On the Trail Of a Little Lone Ranger

THE Lone Ranger strides through the front door, dropping his coat and backpack in a smooth, cool toss. I lean against the wall and hold my breath. If I try to hug him, our embrace may turn into roughhousing, then a wrestling match. If I take on this 70-pound, eight-year-old cowboy, he might get the better of me.

But if I don't make a move soon, I'll lose him for sure. The cowboy doesn't stay in one place long. So I ask him to do a quick chore. My voice is light and bright; my directions are clear and simple. But it's no good, for even as I speak he is gliding past me, into my peripheral vision, and out the door.

Who is this masked man? He moves calmly and confidently on his way, tossing a ball or a paper airplane into the air as he goes.

Sometimes he hears me, all right. Take piano practice, when I gently remind the masked man to straddle the piano bench for half an hour.

"Practice more? In your dreams! Piano is not my choice!" A piano book hits the floor. "I don't want to do it, I'm not doing it, I wish the piano would burn up or fall apart!"

What happened? A few days ago we were best friends. We planned supper together, we rode bikes around the block. We stopped for storytime anytime. And we shared jokes.

One morning, for example, he told me that someone was at the back door. I went to check. I opened the door and greeted a short person wearing a Lone Ranger mask. Although he was out of breath, his smile was charming - and very familiar.

Say hello to the Lone Ranger. Only a few years have passed, yet this eight-year-old cowboy isn't always around, and when he is, he doesn't let me get too close. How am I supposed to adjust? I'm the one who gazed into his eyes during midnight feedings. I'm the one who postponed her chores when he wanted to go for a walk. I found extra blankets for his basement hideout and cleaned up the messes he made.

Now I stay behind, watching him as he mounts his bicycle and heads out. I may not like admitting it, but I know he's preparing to leave town soon. Not right away, of course, but in a few quick years.

Meanwhile, I learn that, like the original masked man, my eight-year-old doesn't belong to anyone, not even Mom. I'm just riding with him for a while. Like Tonto. I work hard to keep a relationship with the eccentric masked man. I respect and encourage the Ranger. I let him choose his own friends and plan his own activities.

But I miss him, so it helps when the Lone Ranger reins in his horse and spends time with me. Like the other night, when we sewed curtains for his bedroom. He chose the fabric, dismissing my neat animal prints and traditional plaids for a fabric stamped with Nintendo figures. Awesome, he thought. Awful, I decided. Dozens of Marios leered at me from red glowing cotton cloth. It would keep even a new parent awake - but not my son. He was thrilled.

He wanted to start sewing immediately. That was OK: I had the evening to give. So we bent over the sewing machine. I threaded the machine, he filled the bobbin; he pressed the pedal, and I guided the fabric, shouting "Stop!" just in time.

Somewhere past bedtime we tugged the curtains onto curtain rods and reached to set them in place. At 10 p.m., we agreed that the curtains were indeed awesome; five minutes later, the Lone Ranger was asleep on his sleeping bag.

I smiled at the Lone Ranger unmasked. One day he'll ride off into the sunset, but until then, I'll enjoy every sunset that I have with him. Later I'll wait patiently, eager for the sound of his boots coming up the steps and through the front door.

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