Hello, he must be going

My son has become a professional houseguest. At 15, he has made our home little more than a base of operations as he flits from friend to friend, sometimes for a night, sometimes two. He is under way so much these days that when he does darken my doorstep on occasion it is in the manner of the old Groucho Marx lyric, "Hello, I must be going."

And the next thing I know, he is off again.

In truth, the writing was on the wall at a very early age.

I adopted Alyosha from Russia when he was just 7. On that very first day in the States, my brother suggested Alyosha visit his family at their house. I thought the invitation premature.

"Alyosha's been here only an hour," I told my brother. "I don't think he's going to want to leave me yet."

And - bang! - before I knew what was happening, Alyosha was sitting in my brother's van with his newfound cousins, bouncing on the seat and raring to go.

I suppose I should be flattered that my son is in such demand. Invariably, when his friends' parents bring him home, I am the recipient of such remarks as, "He's wonderful to have around," or "We wish he could come live with us," or "Our kids don't fight when Alyosha's in the house."

My son, the peacemaker who makes house calls.

Although, in years past, he would sometimes invite friends to come to our home to spend the night, this practice has died off. I questioned him about this.

"Dad," he said, as if I should have known better than to ask, "our house is boring."

And with that he was out the door, his overnight bag in hand, like Hercules gone off to one of his labors.

This whole concept of the sleepover was alien to me as a child. I never slept over at anybody else's house, and none of my friends ever spent the night at mine. In my urban New Jersey neighborhood in the '60s, it just never occurred to us that this might be something interesting to do. Perhaps it's because we saw so much of one another during the day that, come sundown, we sought separation and space.

There might also be another reason. My neighborhood reflected an almost communist ideal of egalitarianism: All the families were lower-middle class, and nobody seemed to have anything in excess of someone else. In this light, going to another kid's house for the night would have presented us with nothing we couldn't find in our own homes.

By contrast, the disparities today are far greater. I can enumerate Alyosha's friends in terms of what they have and we lack: the jacuzzi family, the trampoline family, the summer-cottage family, the speedboat family, etc. These are powerful lures for today's youngsters caught up in the tsunami of "stuff" that is the hallmark of the present age.

I think this is why Alyosha remarked that our house is boring. For a 21st-century family, we have an alarming lack of gadgetry. (Why own a dryer when solar and wind power will dry clothing just as well, if not better?)

But our home is long on natural beauty. It sits on the banks of the Penobscot River, with pendulous silver maples dipping and swaying in the spring breeze.

With due frequency we catch a glimpse of a bald eagle gliding along the silver ribbon of water, and neighbors come to visit by canoe.

The other day, while shooting baskets with my son against this backdrop, he asked if he could bike to a friend's house in the next town.

"Why not ask him to come over here?" I prompted. "Your friends are always welcome here."

My son threw me that look that said we had gone over this ground before.

"Alyosha," I persisted, "you have a basketball hoop, a big yard for kicking the soccer ball, and an entire river for canoeing. I'm sure your friends would love to come here."

My son stood patiently by, the basketball propped on his hip, while I pleaded my case. Then he came over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"You don't understand, Dad," he said. "If I stay here, I'm at our house; but if I'm at a friend's house, I feel like I've gone somewhere."

If there's one thing I am daunted by, it's bold logic. What could I do? I waved to my son as he slung his backpack over his shoulder and raced off on his bike, this young man in a hurry.

And I comforted myself with the knowledge that he was still of an age when he would be back, if only for a while. Or, as Groucho put it, "I'll stay a week or two, I'll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I - must - be - going."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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