Mr. Sentimental

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It happened twice recently: I looked up from what I was doing and saw Carter crying quietly to himself. It’s not unusual for him to cry—it happens about once a day for one reason or another—but usually it’s preceded by getting in trouble or an argument with his little sister, and in most of those cases the tears are big, theatrical, stage tears that can be turned on and off like a tap. But the two times I’m talking about weren’t an act. He was legitimately upset, his mouth turned up in a sad little grimace while he tried to wipe away the tears and hide them from me.

The first time, he was looking at a laminated piece of orange construction paper Sadie brought home on the last day at her old day care before she started preschool this fall. Her handprint was pressed onto the page with purple paint, and one of her teachers had written something on it about how fast she was growing up and how much she learned at school. She brought home lots of “arts and crafts” like that where the kids smeared some paint around and the teachers dressed it up into a keepsake. Debbie asked him why he was crying and he said, “I just remember all the good times when we played together after we picked her up from school.”

Carter came with us only about once out of every five times we picked up Sadie from day care, but he’s right. He did have fun horsing around with the little kids when he came along. We told him that he didn’t have to be sad because we’d have a lot more good times, and he cheered up. “I’m not crying because I’m sad, it’s because I’m happy,” he said.

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About a week later he and I were sitting on the couch together before dinner. We have an Apple TV hooked up to our TV, and I set it up to show a slideshow of family pictures when it’s not playing videos or music. I was reading something on my phone, and then I looked over and saw him crying again. He said it was because he was looking at all the pictures on the TV from when he was little: snapshots of us at the park, going to ballgames, vacations at the beach. Again, he insisted that he was crying “happy tears,” but I reached over and hugged him and didn’t want to let go.

I’m not surprised he’s developing a sentimental streak. He gets it directly from me, just as I inherited mine directly from my dad. The longer I sit and watch those pictures float by on the TV screen, the more likely I am to choke up too. Carter has been playing with my old baseball cards lately, pulling out old Fleer and Score sets from 1989 and sorting them into teams on the floor of his bedroom. It’s enough nostalgia to make me lightheaded and have to sit down every time I walk by and see him clutching a stack of Terry Pendletons and Pedro Guerreros. And while the inscription on Sadie’s poster was cheesy in a Hallmark card kind of way, when presented on a milestone day with her little handprint in the middle, it got to me too. I’d be worried about my qualifications as a parent if I didn’t get choked up at the sight of my three-year-old’s palm preserved for posterity. But I’m surprised that Carter is feeling it so acutely already.

Most of those pictures he saw on the TV that night were from before he started school, back when I was still at home with him full-time, hanging out at the park all day, going to lunch at Manny’s and visiting Shedd Aquarium once a week. It was quite the life. Now that I’m back at work at and he’s in first grade, with homework and a little sister who knows how to push his buttons, life is more complicated for both of us.

I can see why he would look back get a little nostalgic. I miss those days when it felt like we had all the time in the world too. But it’s greatly oversimplifying the matter to say that it was easy and carefree back then. That time had its own set of frustrations that I’d rather not revisit, like changing diapers and waking up three times a night, to name a few. Nostalgia is tricky like that. We don’t take pictures of all the temper tantrums and food-stained clothes and put them into slideshows.

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He probably doesn’t understand why he was crying, but I worry about what’s going on in his head. Is he just experiencing a normal emotion that runs in the family, or is he truly unhappy when he compares his life now to what it used to be? The rational part of me knows that it’s the former, but if there’s one thing parenting is good at, it’s making sure you feel like you’re doing it all wrong. It’s dangerous to try to make sense of the emotions of a six-year-old, but I worry that somewhere among all the work, errands, chores, and maybe trying to squeeze in a little time for myself, I’m screwing it up for the kids.

Last week I saw Jonathan Franzen speak at a panel for the Chicago Humanities Festival. During a question and answer period at the end of the talk, someone asked him about if the ending of his last novel, Freedom, was supposed to be happy or sad. “Things don’t turn out the way we want them to,” he said. “I would prefer to complicate the question.”

One of the great accomplishments of Freedom is that it resists that kind of categorization into happy or sad. It’s complicated, with an ambiguous ending and ambiguous characters who muddle through it every day, like we all do. Walter and Patty Berglund are both heroic and loathsome. They make mistakes. They hurt the people around them, but they show an immense capability for compassion and humanity too. Books like that don’t make sense until long after you put them down and think about them, if they ever do.

Though he doesn’t know it yet, I hope Carter is learning the same thing about life. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s a little of both. It probably won’t ever really make sense until it’s too late, and in that way, it’s like reading a good book. It’s complicated.