Toys on the floor - or their absence - were good indicators of how our son, Kareem, was progressing through his childhood. The changes were subtle. One day I noticed I was no longer picking up stuffed animals and rattles. Instead, I was taking care when I walked barefoot. I knew booby traps of small metal cars and sharp-edged Lego blocks lay strewn across the carpet somewhere.
And one spring day I realized that Kareem's interest in soccer had passed. He wasn't lying in wait, kicking a ball precisely between my feet as I walked through the kitchen. I was no longer standing on the sidelines, shivering and cheering with other bundled parents. No, he had moved on to a high school Junior ROTC drill team, and was now practicing pivot turns as he marched around the living room. Tinker toys and shin guards were gone forever.
Some passages were more clearly marked than others. After we spent hours driving on quiet back roads, Kareem passed his drivers' test, and with the prized license came our battles over time spent driving his friends around versus time spent studying.
The arrival of his first girlfriend prompted heated discussions over excessive phone use, followed by lessons in choosing a corsage for the prom.
High school graduation, that most formal of demarcations, arrived and he went away to college. The house became uncomfortably quiet. I would look up from the stove and realize I was cooking too much food for just my husband and myself. I'd feel a little pang when I made Kareem's favorite spaghetti sauce, knowing he wouldn't be home to eat it.
When he graduated from college, Kareem moved back home for a time before he started graduate school. His mood was up and down, as he took qualifying tests, filled out and filed applications, faced rejection, and went out on a number of disappointing interviews.
One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I was reading on the couch upstairs, so Kareem answered the door before I could get to it. It was a magazine salesman. Judging from the voice, he was a young man with a snappy, fast-talking pitch. I had taught my son to politely say, "No, thank you, we're not interested," when any salesman came to the door or, better yet (when he was tall enough) to use the peep hole and not open the door if it wasn't someone he recognized.
I stood in the hall, mildly surprised that Kareem was listening to the salesman without interrupting. The young man said he was selling magazines to earn money for school.
I tensed a little. Kareem had just received yet another polite university rejection, and I was afraid his frustration might erupt in some caustic remark.
But no, Kareem quietly stood at the door and let the young man talk. When the memorized spiel was over, Kareem asked, "Where do you want to go to school?"
The boy said he wanted to be a chef and named a culinary school. I knew of it. It was a school with a good reputation. And expensive.
"So, what is this company you're working for? How do you get paid?" Kareem asked, and when the boy answered, I noticed that the polish came off the speech. "I think you might qualify for some loans or maybe a scholarship," my son said, and talked about some of the programs he'd unearthed while looking for funding himself.
Now the boy's tone became conversational. His speech slowed to normal speed. He told of his grandmother, who took him in because of his mother's drug habit. I listened for a sob story - an effort to get a sympathy sale - but I didn't hear it. Instead, the young salesman talked about loving to cook. His grandmother had taught him.
"That's what I wanna do," he said. "Man, that would be the life for me, and I could take care of my granny real good." He asked if Kareem could tell him how to search for scholarships, and they talked a few minutes about websites and public library resources.
Then Kareem said, "I really admire the energy you have. It's hot today and you're out here working hard. I wish I could give you a reference."
The boy asked him to look at his list of magazines, and they talked about some of the choices. Then Kareem said, "No, I'm really sorry. I can't buy anything from you. I don't have any money, and if I don't find some soon, I may have to sell magazines, too. I hope I'm as good at it as you are."
"That's OK, man," the boy said. "I understand."
He started to leave when Kareem said, "Hey, how about something to drink? I can give you a can of soda to take with you."
The boy accepted gratefully and when Kareem apologized because it wasn't cold, the boy said, "No, this is great. I'm real thirsty."
They wished each other luck, and the boy left. Kareem closed the door and I tiptoed back upstairs to my book. But I couldn't read. I realized I had just eavesdropped on one of Kareem's steps into adulthood.
Dealing with rejection and struggling to fulfill a dream, Kareem had found compassion. He'd treated a door-to-door salesman with respect, and a stranger had gone away with a sense of dignity, some moral support, and a small practical offering.
I went downstairs and put my arms around a son who's now taller than I am.
"What's that for?" he asked.
"Because you've grown up to be somebody I admire," I said. Kareem gave me a puzzled smile, shrugged, and went back to his loan application.
Since then, I've tried to be a little more patient when a telemarketer calls at dinnertime. It's usually a young voice on the other end of the line and I think, "This may be somebody's kid working his way through school." Whether that's the case or not, courtesy doesn't cost me anything. I'm still careful about answering the door, but a few moments of kind attention aren't a hardship, especially since I'm not picking up toys anymore.
I guess you could say we've come to another stage of adulthood. You know the one ... where Mother learns from her son's example?