This week, my oldest son, Ford, begins seventh grade. He’s technically been in “middle school” for a year now, but this summer was the first time I saw, with startling frequency, a glimpse of the changes ahead: my first baby is stuck in that painful space between a boy and a man.
As an example, let’s look at Yoda’s hut. Not the real Yoda’s hut, but the fort made entirely from sticks on an island in the middle of the lake where my parents have a house in the summer. For several years, Ford and his younger brothers called the fort “Yoda’s Hut.” They climbed in and out of it, re-enacting scenes from Star Wars.
I stood on the outside and took pictures in between looking at my watch to be sure we weren’t late for dinner or so that we could leave the island before a brewing storm.
For me, Yoda’s Hut was always just a pile of sticks (that someone would have to pick up, no less), and the island a place to get out the boys’ energy. It wasn’t Dagobah, Yoda’s home planet. Whenever it was time to leave the island, it seemed like the boys were unreachable, lost in their imaginary play. They had no concept of time, schedules, weather, and sometimes, dinner.
This summer, when we went to see Yoda’s Hut, Ford was at first excited, and then visibly deflated once we arrived. “It seems kind of small,” he said. “Was it always that small?”
Owen, 10, picked up a stick and pretended it was a light saber. Ford stayed near me and asked for the time.
“Go play,” I said. “Don’t worry about the time.”
Ford didn’t move. But when we eventually kayaked back to shore, I noticed how strong and capable he was in the water. I didn’t stay next to him or watch over him in the same way I did Owen.
When Ford disappeared for a moment behind a patch of trees, I didn’t panic. And when we got back to the house, I expected Ford to help me lift the kayaks out of the water.
Another day, back at home, Ford was equally confused about how he should “play” in the backyard. Lindell, 6, was outside pretending to be something else, maybe Scooby Doo. Owen was chasing — and sometimes tormenting — Lindell.
Ford sat on the living room couch and looked bored.
“Go play,” I said.
“Play what?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Go find someone in the neighborhood.”
Ford went outside for a while and came back frustrated and holding back tears.
“There’s nothing to do,” he said as he threw himself onto the couch.
All his friends were playing video games, and Ford didn’t want to do that. But he also couldn’t get into Lindell’s or Owen’s mindset outside.
“What should I do?” he asked, and though I tried to come up with ideas, I didn’t say any of them out loud. I mean, what does an almost-13-year-old do these days?
Later that evening, when our dog, Sparky, supposedly ran off (spoiler: he had gotten in the car, where he sat waiting for someone to take him to the lake), I fully trusted Ford to get on his bike and ride several miles away looking for him. I didn’t let Owen or Lindell do that.
I know our culture is partly to blame. Kids are growing up so quickly. But a bigger piece of this is nature and biology. At some point (when the hormones kick in?) we all look at our childhood fort and think, “Was it always that small?” It’s just painful to watch your first child go through it.
And if you, like me, also have multiple children, you know what happens next: the younger ones grow up even faster.
Around the same time that Ford realized Yoda’s Hut was really just a pile of sticks, my uncle came to visit. Uncle Alan told Lindell about his model trains, and Lindell said, “I always wish I had a toy train.”
In fact, there is a whole laundry basket full of Thomas the Tank tracks and trains in our upstairs closet, but Lindell had never shown any interest in them. Lindell had never really watched Blue’s Clues or Sesame Street either. He went right to SpongeBob and Star Wars.
And in just a few years, when Ford is driving, going to the movies with friends, and doing all those teenager things, I guess Yoda’s Hut will seem uninteresting to my still-young Lindell. Which is sad, because there is so much more time to be an adult.
When Ford was an infant, there were days I thought would never end. When he was a toddler, I begged for bedtime. Then he entered school and the pace seemed to change.
His grade-school years went by in a hurry. But middle school feels even faster. And sometimes, I just wish I could slow it down, maybe stand outside the fort again and wait for my little boys to finish playing Star Wars.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.