When I was 16, John Cougar Mellencamp came out with a little ditty that was played on the radio all the time. Jack and Diane were 16 too, in love, with big plans for the future. That things might not pan out the way they planned didn’t really matter to the song’s young listeners.
We were occupied with the thrill of now. I had a friend at the time named Evan who was so handsome when he came to my house my mother called him “Heaven” (not only because she is French and adds “h”s to words that start with “e” and vice versa, but because he really was that handsome). We all were then.
We kicked around in parking lots, playing our music loudly and wondering what heavenly boy or girl we might kiss in the bushes at the end of the night or if the cops would come and give chase. I drove a giraffe-colored VW Squareback and was the only teenager “allowed” to smoke cigarettes, which somewhat made up for the uncool car. I thought I would be a writer and also a mother. I wanted four boys and a fabulous husband. But meanwhile, there were tales to live so they could later be told.
Now I have three kids, two of them boys. The youngest is 16 and he will be, in a few weeks, the only child I have remaining at home. Somehow, the time between my 16th year and his have gone by at light speed. Sixteen, sweet 16, such a beautiful number, unlike the one looming at the end of this year for me, 50. That’s a number I couldn’t even fathom when I was young. In those days, 30 seemed like it would be a good run.
My 16-year-old is a more considerate kid than I was and more cautious. I don’t think I’ve taken enough time to appreciate his good qualities, too often nagging him about the next thing on the list of his life. But this summer, I am enjoying seeing the young man he’s becoming. Because I “forgot to plan his summer” as he tells me (third kid, 20th summer = out of ideas), he has cobbled together some odd jobs.
He takes care of one neighbor’s lawn and garden. He’ll walk with another’s ailing husband. He visits his grandmother daily, tossing the ball for her dog and listening to her stories. He’s the tech consultant for his other grandmother and the fishing guide for his young cousins and friends. He plays endless games of basketball, working hard to get better at the sport he loves. He is determined and kind and funny.
As he heads to work up the street, he consults me about which weeds to pull, and I advise him, also warning him about the dangers of yard work. Wear sun lotion, a hat, gloves, insect repellant. Beware the leaves of three. This is 50. He trudges away, barely listening, his earphones on, cell phone in hand. This 16.
I’ll never forget the bad case of poison ivy that I got as a teenager–the irresistible itchiness of it, its blistering presence reminding me of the consequences of edge-of-the-lot mischief. In some ways, that rash reminds me of youth itself. Somehow, 50 doesn’t itch at all. My friends who are 60 and 70, my parents nearing 80–they tell me I am young. But sometimes I feel as if I’m on my way down the mountain.
Recently, my son came to sit at the end of my bed, as he often does to say goodnight. He had just returned from a party. “A girl told me I was pretty tonight,” he said. “It was weird.” There are things he still tells me, and I savor those moments. He is pretty—maybe even someone’s “heaven.” He’s 16. He’s on his way up.
Perhaps I should be content just to have traveled the trail before him, to know a bit about the journey, to offer the occasional word of advice about potential pitfalls ahead. I don’t know which songs will remind my kids of being 16, or 18, or 20; the soundtracks to their lives will be their own. They are still in the years of pounding beats and lovelorn laments, of anthems and protests. The music that feels raw to them and important someday will play like my songs do now, on the oldies station.
At almost 50, I still like a little ditty. Occasionally, I’ll hear Mellencamp’s song, and I will sigh. But my turn there has ended. It’s fine. The other day, listening to my iPod, I heard a classic by Simon & Garfunkel and a line in it struck me as just about perfect. What more can be said, after all?
Now the years are rolling by me. They’re rockin’ evenly. I am older than I once was and younger than I’ll be.