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A New Era for Father and Son

My son has just turned 13, and this momentous event has been a great preoccupation to me. It's the suffix "teen" that I can't seem to get my mind around.

My little boy. Thirteen. There have been unmistakable signs. In a fit of paternal affection the other day, I leaned over to kiss him. At my approach he took evasive maneuvers and narrowly avoided the embarrassment of a lifetime, even though we were alone in the house. "Dad!" he cried in alarm, "what are you doing?"

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"Sorry," I meekly apologized as he pulled himself together.

When I adopted Alyosha five years ago - at the tender and still-kissable age of 7 - I knew this time of reckoning, of independence, would come. Sitting in a pizzeria just after my son's arrival, a friend informed me offhandedly, "Don't worry, in a few years he'll be on his own."

Don't worry? It was the furthest thing from my mind. My Alyosha was so small and dependent. I enjoyed his hand in mine as we walked to school, I loved buying little shoes and kiddie clothing, and relished the task of slapping together a simple wooden footstool so he could see himself in the bathroom mirror.

How can memories so strong seem to have nothing to do with the person my son has become? As if on cue, Alyosha had been making formal preparations for entering his teen years. He'd given many of his toys away and had begun to notice cars more than bicycles. And yesterday, in a move that took me by surprise, he changed his hairstyle to correspond to that of his soccer coach.

The tenor of our conversations has also changed. With the advent of his 13th year, Alyosha has begun to make periodic forays from the superficial to the profound. Where only yesterday he was asking why dogs bark and cats meow, he posed a more dire question the other evening: Will the world end in the year 2000?

I explained that the year 2000 is not a magic number; that in other cultures there are different calendars. "On the Jewish calendar," I told him, "it's already the year 5759."

My son took great comfort in knowing that others had weathered the year 2000 with no ill effects. But I began to reflect on the emphasis we place on years as momentous landmarks. People make a lot of hay out of certain human ages.

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"The terrible twos." How does one cope with such limitless, directionless energy?

Age 5: kindergarten. You're not a baby anymore.

Twelve. Is this the last of the "good years," before the child orients more to his peers than his parents?

Thirteen. Teen! The beginning of maturity, when talk turns from the cat's meow to the meaning of time.

I could go on, but as I said, I am stuck on 13. I clearly remember my own 13th birthday. It fell on an April weekend, warm and sunny. I recall actually feeling bigger, stretching out in bed to make the point.

After my parents made the congratulatory fuss at breakfast, I went outside and was greeted by the 20 or so kids who lived on my block. One of the boys, Donald Wagner, was walking with his mom, and I will never forget what happened next. When Mrs. Wagner heard the news of my natal day, she lashed out and kissed me before I could take evasive action. I was mortified.

YES, Alyosha, I understand now. Thirteen is a big number, and you're a big boy. Growing up is not simply something that happens; you have to work at it as well, and displaying your independence is a way of staking a claim to your burgeoning maturity.

My memories of your young childhood, though, are the archaeological treasures I am allowed to bear with me through life. They are the things I want to remember and have a right to: your fascination with toy cars, your first day of school, your taking my hand when we crossed the street, and yes, your demand for a bedtime kiss. Time took these activities away, as I knew it would, but the memory is yet green. Did anyone ever say this more poignantly than Robert Frost?

I could give all to Time - except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,

And what I would not part with I have kept.

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