An embarrassee becomes the embarrasser

Recently, while stopped in traffic, I got a chuckle out of a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. In playful italics it read, I EMBARRASS MY CHILDREN. I recall this being a lively topic among my fellow parents, commencing when our children hit middle school. A benign lament had gone up - especially among the moms - when sons and daughters were suddenly horrified to be seen with parents in public.

I have my own acute recollection of what kids go through. One day, when I was in eighth grade, my mother appeared in the school cafeteria as a volunteer. My mother! I reddened and pretended not to see her. And then, agony of agonies, she came at me with a small container of milk in each hand.

"Would you like chocolate or white?" she asked as I tried to get away, pretending I had no idea who this strange woman was. But finally, she cornered me and, still proffering the milk, asked, "Well?"

What could I do? I took the chocolate milk and drank it along with a huge dose of mortification, convinced that every eye in the cafeteria was on me and that the secret was at long last out: I had a mother!

A poignant irony of this phenomenon of being embarrassed in the presence of one's parents is that I didn't think anything of seeing my friends in public with their parents; it was the idea of being 14 and being seen with my own mom and dad that got to me.

I had this close friend when I was in seventh grade back in the '60s. Joe, like most of my classmates, existed in a sort of self-contained ether devoid of any visible connection to parents. Not only had I never seen his father or mother, but he never talked about them, except in generic, almost rhetorical terms ("I wanted to stay out later, but they would have thrown a fit").

One day my father gave Joe and me tickets to a local farm league baseball game. "You can walk to the game while it's light out," he directed, "but it will be dark when the game's over. I won't be available. See if Joe's dad can give you a ride home."

Joe looked panic-stricken when I explained the deal to him. "My father?" he cried.

To make a long story short, Joe made the necessary arrangements. It was a good ballgame, but Joe fretted all the way through. Afterward, we waited curbside for his dad to arrive. "What kind of car does he drive?" I asked as the minutes passed.

"A Ford," he said, but with a peculiar note of apology.

And then, a moment later, it arrived. I was slack-jawed. The car was not just any Ford. It was a jet-black, immaculate, highly polished 1931 Model A. Joe and I got into the rear passenger seat, his father greeted us, and we roared off. But Joe was deeply embarrassed, because his father had picked us up. And in such an old car!

But I was elated, absolutely fascinated by the gleaming chariot conducting us home. To boot, I found Joe's dad to be kind and witty. The whole brief experience of riding in a classic car persists as one of the exclamation points of my childhood.

When my now-grown son Alyosha was in elementary school, I was often on the scene as a volunteer. He seemed to enjoy seeing me and often expressed regret when it was time for me to leave. But when he entered middle school, he actually took me aside and said, "Dad, you can still come to school, but don't act like you know me too much."

It seemed like a reasonable request. I dutifully took pains to keep my distance, but one day I had to visit the school. It happened that the students were between classes. When I walked in, there was Alyosha, standing by his locker. He saw me, threw furtive looks to the left and right, and then gestured that I should go about my business. I nodded and winked.

As I walked past my son, one of his close friends saw me. The boy put down his books, came at me, and gave me a hearty embrace. "It's so good to see you, Mr. Klose!" he exclaimed.

In the middle of the hug I peeked over the boy's shoulder at Alyosha, who was looking on with something resembling wonder. After the friend released me and went on his way, Alyosha approached, paused, and then commented, "What was that all about? It's like you were his dad or something."

"On the contrary," I replied. "If I were his dad, he would never have hugged me."

"Yeah, that's right," said Alyosha. "Except at home."

"Of course."

I watched as my son, with self-respect intact, headed off for his next class.

And darned if I didn't get a hug from him that night, safe within the walls of our own house. If I were to describe the feeling, I'd say it was something like riding in a vintage Model A Ford.

Only better.

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