On Sunday night while I was waiting at the corner of 34th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan for the bus to Philadelphia I overheard a conversation between a mother and her son that reminded me of conversations I used to have with my mom.
The son was in college and had just finished for the summer. He had a thick beard and was dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeve athletic shirt. The mom was in her late-forties, short, and neatly put together. She didn’t look young, but she didn’t yet show any signs of middle age.
The mom asked her son one question after another, mostly about his friends. “How’s so and so doing,” she’d say. Or she’d give him an update on some family friend. “Did you know that Jess Kasenbaum is going to medical school?”
The son’s answers were short and generic. “He’s doing fine,” or “Same as always,” or, “Oh, good for Jess.” The whole time he fiddled with his smart phone. In most conversations his responses would have been taken as a sign that he didn’t really want to talk. But the mom either didn’t get the hint or she chose to ignore it, and the son seemed content to go on giving half-answers.
The second aspect of their conversation that struck me was the son’s disposition: He acted like he knew a lot more than his mom did. At one point while we waited a homeless man walked the bus line handing out copies of The Onion that he’d unpacked from the newspaper box around the corner. The son said he’d already read that issue but he took a copy for his mom and, after a minute of digging in his backpack, handed the man what looked to be about 30 cents. “You’ll like this, it’s really funny,” he said to his mom, in the same tone that a parent might use to cajole his kid into eating vegetables: “Eat these, they’re good for you.”
I remembered feeling that same flush of cultural superiority towards my mom whenever I introduced her to new music, or explained what instant messaging was, or helped her read the NYC subway map.
The two of them talked about more serious topics, too. From what I could tell there’d been a divorce recently. “Your father wasn’t a good husband to me,” I overheard the mom saying. “He’d always walk two blocks ahead of me when we were in the city.”
This son looked up from his phone and said something I couldn’t quite make out. The mom spoke more loudly, less self-consciously than he did. I could hear her clearly when she said, “I miss the unity of being a family, that’s what I miss. But I don’t miss him at all, not for a minute.”
The son gave his mom some advice: “I hear people talking like this all the time, complaining about their problems instead of doing something about it.” It wasn’t the most generous thing he could have said but I had some sympathy for the son; it’s hard to know what to say when your parents bare themselves to you like that. As a kid you want to be able to say to your parents what they always said to you: everything’s going to be all right. It’s a lot harder to accept that some people live unhappy lives and that your parents might be among them.
Eventually the bus arrived. The mother and son boarded before I did and I didn’t see where they sat down. We drove south on the Jersey Turnpike; the glow of streetlamps raced through the interior of the bus. As I continued to think about the conversation I’d overheard I was surprised to find myself identifying more closely with the mother.
The son may have known many things his mom did not. He knew about The Onion. He told his mom to “calm down” when she started worrying about the bus being late. He had advice for how to deal with a divorce. But when it came to the single most important thing between them—how much she loved him—it seemed to me that the mother knew it completely and the son had no clue.