September 12, 2009 essayJust off I-75, my son lets me know I'm irrelevant. Not in so many words; he’s not cruel. It’s hard to hear him, words whipped by summer wind through the open window. I am driving him home from college, and I don't live in his world anymore.
The first half-hour was safe. Leaving the college by interstate, we spoke of nothings. He told me how he doesn’t need a car on the small campus. Nobody mentions that neither of us could afford it, anyway. We talked about his roommate from Centerville; we remembered the girls in too-tight shirts and too-short skirts. We talked a bit about sports, though he’s not following the Reds like he used to. Safe things.
Then our exit arrived, and we pulled onto the county road. It's different from around his college. The houses seem smaller and shabbier; the roadside mailboxes are ugly, not quaint. The smell from the plant is already noticeable. The wind’s down, though, so it's not too bad. Twenty years on the job will get a man used to most any smell; the stink lets me know I'm coming home. My son's nose wrinkles; I ask about his classes before he can say anything about it.
He speaks, but I don't understand the words.
I should have expected it. He’s always learned differently - from books in AP classes, not hammers in shop. I didn’t much see the point of what he learned, and didn’t understand it much either. It didn’t matter, Mrs. Holdebrook told me they’d count for when he went to college. College!
I try to keep up, pretend to be interested. I’m not sure of "web classes", but "RSS" and "blogs" sound like John’s newborn talking. I’ve heard of Plato; my son speaks as if he knew him. I thought Grapes of Wrath was a boring book, but he’s telling me how it’s all symbols. I nod as if I understand, hoping he won't ask me what I think about it.
He's sharp; sees through me right quick. He'll be a CEO someday, I think. He tries to keep the pity from his face as he realizes: he's learned now, and his old man isn't. Our common ground is our differences, and neither of us is quite right with that.
Which is when the car decides to die in the loneliest stretch of road coming home.
He stands helpless, no-signal cell phone in hand, watching his old man tinker with the engine. We're both sweaty in this heat - me under the hood, him turning the key, trying to be useful. He turns, I fiddle, and he turns again until the engine coughs twice, turning over in a roar.
"Can you teach me how to do that?" he asks a little quickly, his cheeks slightly red. I smile, and slide back into the car. Maybe they don't teach it in Calculus, but it's good to know: Things and people can be completely different - and still be completely equal.