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I learned early on that guys with sisters make the best boyfriends. In fact, my first boyfriend had four sisters; my last (the man I married) has three. In between were a few sisterless duds, guys who spent their adolescence tongue-tied and flame-cheeked. A teenage boy with sisters, however, feels at ease around women; all those years of just hanging out and talking -- or, okay, fighting -- make it clear that adolescent girls are not, in their essence, alien life-forms. They're just people with breasts and a general indifference to the Three Stooges.
I certainly never meant to raise three sisterless boys. And yet here I am, my sons' sole source of up-close information about the female gender. And I admit, I haven't always done my job well. Riding home from his first day of preschool, then-3-year-old Henry announced, "Mary got a new wagon for his birthday. He's going to bring it to my house when I invite him over!"
"Honey, she's going to bring it," I said. "Mary's a girl, and when we talk about girls, we say 'she.'"
He was silent for a moment; I assumed he was trying to process this pronoun lesson. But then he asked, "What's a girl?"
Evidently Henry had decided there were exactly two categories of humanity, males and mommies. Never having seen a girl without her clothes on, he assumed that girls were just boys with ribbons in their hair. Even one sister would've cleared the whole thing up.Cootie-Free
There is one blessing of the sisterless house: None of my boys has ever suffered the ubiquitous grade-school conviction that members of the opposite sex carry cooties. With no sisters to fight with, my sons seem to accept girls with something of a shrug, in the aggregate neither better nor worse than boys. At the beginning of second grade last fall, Joe commented, "I don't get why the boys in my class won't play with girls anymore. Some of them are really good at kickball." As a matter of pure pragmatism, cootie aversion just doesn't work for Joe.
Henry's earlier confusion about Mary's gender notwithstanding, I thought we were in pretty good shape when Sam hit junior high a couple of years ago. True, he has no sisters, but I've been coaching him for years, constantly issuing subtle gender insights and advice: "When you break up with a girl, Sam, you have to find a way to preserve her dignity," and "Showing off won't make a girl think you're cool; it'll make her think you're an idiot."
And he mostly seems to get the point -- at least in the realm of the hypothetical. In real life, though, my advice tends to get drowned out by adolescent self-consciousness. Recently Sam came home from play practice, flopped on the sofa next to me and mumbled, "I think I might've messed up with Shannon."
I looked at him. His bony shoulders slumped almost to his bony knees. "Oh, honey," I said, "it can't be that bad."
"Oh, yeah, it definitely can be that bad. See, Shannon sends me this text message saying to meet her outside the theater and when I get there she goes, 'I really like you, and not just as friends.'"
"So you said?" I prompted.
He looked at me, bewildered: "I have no idea."
"You didn't say anything?"
"I think I might've said something like, 'Uh, thanks,' and then just, you know, left."
At which point my sympathies were altogether with Shannon.
My one comfort here is that Sam is far from the only teenage boy I know who lacks the Cary Grant gene. When three other boys and their dates, along with the boys' parents, gathered at our house before the homecoming dance last fall, I stood in the doorway and studied the four gorgeous girls standing in my family room. They all had gleaming hair and strappy sandals and polished nails and elegant dresses and white, white teeth -- and the kind of poise that their slouching, rumpled dates had never exhibited for a single minute of their entire collective lives. The father of Sam's best friend joined me in the doorway. He, too, stood and stared. "What do you think these girls could possibly see in our guys?" he asked. "It's like they don't even belong to the same species."Sweetheart Roses
I'm truly trying to help Sam in his quest to be a decent date -- and, I hope, a good and loving partner some day -- but I admit that I vacillate wildly in the way I think about his budding romances. Two years ago I went to pick up the corsage I'd ordered for Callie, his date to the junior high formal. I'd been very specific in ordering it: a wrist corsage made of tiny, delicate flowers that would dry in a pretty way, in case Callie wanted to save it. And when I went to pick it up in its little crystal box, it was absolutely perfect. But as I looked at those exquisite sweetheart roses, that dainty spray of baby's breath, my eyes filled with tears.
The florist was shocked: "It's not what you wanted?"
At the time I wasn't sure why I was crying, exactly. All I know is that suddenly I was thinking of the roses Haywood gave me the day Sam was born. And then I remembered the flower I wore on Mother's Day the year Sam was a baby, when all the mothers at our church got roses at the door. And then I thought of the grubby bouquet of April violets Sam picked for me when he was 2, holding them out and smiling as proudly as though he'd personally invented flowers -- and had managed that magnificent feat just for me.
Everyone tells new mothers to enjoy this time, that the sweet days of babyhood don't last. But no one ever told me how sweet these days of heartfelt talks are, too, and how fleeting. Because even as I coach Sam about girls, I know that his foray into dating is another step he's taking away from me, that one day the roses that make me tear up will be nestled in a bouquet another woman is carrying down the aisle to meet him.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2007.