Sixteen

Dear Whit,

Sixteen.  In quarantine.  You are the fourth member of our family to celebrate a birthday in quarantine.  Which is an indicator of how long this has been going on.  Wow.

More importantly.  You.  My blond boy who arrived in the middle of the night, in a huge hurry (we often joke this was the first and last time you were early for anything).  Who surprised us all with his blue eyes, his blond hair, and the fact of his boy-ness.  And you’ve been surprising me ever since.  Dad used to tell me that parenting was 95% nature and I didn’t fully believe it until you were born, so different from your sister, so entirely yourself.  It’s been my job since that cold January night to stay out of your way, but close enough that I can learn from, and laugh with you.

Sixteen!  Wow.  Time flies, which is SUCH a cliche but also such a truth.

This photo is the most accurate current photo I could find!  Where to begin.  Perhaps with a very classic morning, this MLK day.  You rolled out of bed at 10:30, immediately found Phoebe and said hello to her, and then made a quick Eggs Benedict for yourself before going to play tennis with your dad.  You are a terrific cook and we all benefit from it.  You’re not afraid of complicated things and you do them well.  During the spring of the pandemic you did a lot with breads – baguette, homemade cinnamon rolls, pizza dough.  It was great.

You’re entertaining and hilarious and occasionally stubborn as hell.  You know how to push my buttons better than anyone else on earth.  You are thoughtful and a born debater.  Sometimes, when you talk at the dinner table, your father and I catch each other’s eyes.  You dazzle us.  My father, as good a judge of character as I’ve ever known, described you once as having “sparkle.”  He was quick to cite your natural intelligence.  One of my great regrets is that the two of you didn’t have more time together.  I actually think you have a fair amount in common with him and I know you’d have enjoyed conversations, sails, and projects.  You would have learned from him, and he would in turn have hugely enjoyed you repartee, your opinions, and your willingness to share them.

You are an immensely good sport.  You’ve been at home alone with us for almost four years now, which is probably not your first choice, and you’re both amenable and great company.  One of the true silver linings of the pandemic has been the time as a family, and the greatest joy of that for me was watching you and your sister become even closer than you already were.  You’re very different from each other but really good friends, and it causes me tremendous comfort to know you’ll have each other to lean on as you move into adult life.

You’re a good tennis player and I hope you will play more. You beat your dad for the first time this past weekend!  You love to fish and I look forward to your doing more of it this summer.  You love Phoebe and she loves you.  Left to her own devices she runs into your room and hops onto your red beanbag.  Your academic interests are varied and how you feel about an individual teacher makes a huge difference – over the years you’ve loved Math, and you’ve loved History, and you’ve loved Science.  You’re tremendously impacted by who’s teaching, and we all feel so grateful that we so thoroughly admire and respect the school where you are.

You are one of the funniest people I have ever known.  Your sense of humor is sophisticated and you often say things that make me laugh out loud.  I’ve long held that the truly funny people are also truly smart and you exemplify that.  You do excellent imitations.  The most recent one is Borat (we watched several Sacha Baron Cohen movies over the winter holiday) and it is.so.good.

You are entirely different from me and I admire everything about that.  You go through the world with a light touch – mostly you don’t overreact, and your ability to read and room and know how others are feeling is remarkable.  You are aware of the opinions of others but not paralyzingly so, and are focused on walking your own path.  I can’t wait to watch your life unfold, and know without question that it will contain wonders.

I love you, Whitman Russell.  Then, now, always.

Mum

Fifteen

Dear Whit,

Yesterday you turned fifteen.  As I wrote on Instagram, this one particularly got to me.  We are both the same number of years from how old I was on that cold, dark evening when I labored by myself.  On that middle-of-the-night sprint to the hospital when you arrived 20 minutes after we arrived.  It was 15 years ago for both of us.  For some reason that blows my mind.  After your sister’s long, extended, frankly brutal delivery, I expected your labor to be similarly long.  I told your father to stay at work to finish up what he needed to do as we were clearly many hours away.  I spent several hours in our bedroom, which is still our bedroom, walking around, breathing, feeling you as you agitated to be born.  When your father got home around midnight, he was shocked.  “Lindsey.  We are very close to having this baby.”  He hurried me out the door and we are still joking that it was my passive aggressive attempt to have the home birth I really wanted.  It wasn’t.  But what it was was the last time you were early arriving anywhere!

You were born in the very early morning, on the eve of a snowstorm, on the day of George W. Bush’s second inauguration.  I did not know until your birth that inauguration day is always January 20 (unless it lands on a Sunday).  We have conveniently been able to measure your life in presidential terms.  I will never forget watching Obama’s inauguration on your fourth birthday with my father, you, and Grace.

Back to that cold, dark morning.  You startled us with your speedy arrival, with the face of your boy-ness (we had not known your gender before your birth), with your shock of blonde hair, with your blue eyes.  With the exception of the speedy arrival, those things are all still true of you, a decade and a half later.  You completed our family and one of my very favorite pictures of all is the one at the top of this post, when you and Grace met for the first time.  It always reminds me of the William Blake line that “and we are put on earth/ that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”  You’ve been adored since day one.

This last year you’ve grown into a young man.  There are no traces of early childhood on you anymore; you’re taller than me and have bigger feet than your father.  You are growing into your own, asserting your independence and insisting on doing things yourself (I always think of the phrase I used as a child, “I want to do it my own self.“).  We have no idea what you’re doing in school until you tell us and you manage and execute your homework all by yourself.

One of my favorite things about you – and there are a lot – is the way you continue to try new things.  You aren’t afraid to jump in and I love and admire that about you.  This year you’ve started wrestling for the first time and are really enjoying it.  You’ve started cooking and it’s become a true interest.  I might even call it a passion.  You love to research recipes and to cook them.  You exhibit a quality I don’t have in spades: patience.   You are happy to make dough that needs to rise overnight, for example.  You’ve made pizza from scratch, yeast rolls, steak, coleslaw, reubens (with homemade sauerkraut that took two weeks), cinnamon rolls, fried chicken sandwiches, and so much more. Dad and I are definitely beneficiaries of this new interest.  Other things that you tried for the first time in the last few years include rowing, running for school office, an exercise class you researched on your own, photography, and doing tech for plays.

You are still one of the most thoughtful teenagers I know.  You remember when we mention a big meeting or a doctor’s appointment and ask about it at the end of the day.  You say please and thank you, and you’ve taken to heart the two words that Kirt Mead said separated us from the animals: may and well.  You use both.  You shake hands, look people in the eye, and use Mr and Mrs.  I force you to write thank you notes, but you do it.

It takes time to earn your trust and esteem.  You have a finely-tuned bullshit meter. You are perceptive and intelligent and your observations about other people or situations are usually very astute. You are loving History this year because you love your teacher.  He’s direct and smart and funny.  He also brings his dog to class sometimes.  I’ve ruined your childhood by not getting a dog.  I know that.  Your favorites are samoyeds and we sometimes share photos and videos of golden retriever puppies that make us both smile.

You love to be surrounded by people.  You’re at your finest when with your friends and your favorite place on earth is camp.  You are different from me in a host of really essential ways and you and I sometimes butt heads because of that.  But you also teach me more than anyone else, and please know that my needing to learn about how you approach things is not the same as my judging it.  I respect and admire the way you are in the world and feel absolutely sure that you are going to have a joyful, wonderful life.  I feel honored that I get to watch it from up close.

You will always be my last baby and my first son.  I’m sorry I embarrass you sometimes with the enthusiasm of my love.  I can’t help it.  I adore you, Whitman.

Mum

Previous birthday letters to Whit are here: fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five.

 

Fourteen

One of my favorite pictures of you.  Six weeks old.

Dear Whit,

On Sunday you turned fourteen.  Fourteen!  I know I’m not the only parent out there who looks at their young adult children with shock and awe.  The truth is I’ve always felt wonder when I look at and consider you.  You surprised me in so many ways when you arrived – your incredibly speedy birth after your sister’s lengthy and protracted one, the fact that you were a boy, your blond hair, your blue eyes.  As you grew into a toddler, boy, and now, young man, you made me feel a lot of things but chief among them, when I really think about it, is wonder.

You amaze me. You did on the day you were born, on the eve of a huge snowstorm, and you still do.

First and foremost, you are funny.  Dad and I aren’t that funny, so we are both surprised by and thankful for this trait in you.  You keep our family laughing.  And you know better than almost anyone how crucial that has been in the last year and change.  In December you made me laugh almost as hard as I’ve ever laughed with an answer in the Game of Things.  You exhibit the kind of humor that demonstrates that you are listening, and paying attention, and remembering.

I’ve long held that truly funny people are also really smart.  Substantive comedy exists only with commensurate intelligence.  My favorite example for this fact has always been Steve Martin, but I think going forward it is going to be Whit Russell.  I’ve described you before as the sparkle in our family, and you are. In the summer, when you’re at camp, we are all a little muted without your energy, and, yes, your sparkle.

I do, sometimes, worry about the flip side of the sparkle.  I don’t want you to feel like you have to be funny all the time. You’re keenly aware of everything and everyone around you; your sensitivity, while less apparent on first blush, is also a strand that is woven into your humor.  This is, suffice it to say, a familiar trait.  I think you’re an empath.  I just want you to know you don’t always have to be cheering everyone up.  You are allowed to feel things – which I know you do – to the degree that sometimes you feel less sparkly.  We won’t love you less!

What I want to do with these words is to capture you in flight.

You are in midair between childhood and young adulthood.  You are still a boy but I can see the man you’ll be in your face.  Your braces came off and you are growing rapidly.  You wear a tie every day and are so comfortable with it that often you don’t take it off until bed.  You have a few very dear friends, most of all your camp friends, with whom you are in daily contact.  You love camp with the same ferocious loyalty as I did, and I adore seeing that.

Last year was a year of tumultuous change for our whole family, and you personally went through some major transitions.  You left the school you had been at since you were four to go to a new school, surrounded by new people, you took up a new language (Latin), you took up two new sports (squash and crew), you dropped a sport you’ve been playing since you were seven (hockey), and you lost two grandfathers.

With a few exceptions – you get cranky like the rest of us – you surfed the waves of last year like a pro. Your resilience inspires me and your ability to see the humor in dark situations lightens things on a regular basis.  You are adaptable and have learned to roll with the punches in a way that I am certain will stand you in good stead in life.  When you were too small to row with the rest of the middle schoolers last year, you tried coxing, and while you grumbled about it at first, you found you liked it.  You made the best of it, and learned something about yourself in the process (a headband with a microphone: awesome).

I adore you, Whit, and I have since you arrived that day, peaceful, blond, blue-eyed.  You’re still all of those things, and the peaceful is now interspersed with humor and wisdom in equal measure.  I’ll floss for you anytime.

My first boy, my last baby, happy birthday.

I love you.

Thirteen

Dear Whit,

This weekend you turned thirteen.  A teenager!  My second teenager, my first teenage boy.  The door has definitely closed on your young childhood, and with it a chapter of my life I have truly adored.  And you are, of course, a huge part of that.

I love the young man you are becoming, but maybe more notably, I like you so much.  I’ve had the same observation about your sister, but today’s about you.  You are funny, and thoughtful, and empathetic.  You don’t miss anything, and you don’t forget anything, either.  Lately you do a lot of accents, notably Indian and Russian, and it’s a rare family dinner when Dad and I don’t laugh so hard our stomachs hurt. I can feel you stretching, trying on different aspects of the man you are going to be.  Will you be funny?  Sincere?  Smart?  Dedicated?  I know you’re one and three.  Hoping two and four stick, also.

This has been a difficult fall.  You bid goodbye to your sister when she went to boarding school in early September, and then, in the space of two months, you lost both of your grandfathers.  The fact that you are still at home gave you a front-row seat to Dad’s and my grieving which I’m sorry you always had to see. I am confident that you have excellent male role models in your life, but given this autumn’s feast of losses, I’m even more grateful that you are at an all-boys school, and it feels particularly right and valuable right now that you are in a place where everyone is focused on boyhood and young manhood.

The last year held a lot of good things, in addition to the two overwhelmingly bad things that hit us at its end.  I struggle to remember this, but it’s important.  You love your new school, and I love that you love it.  You weren’t sure, to be honest, about leaving the safety of the school where you had been since you were four.  It was the revisit day that changed everything, and when I picked you up that afternoon, you looked at me with a grin and said, “I’m in.”  And you’ve been all in since then.  This despite showing up on the first day in shorts because I told you they were allowed.  And … they’re not.  You handled that speedbump with grace.  You were elected president of your class, threw yourself into soccer and your classes, did tech for the fall play.  You’re still finding your stride, but I am sure you are in the right place and I love seeing you challenged and supported in equal measure.

You stopped playing hockey this year, which was a big change.  For the first time in many years I’m not spending hours a week at the cold Cambridge rink, and you aren’t on a team with many of the boys you’ve played with since you were 8.  But you have enthusiastically taken up squash, and it’s been fun to watch.

You are full of joy.  You loved sailing and camp last summer, and plan to return to both this year. You tie a tie with ease, and lately you’ve been wearing some that belonged to my father.  He taught you how to tie a bow tie, and every time you wear one, I think of him. You love pugs, sleep with a stuffed one called Lil Pug, and sometimes say things like, “on a scale of one to pug, how cute is it?”  It’s hard to earn your trust and esteem, but once that happens, you are deeply loyal.  You are fascinated by space travel (Andy Weir’s The Martian is a favorite book, and Artemis is on your bedside table now) and by how things work.  You want to be an architect when you grow up.

One of the things I think about most as you grow into a young man is protecting the seam of sensitivity and emotional awareness that runs through you. You are definitely a Myers-Briggs “F,” and a strong one. I’m aware that the world can send a message to boys that they ought not talk about their feelings, but I also feel very strongly that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Last week you and I were home alone for several nights, and one dinner we got to talking about Grandpa and Poppy, and about your dear friend’s mother who died at the end of last year.  All three had died abruptly, and in none of the cases did you or I get to say goodbye.  “I’ve been thinking about it,” you said thoughtfully as you chewed your ranch dressing coated chicken (ranch dressing and buffalo sauce are two of your great loves).  “I just want to always be sure to say what I feel, so nobody ever wonders.”  You swallowed.  “You know, just in case something happens and I don’t get another chance.”  I stood up and hugged you, hiding the tears that ran down my face as I did so. I’m sorry you are so aware of this risk, but I’m grateful that your reaction, at least so far, is to stay open to the world and to love.

May it always be so.  Stay funny and stay sweet, my dear boy, my last baby, my only son.  It feels like you and me against the world in some ways right now, since Grace is away and Dad is often traveling.  I love your company; you make me laugh and you make me think, and I simply adore you.  I’m prouder than I can express of you, and I so look forward to what lies ahead.

Happy thirteenth birthday, Whit. I love you.

 

Twelve Years Old

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A late December morning, on your new beanbag, which was a Christmas present.  It’s not small.

Dear Whit,

On Friday, you turned twelve.  It’s the oldest cliche in the book, and also one of the great truisms: how is this possible?  You just arrived, in a cold snap and just in advance of a blizzard, shocking me and your father with your boy-ness, your blue eyes, and your blond hair.  All three of those charateristics remain true, twelve years later, and the shock has moderated to a gentle startle, but suffice it to say you can still surprise us.

Mostly you surprise us with how closely you’re paying attention, and with the way you remember things.  Even as a small child, you’d bust out with references to things we’d said or done weeks or months ago, making it very clear that we had better mean everything we said since it was filed away in your steel trap for future use.  You are also able to take my breath away with surprising demonstrations of sensitivity, which I’m already getting a feeling the world doesn’t quite know what to do with in a boy.  For that reason above all, I want to protect your ability to feel deeply, your language about your own feelings, and your willingness to talk about the landscape of emotion.

You don’t always love feeling so much, I know. Over the winter break, we put away our enormous stash of Legos into the basement. I found you sitting quietly in the living room, clearly sad.  When I probed, you started crying and admitted it was really hard to put the Legos away.  They’d meant so much to you for so long.  I meant something was over.  I was reminded of the evening, many years ago, when you wept about wanting to still be a baby.

I saw something that night that was keenly familiar. There’s a deep seam of nostalgia and an orientation towards melancholy buried inside of you (underneath your hilarious exterior, which means it’s unexpected) that I suspect you inherited from me. In a lot of ways, though, you’ve very different from me (though we look more and more alike, in my opinion – sorry about that!) and I watch you move through the world with a mixture of bewilderment (you are mostly unburdened by the desperate need to please that weighs heavily on my shoulders and, also, on those of your sister) and admiration (what a marvelously reasonable and free way to go through life!).

Your bedroom is just down the hall from my office, where I spent the great majority of my time.  That means a little extra exposure to you, and such delights as listening to you sing Do You Hear the People Sing under your breath as you do math homework or hearing your daily check in conversation with your Echo Dot when you get home from school. “Hey, Alexa! How was your day?” You often ask.

You like sports and have played hockey, baseball, and tennis for many years.  You started playing football this year in school, and you and your equal-sized dear friend standing among the giant 8th grade boys was one of my favorite photographs from last fall. You are an excellent team mate and coaches inevitably refer to your attitude and coachability.  You really enjoy being a part of a team and your Dad and I like the way it’s allowed you to meet and bond with friends outside of school.

It’s not sports that really makes your heart beat faster, though.  More than anything, that’s science and robotics.  For a while we went to the MIT lectures on various science topics on Saturday mornings, you eagerly await your monthly Tinker Crate, and the Science Museum is one of your favorite places. You have a periodic table taped to the wall of your bedroom, Randall Munroe’s What If? is one of your most treasured books, and you love Scratch.  A couple of summers ago Dad and I set up a workbench for you in the basement, and you like to retreat down there to tinker and work.  You were disappointed, however, when we decided it wasn’t safe for you to use power tools and work with wood alone in the basement.

Summer camp is your happy place, and the fact that you gamely returned last summer despite a not-great experience in 2015 makes me proud. You learned some important lessons about perseverance and trying things again, and you were amply rewarded with a terrific summer last year.  You are counting minutes until your return this upcoming summer.  You also love the weeks you spend with my parents at their house on the ocean, and wowed both your Dad and I when we saw the series of alarms you’d set on your old itouch to remind you that it was time to go to sailing and tennis.  Your autonomy and independence are growing in leaps and bounds.

You are funny and you are wise and you are generous and you are kind.  Most often, you’re the member of the family who remembers to ask about a doctor’s appointment or big meeting.  You run upstairs when you get home and give me a hug. You aren’t always in a good mood, but when you are you are one of the more charming people I’ve ever met.  You make me laugh every single day. This fall, after watching one debate with us, you would randomly respond to questions by muttering, “Emails!  Benghazi!” More than one person has asked me if we named you a trait we wanted you to have – ie wit – and the answer is no (your name is a family name on my side, and my sister’s middle name) but I understand the question.

You are rapidly shedding any little boy behaviors.  When I looked for a picture to put in this post, I was startled by how grown up you looked in recent photos.  You are still a small guy, but you’re growing up fast.  You still hug me, give me our secret “I love you” sign when I drop you at school in the morning, and eagerly climb into bed next to me to read at night.  Please don’t stop doing those things!  You are getting braces soon, though, and you have expressed your preference that I not cheer loudly for “Whitty!” at the hockey rink.  Fair enough.

When I wrote a post for you on Instagram on Friday, I mentioned one of the things I love best about you.  As is often the case with me, I didn’t really realize I felt something until I wrote it down.  But what I said is true: you have a deep comfort about you, and I know you believe in a benevolent universe.  You’re fine with not knowing it all, with not being totally in control, ad that comfort is foreign and reassuring to me in equal measure.  It’s inspiring, too.  I want to be more like that.  Thank you for teaching me that – and a million other things, like how tall the average giraffe is – every day.

Dear, beloved Whit, my last baby, the person who completed our family, you dazzle me with your intelligence and your humor and mostly indefatigable good attitude. I described you recently as the sparkle in our family, and you are.  I’m grateful every single day that I get to be your mother, and I’ll love you all the days of my life.  Without reservation, without question, without hesitation.

Happy twelfth birthday,

Mum

jan05-whitgraciemum3

January 20, 2005.  We all loved you from the start (the photographer too).