“If you guys want to go on the boardwalk, go ahead.”
My son and his friend looked at me, eyes wide. I might have seen my twelve-year-old, only a year or so away from dwarfing both my husband and me, pinch himself to see if he was dreaming. He is a huge child. I can’t stop looking at him.
“Really?” he asked slowly, not daring to break the spell of my certain flash of insanity, or worse, to find that I am joking.
Really. These two had been antsy, wandering around the rental condo for the past hour or so. Dinner was over, and none of the adults were quite ready to brave the sandy post-beach crowd, meandering through pairs of slow-moving grandparents and their smallish grandchildren, carefully passing young families pushing strollers and dragging toddlers, dodging the dive-bombing, ever-hungry seagulls, and being startled by packs of teenagers getting shout-outs from their raucous counterparts.
Take your money and go. Don’t forget the cell phone! Check in at seven! Be back at eight-thirty! Stay on the boardwalk! Don’t talk to strangers! Stick together! My full protective-mom mode kicked in as I realized that I was allowing my first-born child, my first baby, to go out in a strange public place among hundreds of people we didn’t know. On his own. Well, with a friend, but still.
We have been coming to this boardwalk each year for the past eleven. He knows it well, knows where our favorite ice cream is located, where the new mini-golf is to be found, that the store that used to sell those huge cupcakes is no longer there, where we got our first hermit crabs that died a week later. He is not in a strange place. He has been coming here every year since he was a baby; his memories are well-established. We know what they are, because we made them happen.
Every year, the memories are orchestrated by the adults, the parents. We decided what they would see, what they would do, what they would remember. We shielded them from all else, all the things that we didn’t want them to remember because of their age, the cost, the time involved, our own personal desire (or non-desire) to do them: the water park, para-sailing, deep sea fishing, go-karts, swimming in the ocean without supervision. We allowed some of these memories to happen as they got older. They now know how small the go-kart track is, know the peaceful floating ride in front of a parachute tethered to a boat in the ocean.
When the door closed behind my son and his friend, control of his memories shifted. He would be making his own memories, memories that none of the rest of us would share. We knew that this was the first summer he wandered independently every day, and that this was the first summer that he met kids his own age in the ocean, on the boardwalk. On his own. But they weren't sitting next to us on the beach. I don’t even know their names, where they are from, who their parents are.
This was the first summer that many of my son’s memories of our beach vacation were solely his to make; I had no say in any of them, had no control of these things that will help make up his life. These memories are not mine.
This was the first summer that letting go of my son, my first-born child, my first baby, became real to me.
The first summer.