Domestic Bliss 

On one of our last Indian summer days, a few weeks back, I had lunch at a downtown restaurant with outdoor tables lined up along the sidewalk. At the table next to mine, a funny-looking miniature terrier -- one of those dogs with expressive Toto eyes, tousled hair, a twitching tail and perpetually perked-up ears -- lay in a chair, attentively watching passersby.

Pedestrians stopped and oohed and aahed to the dog's owner, who sat in the next chair reading her newspaper, and gushed over how cute and well-behaved the dog was. As I watched, I began to notice that more people stopped to pet the dog, to caress him and praise him, than spoke to each other or anyone else.

Years back, I couldn't walk down the street, across an intersection or through the aisles of a grocery store without being stopped repeatedly to allow people to fawn over my children. They were a striking threesome -- identical twin cherubs with blond curls and round blue eyes in the double stroller, their black-haired, creamy-skinned Asian brother, barely two years older, standing watch atop the back cross rail.

I might as well have been invisible. Not that I wanted anyone to notice me at that point, my blouse perpetually stained with spit up and breast milk, my hair dull and missing a good haircut for well over six months, the circles under my eyes edging toward permanent tea-stain gray.

In those days, my keenest satisfaction in life came from the barrage of compliments and attention that blanketed my children everywhere we went.

Now that they're all taller than me, their voices spiraling downward toward the basso range, their feet growing faster than the bean vines in my garden, I frequently remind them of the good old days.

"That was way back, when you were cute," I tease them as they swagger around the kitchen with testosterone-induced aplomb. I remember when I wiped up their messes all day long, rarely disgusted. Now, an open milk carton left on the counter, a half-eaten sandwich hanging out to dry, a bedroom floor covered wall-to-wall with an explosion of clothes and socks -- clean, dirty, who cares -- wet towels on the bathroom floor, all send me over the edge.

The owner of that cute little dog, I think, must never really tire of cleaning up his insignificant messes.

I hesitate to compare my children with pets, but, truth be told, there's an element of similarity in the affection we feel for our kids when they are miniature, when their features are soft, their skin spotless, their scent sweet, their feet small enough to fit into shoes barely five inches long -- we remember with a probably undeserved nostalgia the brief time in our lives when they were adorable. And admittedly, we selfishly long for the time when we could pick out their clothes and dress them to reflect our good taste and wishes, when we could dictate the shape of their day, the books they read, the music they listened to, the friends they played with, the arc of their affection.

Last week, I attended a birthday party for a co-worker, and about a half-hour into the evening, my sons walked through the door. They were with their father, my ex-husband, but they crossed the room and hung out with me for a good while. One of them draped a lanky arm across my shoulder and dropped his head down next to mine, feigning boredom. We talked about school, about what was going on in their lives, blessedly free from the restrictions of home where, it is understood, I am not to examine their lives too closely. Here, we were on friendly, neutral ground.

As they left, a friend walked up.

"What good-looking boys," she said, and I felt that familiar prickle of parental pride -- undeserved but precious and ego-building nonetheless.

Last night I came home from work exhausted from a difficult day, and found my sons huddled around the television, absorbed in the broadcast of early election returns.

"Gore's down by 40 electoral votes," one of them announced, adding an off-color remark about the other candidate's qualifications.

I ordered pizza, mixed myself a tall Bloody Mary, brought a half-gallon of orange juice, paper plates, cups and napkins into the living room, and settled in. We watched together late into the night, the room littered with the contents of their backpacks, our dinner scraps, giant cast-off tennis shoes and balled-up dirty socks. Crude commentary, shrieks of glee and moments of stunned silence accented this extraordinary election night.

The results were uncertain, even the next morning when I rounded the bedrooms and woke them up for school. The living room was a wreck, but I didn't care. My candidate's future was uncertain. I cared but still felt cheered by the previous night's good company.

My boys may not be cute, the clothes they wear to school may be ugly and baggy, and I might want to throttle them half the time for their surly attitudes and messy habits. People don't stop us on the street to ogle and blow kisses at their downy heads. But in their teenage years, they are among the best companions I've known in my life. They're brave. They're original. They're funny. And if they're willing to hang out an entire long evening with their tired old mother, well hell, that's way better than having a cute little dog.


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