewhere in a huff. Exasperated, I mutter something to the others about how she is my most challenging child. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know I’ve screwed up. I make it worse by trying to cover my tracks.
“Don’t you dare tell her I said that,” I tell Clayton and Sylvia.
They shake their heads dutifully, but that evening, during a moment of levity, Clayton can’t help himself.
“Momma said you’re the hardest one,” he says. I pull him to the side and ask him what he’s doing, but even as I storm at him, I know I was the one who set him up.
I go for a walk with Dee Dee and try to explain. I try so hard to make my kids happy, I tell her, that it’s really hard for me when she looks so sad.
“It’s okay,” she says, surprisingly matter-of-fact. “I know I’m the hard one. I try not to be, but I can’t help it. I just am.”
Clayton is weepy when we return. “I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut.”
I pull him awkwardly onto my lap— he’s pretty much outgrown that, too— and apologize.
“It was really my fault. I should never have said that about Dee Dee. And I shouldn’t have asked you not to tell.”
“I tried not to,” he said earnestly. “But there was just too much pressure.”
I am so lucky that my children forgive me, again and again and again.
5) My favorite things are pretty much the same at forty-five as they were at five, and fifteen, and twenty-five, and . . . I would still rather be camping, running through the woods, or riding a bicycle than pretty much anything else I can think of.
“One day we’ll be able to go for bike rides together,” I tell Dee Dee, imagining us setting off on a twenty-mile ride through Candler when she’s a teenager and has a road bike of her own.
She pedals closer and smiles up at me; Clayton has let me borrow my old mountain bike so I can take a few laps around the campground with his sister.
“Momma, aren’t we doing that right now?” she asks.
Which leads me to my last reflection . . .
6) Kids are very good at keeping you in the present.
“Yes,” I tell her. “Yes, we are.”