by Robert P. Barsanti
I passed through another birthday recently. It all went well; everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. My wife took me out to dinner, my fellow teachers signed a card, and eight members of the student orchestra showed up with violins and played Happy Birthday to me and my first period class. In my declining years, birthdays slip down the list of High Holy Days of the year. Dinner, cake, and a cascade of well-wishers on Facebook mark that day. On the next morning, we get leftovers.
My youngest son’s life rhymes with mine. He also recently celebrated his birthday, and I was at a loss as to what to get him other than a gift card and cash. He doesn’t have a favorite Lego set or Tank Engine anymore. His stuffed animal collection is complete, as is his funny t-shirt drawer. I would take him to a Red Sox game if I could figure out a two-day period when he wasn’t working. It appears that a moment comes for your children when there simply isn’t anything you can wrap and give them after cake.
My wife has a far more practical and thoughtful way of looking at gift giving. She looks at whatever I am using that is just too dingy, dinged, or decrepit to be of use, then she replaces it. (I hope she doesn’t take that philosophy to its logical conclusion). This year, she saw the horrible Boat-n- Tote L.L. Bean canvas bag that I have been taking to the gym and she retired it. My old bag had “Papa” stenciled on the side, and the wife had thoughtfully had the same word put on the new bag.
I have no particular emotional supports placed in my old canvas bag, and most of its physical supports have worn away. One handle has given in entirely, the other has seven threads left. The body of the bag is dotted with black mildew, the bottom is scraped and torn, and it smells like the tomb. The bag has been dredged through almost twenty years; it contains sand, torn up receipts, a heart shaped stone from Cisco Beach, Harry Potter’s Lego head, and one half empty tube of sunscreen. Years ago, Leith gave it to me as a beach bag. The “Papa” embroideredon the side wasn’t meant to identify the bag so much as it was to remind me who I was and chide me on who I wasn’t. I was now a man who went to the beach with a bag filled with a toypedo, six comic books, juice boxes, Goldfish, and four containers of sunscreen. So, we would go to the beach with everything that we would need.
When you become a parent, you learn a long string of difficult skills that become irrelevant moments after you have mastered them. I no longer need to put a baby to bed, entertain a toddler for hours, assemble the Undersea Base, or demonstrate a flip turn. The mile markers just line up in the rear view mirror into one long and undistinguished line of lights. One day you are hanging a piñata and assembling goody bags for birthdays, the next you are throwing all that candy out in the trash.
Filling trash bags is an unappreciated parenting skill. Over the years, you buy, use, and treasure thousands of THEIR items. All of those Christmas presents and little fingered art doesn’t get whisked out of sight without parental or children’s tears. On some Sunday morning, you have to let all those train engines, stuffed animals, Matchbox cars and Webkinz move on to new homes. The greatest gift the dump ever gave me was a place where we could send all of those beloved tokens to new children, be they here or in Jamaica. Some items just refuse to go; I have a large red ghost from kindergarten in my office and several cartoon drawings in the classroom. The old “Papa” bag, dotted with mildew and torn with time, didn’t get a chance to remain in the museum. It was deaccessioned into a dumpster.
So it goes. Minute to minute, day to day, dawn to dusk. Some events have sign posts. You see them coming, you prepare, you take pictures and eat cake. Here comes prom, here comes college applications, senior ball, graduation. At Nantucket’s Senior Ball, the passing comes with the brutal finality of last call. You sit for a slide show, chat with your friends, and then get ushered out the door of the yacht club as the music starts.. Every single father looks back and says “Wait.” But the moment is gone into the rear-view mirror.
We cruise past other moments while we are day-dreaming, or looking in the mirror, or trying to find the Sox game. I don’t know when the trains were played with last, nor when he was kissed, nor when I took that bag to the beach for the last time. It just happened and it’s gone, like everything else.
Papa has a brand new bag. Bright, green, and clean: it is ready for its dirty future. I have learned that you never stop being a “Papa.” You have to carry something for them, although it may no longer be swim diapers and beach toys. Instead, you just carry different things to different places. I am not sure what I will need moving forward, but I know what I will carry it in. And I will carry sunscreen.