Suffice it to say that I haven't read Dickens since I was in high school. And honestly, what a peculiar list, right? What about teaching him compassion, generosity, introspection, circumspection, responsibility, rolling with the punches, laughing at the whims of fate? How about a firm handshake? (Does my son have a good handshake? I don't even know!)
On Alec's 18th birthday, I did something I'd thought about doing for years. I wrote him one of those in-case-I-get-hit-by-a-bus letters. Hoping to strike a tone midway between Ben Franklin and Dr. Seuss, I offered up a bunch of unsolicited life advice, acknowledging that he might not even want to look at all this embarrassing balderdash until 10 years from now. My allegedly sage counsel ranged from crucial forms of respect (being on time; being a good listener) to a virtual checklist for the choice of a mate (as if it's a shopping expedition). Be a volunteer, I told him. Learn to express gratitude, sorrow, fear, affection. Apologize. Forgive. Hang on to old friends. Treasure your brother. And yes, learn how to cook.
I elaborated on some items, let others stand for themselves. I left the letter on his desk. I have no idea if he even opened it; a combination of bashfulness and cowardice prevents me from asking. (He could probably sense that it did not contain a check. I gave him a card along with his gifts and his favorite dessert: icebox cake, a relic from my 1960s childhood that I remembered, and resurrected, only recently.)
Eighteen years and I still haven't learned: The one thing a mother cannot do for her children is live the hard stuff or even carve out a shortcut. What that letter to my son contains, more than anything, are clues about his mother's dreams and fears, vanities and insecurities, strivings and humblings: a map of the terrain she's crossed, especially the steep and the rugged. If he saves it, what he will always have is a slantwise portrait of the mother I imagined and hoped I could be.