by Barbara Olson

I am an embarrassment to my teenage son, who is my constant and cruelest critic.

In his mind, he carries the horrific burden of owning a mother. More specifically, the burden of owning a mother who goes out in public amongst his peers. And talks. Anything the mother of a teenage boy says is stupid and life-threateningly embarrassing.

“Hey, guys – can I make you something to eat?” I ask when he arrives home with his friends. His friends always say yes, but my son’s eyes send a clear message: “Please leave us alone!”

I went to the picture-taking segment of my son’s prom at Chestnut Hill Academy. It was a beautiful night and an idyllic setting in the lush-green school courtyard bordered by charming, Wissahickon-schist classroom buildings. It was dreamlike seeing all the kids dressed in evening clothes and looking like the clothes actually fit them.

Across the courtyard, I scanned the crowd for my son. As quickly as I found him, he lost me.

“Look, Mom, there’s Mr. Steel,” he said. “Don’t you want to say hello?” I turned to spot the Headmaster and my son made his Houdini escape.

The night was a clear May evening with a honeysuckle breeze – warm enough for the girls to swirl and pose in their gowns without a cumbersome wrap. Who were these beautiful debutantes? And these seeming gentlemen? How could my sweet-faced kindergartener look so comfortable in that tuxedo?

When did John-John turn into James Bond? Had time passed that quickly? Evidently, because most of these boys were six feet tall and the girls resembled sophisticated movie stars.

Parents shuffled and jostled for prime real estate to capture that perfect prom photo. I searched for my son. His date had chosen a strapless, white dress with a silver-sequined panel that ran up the center of the dress. It was form fitting, and I can assure you she had a form worth fitting. Her hair was pulled back in a Reese Witherspoon ponytail, and her face was dewy and sparkly but naturally lovely.

My son chose an elegant black tux, black bow tie, and white patent-leather shoes. It took a last minute run to the local men’s shop to buy a cummerbund and his father’s help to fit cufflinks and button covers. I spotted them in the crowd and hurried over, camera at the ready.

“Hurry-up, Mom,” he said, “we can’t stand here all night. And don’t ask us to hold this pose for two shots. One take, Mom. And hurry.”

As quickly as I clicked, he was gone.

On the green, I stood, taking picture after picture. I took a picture of my son and a friend who had been together since school days and who turned up wearing precisely the same ensemble. I planned to juxtapose that photo next to the one where they were five years old, costumed in army hats and sitting side by side in a motorized play jeep. Both of them smiled for the camera, smiled at me.

I continued taking picture after picture, noting how boy after boy had really grown up, though I managed to find the 5-year-old face hidden in each of them.

At the end of the quad, the trolleys that would take them away arrived. Picture taking time was over: It was time to say goodbye. But what to say? Words ran through my mind: “Please be polite to your date. Treat her respectfully and act like a gentleman. Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. Don’t swear. Do your homework. Pick up your clothes.”

I looked at my son and his friends, ready to be transported downtown for the first grand party of their lives. I could see the anxious look in my son’s eyes, beseeching me to simply disappear. The scene stilled to slow motion, and all eyes felt focused on me. I was both frantic and sure-footed as I gathered my thoughts and finally worked up the courage to speak what was in in my heart.

“Have fun,” I said.

I had already said everything else. Matter-of-fact, according to my son, I had said everything many times over. The only thing left to say were words that might firmly separate me from his over-protective mother and him from his boyhood.

“Have fun,” worked just fine.

The kids turned and began a stroll towards the trolleys. John abruptly turned back towards me, gave me a quick cheek-to-cheek hug, and kissed me protectively on the head.

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be careful – I promise,” he said, smiling.

Then his mood seemed to turn earnest, like nothing I had ever noticed in him before.

“And, Ma,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”

Finally, I could turn towards home.