Notes from a novice

Ann Dowsett Johnston June 25 2001

Notes from a novice

Ann Dowsett Johnston June 25 2001

Notes from a novice


Ann Dowsett Johnston

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

As the mother of a single son, I've spent the better part of the past 17 years as a novice parent, mastering a long Series of skills that I'm certain never to need again. Un-

like my sister, who has three boys and is about to enter her third decade of throwing birthday parties, I’ve been through it all only once. Got the hang of toilet training, learned the finer points of loot-bag etiquette, broke the code on report-card jargon, learned to decipher adolescent grunts. No dress rehearsals, no repeat performances: just one perpetual learning curve.

Of course, there are perks to being the eternal novice. Unlike my sister, a veteran of both the Cabbage Patch craze and Tickle Me Elmo,

I’ve been hostage to only one trashy toy trend, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (A good thing, too: you have to wonder how many otherwise useful brain cells are being hogged by such essential turtle trivia as the colour of Donatello’s bandana and his weapon of choice.)

And, of course, I’ve weathered only one pregnancy. Years ago, after our dog had a particularly gruesome run-in with a porcupine, my son asked me if it hurt to give

birth. “Yes,” I said, “it hurts.” “How much?” he asked. “Like porcupine quills up your nose?” “No,” I ventured. “Not quite.”

Truth is, I’m not sure if childbirth hurts more or less than porcupine quills up the nose. All I know is that those childhood conversations were too brief, and those moments passed too quickly. On this, I’m an expert: when a stage passes in my son’s life, for me it’s gone for good. For that reason, I try to anticipate the moment when my son will cross over, permanently, from one stage to another. I scout the horizon for early warning signals, a clue to changing weather.

Sometimes, it’s hard to read the horizon. Certain stages look like they just might last forever. Boys teeter between childhood and manhood much longer than I would have imagined. For the past few years, my son’s bedroom has featured what I politely refer to as his “Wall of Women”—a collage tribute to the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, with cameo appearances by Will Ferrell and Tiger Woods. At their feet lies some pretty contradictory evidence: a well-thumbed copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, three boxes of Mad magazines, a Fender electric guitar, one broken whoopee cushion, The Art of Alex ColvUle and a battered headlight. I could go on.

Right or wrong, that modey collection lulled me into believing that this stage would never pass. Last fall, I missed the warning signals when my son announced that he was joining

the school rowing team, signing on for four months of winter training followed by a four-month season on the water—a season of rising daily before dawn. It seemed unlikely. Here was a 16-year-old who needed four nudges before he heard his own alarm. Someone, in his own words, “as relaxed as an untucked shirt.” A specialist in just-in-time studying, for whom I had played Sherpa woman, lugging more forgotten books and lunches than I care to remember. But my son was determined: he would become “a novice rower,” and I was due at a meeting for “novice parents.” The tide seemed to fit.

And so began our initiation into the world of rowing, and

the slow transformation of my son. At first, the changes were merely physical: his shoulders squared, his stomach turned concave, his thighs morphed into tree trunks. Then, one frigid morning in March, we set the alarm for 5 a.m. and joined a cavalcade of cars heading down to the lake. The stars were still out, and there was frost on the ground. One by one, as parents huddled on the shore, the long, sleek vessels slipped away from the dock and disappeared into

the dark. For an hour, we waited for the boats to return. And just after sunrise, they did: a pageant of symmetry rounding the comer, oars sparkling in the morning light.

And so it went all spring, with the sun rising earlier each day and my son rising, too. By May, he was sleek and disciplined, ready to race in the Mother’s Day regatta, the bowman in a novice senior heavyweight men’s quad. For luck, his team placed a plastic Yoda in the bow: the force would be with them. Actually, the force was against them: their competition looked like grown men, guys built like Douglas firs.

That afternoon, my son took home his first medal, a bronze. Yes, there were only three boats in the race. But for novices, it was a victory. For the first time, they had pulled together as a team. As for Yoda, he made it to the finish line and then plunged to the bottom of the lake where he now belonged.

This week, my son is leaving home—for the summer. I see it as a dress rehearsal for what lies ahead. For two long months, he’ll sleep in a tent by a northern lake, far from the Wall of Women. By day, you’ll find him on the waterfront, teaching the youngest campers. By night, he’ll be reading Serious Training for Endurance Athletes. Boy or man? It’s hard to tell.

Come fall, he’ll return home for one last year of high school. Once again, we’ll rise before dawn and head down to the lake in the dark. This time, we know what to expea: were no longer novices. He’ll head away from the dock in his boat, and I’ll stand by the shore, watching as he navigates around the corner. And within minutes, his boat will disappear.