My son is now old enough to walk himself to the sledding hill at Mountainside in Montclair, which he did today. “You don’t need to drive me, mom, and please don’t come over and spy. It’s SO emBARrassing!” Ouch—nothing like middle-school and middle-age teaming up to pummel you on a cold winter morning.
Not so many years ago, he was a first grader on a snow day, and I wanted to take him to that same hill to sled. He refused, happily playing on the warm living room floor setting up a miniature airport. “No, no, no!” he sang.
I couldn’t blame him. As I shoveled off and on all day, I had my fill of heavy, wet snow, the kind that eventually turns to tiny, stinging pellets of ice, alternating with rain. A snow day, but not a sledding day.
By the next morning, grim skies made way for gorgeous blue, and fresh flurries white-washed dirty curbside slush. Today was perfect for sledding—how could he resist? Now is where I admit that sledding is not something I’d done much of. I grew up in Texas—the only winter sport I knew was marveling at how Dad’s bathrobe could freeze solid on the clothesline. “Sledding” was riding a strip of cardboard down a dirt hill.
Considering my inexperience, I began to worry.
What if I sledded with him and steered us into a tree trunk? If I killed us, my husband would kill me. Suppose I blew out my knee, Olympic style? (Never mind that this was kiddie-sledding, not skiing Mont Blanc.) What if I ran over a foot attached to the niece of a personal injury lawyer? It was too late, though. My son had agreed and we were on our way, dragging his brand-new red “snow disc” along Upper Mountain as we picked our way down icy sidewalks—me with dread, he with increasing excitement.
We heard Mountainside before we saw it, jam-packed with laughing, shrieking, kids and parents, all jostling for position at the top of a slushy hill. As we approached from below and began our slippery upward trek, my son said, “I don’t know, Mommy. It’s a long way down. And look! There are lots of middle-schoolers.”
Ahhh, middle-schoolers, the latest bad guys in his universe. Middle schoolers, he had decided, were to blame for a piece of trash on the ground, a bit of graffiti on a park bench, or an abandoned shopping cart blocks from A&P. “Middle-schoolers did this!” he would gasp.
Now, here we were with descending hordes of littering, Sharpie-wielding, shopping cart-thieving middle-schoolers, all gunning for us. We sidestepped the throngs of pubescent vandals and when we got to the hilltop, I helped my son onto his $15 garbage can lid.
“Ready?” I asked, determined to make this a happy day as I firmly banished all our misgivings.
“Yes, I think so, Mommy!”
With great gusto, we counted down together. “3-2-1- GO!!!”
And it was then, after I gave him a big, happy, confident, fearless motherly shove out of the nest and watched him slide away, a bright green jacket sitting atop a circle of red plastic, that I looked down. Way down. Way down to the bottom of a treacherously icy, neck-breakingly steep hill. What the hell had I just done?
I watched his little body hurtling to the bottom of the incline as he hunkered down on his saucer, clutching the handles on either side and now doing a series of 360s. I heard him screaming—“Mommy! Mom! Mommy!” And then he vanished. I couldn’t see him.
Desperately I scanned the mob below. No sign of green! No sign of red! He was lost among the masses of children—hideous middle schoolers!–at the bottom of the hill and couldn’t find his way back to me. He’d sledded into the trees and was out cold. He’d broken something unspeakable and the ambulance was on the way. He’d been lured by a bad person in a plain white sled with out-of-state plates. I was frozen to my spot on the hilltop, calculating how to get to the bottom as fast as possible. I considered sled-jacking the nearest middle-schooler until I heard the screaming again.
And there he was, standing right in front of me, grinning like a devil.
“Mommy, didn’t you see me? I was calling you! That was cool! I’m going down again—give me a big push like before!”
My heart unclenched and I gave him a huge hug of relief, joy and pride.
“Come on, mom! Push me!”
And so it went.
I gave him a push, let go, and he flew away, over and over again. Each time, he came back to me. And each time, I was so happy to see him.
Five years ago, on that beautiful winter afternoon, I had a fuzzy thought that someday he wouldn’t return to me quite so quickly. He’d want to linger out on the hill and chart some new territory alone, veer off with some friends, see what happened if he slid into the bushes or zig-zagged instead of going straight down, maybe take the long way back.
That someday is coming into focus. He’s the middle-schooler now, and he spent hours on that hill, without mom, without dad. It takes effort (our tongues have teeth marks) but we’re learning to let him go. He walks himself to school, goes “uptown” with friends, heads into the suburban wilderness on his own. Like that day on the hill, he always comes back and we are always so happy to see him. Over and over this will happen for the rest of our lives—off he goes, back he comes, so our hearts hope…soon high school, then maybe college, then the world.
I’m betting that when you start them off with a really good push, they will want to come back. “3-2-1-GO!”