Friday, February 12, 2016

The Ties That Bind

Raised by an ERA pin-wearing, liberal single mom, I believed I could do anything a boy could do. So going from “mom” to “single mom” didn’t scare me all that much. After all it was just an adjective. But I guess I didn’t stop to think about the things a boy learns from his father. Until my oldest son started high school. The dress code included wearing ties to monthly all-school masses. I’d been looking for my car keys the morning of that first mass, high heels in hand, racing around the house when my son dragged his way up the stairs, sleepy-eyed, starched shirt buttoned up to his neck, tie in hand, a mix of confusion and disappointment (or was it regret?) on his face.
“Mom? Can you tie my tie for me?”
I didn’t want to let on that, well, no. No, I couldn’t. So, with all the confidence I could muster that Thursday morning, and with two other kids running around intermittently yelling, “Where’s the syrup?” and “I can’t find my soccer cleats!” I stopped on the landing by the front door, set my shoes down and took the tie from his hand.
“Sure,” I said with more saccharine than the syrup that was eventually located somewhere in the kitchen. I looped the tie over the back of his head and around his neck. One hand holding each side, I stared at the ends, willing myself to picture my father, my ex-husband, hell even Richard Gere in Pretty Woman tying a tie. Just a quick loop here, a flip there, and voila! Nothing came to me.
My son shifted his weight from foot to foot.  “Uh, mom…?”
“No, It’s cool. I’ve got this.” I pulled out my smart phone and tapped the YouTube logo, searched “how to tie a tie” and waited for instant enlightenment. What I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of enlightenment: Windsor, Double Windsor, Half Windsor. Good Lord, I had no idea there were so many different ways to tie a damn tie! And who was this Windsor character anyway? Didn’t he realize I was short on time? I picked the first one, proclaiming “for beginners.”
 I had my son hold the phone up while I watched the video and followed the instructions. It took three tries, but we got it done. And it didn’t look half bad. The next time he wore a tie, he brought me his own phone, the YouTube video already cued up.
“Let’s do this, Mom!” He smiled at me, a mix of love and sarcasm that he’s fine-tuned to perfection over the past few years.
This time I spoke the instructions out loud so I’d remember them. “Wide on right, twice as long… Okay. Got it.” I’d nod my head after each step. “Wide over narrow, through the loop and back down.” My tongue stuck out the corner of my mouth as I concentrated. “Underneath and through the loop. Wide in front and underneath.” I was saying it in a singsong staccato. God knows what my teenager was thinking. “Slide in the loop… and tighten!” I gave him a big smile. He smiled back at me like he thought I’d escaped from an institution. I patted his shoulder and sent him on his way.  Inside I was jumping up and down. Success!
Despite my proclivity to singsong the steps, he returned each time for help. By the end of freshman year, he’d stand in front of my mirror, and I’d hold the video for him while he tied it himself. Getting dressed up in my bathroom became a habit for him. He’d come in dressed but un-tucked, hair a mess and finish getting ready in front of my large bathroom mirror. Maybe it’s because the space – and mirror - was bigger. Maybe in small part it was because I was there to lend a hand with the tie, or in years to come, the cuff links.
The first mass of his sophomore year came the next fall. He knocked on my bedroom door early in the morning. I opened it to a taller version of the boy from the year before: Hair sticking up every which way, shirt tucked into his dress pants, buttoned up to his neck, tie in hand. I had to look up at him now. I followed him into my bathroom, but he looked over his shoulder.
“I’ve got it Mom.” He threw the tie around his neck, and slowly spoke the words out loud that I had said all those times over the past year, even adding in the singsong voice once or twice with a wry smile.
Two fast years later, his younger brother started high school. The morning of their first all-school mass, my high school senior walked down the hall the picture of confidence. Starched shirt tucked into dress pants, polished shoes, tie knotted in place. He stood in the kitchen, all 6’1” of him, and I realized that I had a raised a young man.
And then…”Mom?” My newly minted freshman’s voice boomed out. As he came down the hall, shirt half tucked into khakis, bright red sneakers on his feet and hair askew, he called out, “Can you tie my tie?”
My oldest and I looked at each other and smiled. As he turned the corner into the kitchen, I reached out to grab the tie from my younger son’s hand, when his brother took it instead. “I’ve got it, Mom.”
I watched as my older son looped the tie over his little brother’s head, lined up the sides and began the process all over again. “It’s pretty easy,” he said to his brother. “Just remember the wide part has to be longer. Then wide over narrow, through the loop, and back down…”
I snapped a photo of them with my phone to freeze the memory, then turned away so I wouldn’t embarrass them with my tears.