Bowing out

A silent Eastern tradition means more than words between a boy and his mama.

Published April 12, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

Whenever my son wants to come into my bedroom he knocks, of course. It's something he learned to do at 5. But in the last couple of years, before he enters he gives me an Eastern-style bow and says something in Japanese, I think, which I don't understand. I don't even know where he learned it. Maybe from TV. You think all your child is picking up from television is how to become a cold-blooded killer. Then he comes up with an elegant ritual of respect toward his mother.

I am thinking about this because my only child is now 15 and he is beginning to separate. On the brink of adolescence I heard the first tear at the seam, but he was still a clumsy duckling returning every day to the fold of his mother's wing. Now he is nearly 6 feet tall and will start shaving soon.

He's kind of got a girlfriend.

He comes into my room, his single mom's room, usually accompanied by his little dog, Rick. The dog is less certain that it is welcome in this forbidden domain than his master and hesitates when Marcel is invited in. I am usually not in the middle of anything that can't be interrupted, though my laptop may be propped on a pillow or frayed tarot cards out for a little nightly musing. I might be reading or writing in my journal or doing all at once and watching TV. I am always "decent," which is how a woman who sleeps alone usually dresses for bed.

Before you know it, my almost grown-up boy is sneaking under my comforter and trying to get the dog to hop in too. (Which it does not do, being that the dog is no fool and understands the hierarchy of command in our household: Do not jump on the mama-san's bed upon pain of death!)

We have our little chats then, my almost grown-up son and I, about his grades at school, homework, what money he needs (and for what) or about where each of us is in our lives at the moment.

"Are you in a relationship?" I ask him.

I use that word because I've overheard him use it on the telephone with his best friend. I'm trying to imagine what "relationship" could mean to a pair of 15-year-olds. Although I must admit I'm not sure what the word means for your average pair of 40-year-olds either.

"I don't know," he says. I guess he's trying to understand what it means to him too.

"You're too young," I say, predictably, as the strictest mother he knows. "You're like a green corn. You're not ready to give anything. Too green."

"And you're too old for a relationship," he says, also predictably, as a teenager who has to get the last word in no matter what.

Well, I'm not in any "relationship" so it's a moot point at the moment, but I must admit he's got a point. I'm pretty content and getting used to my ways as a bona fide bachelor. I'd say "bachelorette," but it would bring to mind "The Dating Game" show and dating is something I don't do anymore. I can't even remember when I ever did, which makes me think that maybe my wise 15-year-old is right, perhaps I have gotten too old for a relationship. If he's too green possibly you can also become so ripe you need to stand all on your own, no compromises, no 50-50 sharing, no attempts at merging your identity with anyone else's, no simple giving of yourself fully to be appreciated fully at all times. But what I say to my son is this: "Go to bed. I pay the bills around here. I can do what I want."

"I'm the man of the house," he says. I can't believe my ears. Then he adds, "I'm the man of the house because I'm the only man in the house."

"I'm the woman of the house," I say.

"And Rick is the dog of the house." He smiles and puts his head on my shoulder. Suddenly he is not 15 and ready to fly at any moment but a peaceful, trusting child who, like his mother (and yes, I'd even say like the dog and every other living thing on the planet), is just trying to figure out how he fits and keep everything balanced and in harmony.

"Good night," I say to my son with a kiss on his forehead, now covered with an outbreak of teen acne.

He gets up, the dog behind him, goes to the door, turns around, bows and says his Japanese phrase. I wish I knew what it is that he says. But I've never asked him. It's one of those things about him now that is independent of me but somehow related to me. I'm not expected to ever understand; just to respect and trust and let him grow and be.

By Ana Castillo

Ana Castillo is a poet, novelist, essayist, editor and visual artist. Her works include "My Father Was a Toltec," "So Far From God" and the forthcoming children's book, "My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove," and "Peel My Love Like an Onion." She lives in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ana Castillo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------