“The boy is father to the man … ” what does that even mean?
For sixteen amazing, glorious, overwhelming, capital I interesting days in 1981, I lived alone at the age of fifteen. My father had a short-term guest teaching spot in Wichita, KS, and my mother was overseeing spring planting on the farm that was still home base in Iowa. I was finishing my sophomore year of high school in Tucson, AZ, a year when I had found my groove academically and socially. Apparently, my parents thought I was also grown up enough to survive on my own, albeit with a list of vigilant onlookers in case I should need them.
My friend Wade’s mother picked me up each morning to give me a ride to school (I only overslept once). The school bus or the city bus brought me within a half-mile walk home in the afternoon. I checked in each evening with a neighbor named Elaine, a woman who taught me that every lady looks prettier surrounded by soft pink, even when she’s a fierce tiger inside. Those were the days when long-distance phone calls were a premium price, but at a sleepy eleven p.m., I called and talked to one or the other of my parents and assured them all was well.
None of my friends yet held a driver’s license, so it took a flurry of phone calls to make weekend plans, to figure out first what we were going to do and then who’s parent was willing to drive us there and who else would deliver us home. Plans arranged, I was getting ready Friday evening when a hard knock fell on the door to the casita my father rented just for the academic year.
The casita was part of a little development of short- and long-term furnished rentals attached to a tennis club nestled in a bend of the mostly dry Rillito River. Like most dwellings in Tucson, it had thick stucco walls that cooled in summer and held the sun’s warmth in the winter. Instead of a rain-diverting tile roof, however, the houses in our development had flat roofs. During spring rains, ours had leaked.
One leak was directly over my room. During a torrential storm, the water ran down the interior wall and pooled in my bed. I woke up drenched, the bed and bedding destroyed, and all of the cards from friends in Iowa taped to the wall wet and curled, the ink running.
Our landlord was slow to respond. My parents withheld the next month’s rent. Our landlord still didn’t respond. My parents withheld another month’s rent. I’m certain there were strong words written and phone calls made, but no workmen arrived. We moved my bed to the middle of the room and in the off times when it did rain in the desert, my wall and the carpet on my floor continued to get soaked. The landlord continued to be unresponsive, and there may have even been a third month’s rent withheld before my parents left town for those sixteen days.
When I opened the door to the casita late that Friday afternoon, thinking to find the obliging parent who would give me a ride to the movie outing we had planned, I was met instead by a man encased entirely in black leather who had rolled right up to the door on an enormous motorcycle. He held his helmet under one arm, never even lifted his sunglasses, and asked me, not unkindly: “Are you Robin Bourjaily?”
It was all happening too quickly for me to do anything but assent that I was.
He handed me an envelope, “Then, this is for you. You’ve been served.”
He swung a leg over his motorcycle, settled his helmet on his head and roared the machine to life. He may have even tipped his hat and mouthed, “Ma’am,” over the engine before he spun off into the sunset. I stood there, trembling a little, the summons to appear in court shaking in my disbelieving hands.
The landlord was suing for payment of overdue rent and had managed to get a court date for the very next week when my parents would still be out of town, thus my name was on the paperwork alongside my father’s. It was a sneaky move. Even though I was a minor, it looked as though I could be held responsible if I didn’t show up to court. Then my family would be in the wrong for not paying rent as opposed to the landlord for not repairing the damaged roof.
I did the only thing I could think of—I walked across the hard-packed sand, passed the landscaped cacti that were still surprising to my Iowa-raised sensibilities, and knocked on Elaine’s door. In addition to knowing about color, Elaine was an attorney. She scanned the papers I handed her and flushed with anger. The suit was rubbish, she assured me, and putting my name on the paperwork a slick but ultimately ineffective move. She would take care of the matter herself. I was not to give it another thought.
I walked back to find my friend and her mother waiting to drive us to the movies. The whole world looked a little different—a new and less welcoming place, a place where I could be sued. In the lobby of the movie theater that night, as my friends were gathering, I anxiously told and retold my story. A late arrival called to us and I spun around to see, lost my balance and fell, hard. My friends surrounded me, lifted me, got napkins and helped me clean up spilled soda and popcorn. I wasn’t hurt, but I remember feeling toppled and smashed, maybe my life’s first Humpty Dumpty moment.
I remembered that fall again this week as I was focusing on balance in my yoga classes. Physical balance requires strength and flexibility,
an ability to adjust as we move our body parts into different configurations. Our balancing competence waxes and wanes with so many other influences—how much sleep we’ve had, what we’ve been eating, the time of day. In yoga we can opt to challenge the balance or to back off; we learn to meet ourselves where we are and move accordingly. Emotional balance off the mat isn’t much different, and sometimes I can translate the adaptive skills I learn on the mat to situations in the real world. But the day I fell in the movie theater, just fifteen years old, I didn’t know how to consciously find stability. My fall was a physical manifestation of my emotional response to all that was happening.
I was okay. My friends picked me up and we watched our movie. Elaine, my parents, and the landlord settled the matter amongst themselves, and my family moved out of the casita and back to the farm in Iowa less than a month later. In the ensuing years, I never forgot about that fall, and I came to understand its significance as a pivotal moment when a series of actions would spin me off-kilter, something that can’t help but happen at times as I navigate the world. With experience comes a larger set of life-tools, thus I’d like to believe it takes more to knock me into a metaphorical or real fall today. Still, when I look back I feel waves of gratitude today to my fifteen-year-old self, for what she learned and how her experience teaches me still.
My son, Fourteen, inquired of me what I meant by “the boy is father to the man” the other day. I tried to explain that sometimes we make choices when we’re very young that regard the adult we’ll become rather than for the person we are. But it’s so much more than that, I realized: Our layers of experience set down foundation for the way our life stories will unfold. Thanks, as always, for reading a part of mine. Namaste & much love as the Full Snow Moon wanes, Rxo