Noe Valley Voice September 2000

Childhood Is a Runaway Train

By Clare Willis

MY CHILDREN are all grown up now. "How old are they?" you ask, thinking perhaps they're in college. My older son, Devin, is turning 4 tomorrow, and my younger son, Cameron, is almost 2.

When Cameron was a newborn, and older women would see me on 24th Street pushing Devin in a stroller with the baby in a Snugglie on my chest, they'd smile in the most wistful way and say, "They grow up so fast.... My son Ernest is a bricklayer now." At the time I thought they must be mocking me, because in fact time had never moved so slowly, what with the 24-hour days and all. Some days I never left the house, never changed out of my pajamas. The train was stuck in the station.

But slowly, so slowly that I hardly noticed, things began to change.

My son began preschool. When my husband went out the door in the morning, there would be Devin right behind him, backpack hanging down to his knees, baseball cap turned backwards, waiting at the door to give me a peck on the cheek and go off to his own world, just like his father.

My younger son Cameron weaned himself from breastfeeding at seven months. He was starting to crawl, and the world was just too interesting to be staring at my shirt for hours. He would hold his own bottle and push me away so he could spend his drinking time absorbing the world, seeing new things, things that didn't involve me.

One morning I went through a closet of my older son's clothes, looking for things for Cameron to wear. I had already put away six boxes of Devin's outgrown clothes, starting with the tiny "lay-ette" sets I'd bought before he was born and never used because they were too impractical -- the gowns with a pull tie at the bottom that seemed so useful but always rode up around his legs as he slept, the hand-crocheted booties that never fit the big feet he was born with. My second son, Cameron, is just seven months old, I thought, and here I am, digging into the "9­12 months" box to find things to fit him.

When I opened the next box and started laying out all the little clothes on the bed, an unexpected wave of emotion brought tears to my eyes.

These were the clothes that Devin had been wearing when he hit the big milestones. The tiny Hawaiian shirt and matching shorts that he wore to his first birthday party. The fuzzy white jammies he was wearing the night I nursed him for the last time. The blue overalls and red sandals he was wearing when he took his first step. I took out a new box and carefully packed away the clothes that held the strongest memories, pressing each outfit to my chest as if I could hug the baby that he was at that moment. In this way I created my son's first heirloom box. (Which, of course, is really my heirloom box, since the memories are mine and not his.)

That was when I first accepted that my boys were, in fact, growing up. The train had left the station.

In the last four years there have been many moments during which I've stopped dead in my tracks, struck by the fleeting beauty of my sons' childhoods. Like a tourist seeing a monument he knows he'll never visit again in his lifetime, you stare until your eyes burn.

BUT NO MATTER how hard I try, the moments slip away. The baby Devin was replaced by the toddler, only to be replaced by the boy. The events I think I "remember" are actually the photographs my husband has taken all along the way. He has a motto: "If there isn't a picture of it, it didn't happen." I used to tease him for all the pictures he took, then for the time he spent carefully arranging them in photo albums, neatly labeling each one, often adding some souvenir gleaned from the event. A train ticket, a wedding invitation, a birth announcement, all neatly trimmed and pasted in the book next to the smiling faces and gorgeous landscapes.

When my husband would run to get the camera every time our son did anything the remotest bit cute, I thought it was overkill. I even felt that sometimes he was ruining the moment by falling over himself to take a picture. After all, shouldn't we be trying to experience life instead of immortalizing it? I never understood that this was his way of holding the moment in his heart.

Tomorrow at my son's birthday party, my husband will be chasing the children with his camera like a paparazzo, shooting dozens of pictures, hoping for one good one. You'll find me standing in a corner, staring. If you come up to me and ask what I'm doing, I'll just say wistfully, "They grow up so fast, don't they?"

Clare Willis, a former schoolteacher turned Noe Valley mom, splits her time between Douglass Park and her computer. She has just finished her first book, Out for Blood, a murder mystery about vampires and other bloodsuckers in San Francisco.