Back in his tractor days when he was infatuated with farm machinery and was knowledgeable enough at the age of 3 to lead an impromptu tour through the National Farm Toy Museum in Iowa, my son used to save pennies and nickels in his piggy bank so that in the future he could, as he put it, “buy land.” His mother and I thought maybe he was destined to become a farmer.
By the time he was 5, Jack’s pants pockets at the end of most days were filled with acorns, hickory nuts, various tree leaves, particularly long blades of grass, and odd weeds that in the eyes of a child looked like magnificent flowers. “Interesting nature” is how he described his daily collection. We thought perhaps he would become a park ranger or a scientist.
He also gathered eggs, occasionally and surreptitiously moving them from our refrigerator to a toy fridge in his playhouse, where we once found seven eggs nesting in a toy egg rack. Fortunately, we made the discovery before he tried to scramble them in his toy pan on his toy stove. Might this indicate a future as a chef?
During other periods, he became completely taken with adhesive tape, daffodils and kidney beans — and for a long stretch he thought of pursuing a career as a symphony violinist before determining it would be just fine to keep his fiddling an enjoyable recreation. We didn’t know quite how to interpret those phases except to conclude that he was clearly a man of varied interests.
I recall a very long snow day when I was home with the kids and there came a moment when I overheard our oldest daughter confronting her 5-year-old brother about a small wad of cash she discovered in his “office,” knowing full well he had a tendency to “borrow” money from his sisters.
“Where did you get all that money?” she asked. “Mommy and Daddy give me money for being good,” he replied, convincingly and apparently with a straight face, “and I’ve been very good.”
The first part of that sentence was completely untrue and the second part was open to debate, but it stopped cold that line of questioning, and his sister moved on to other matters. After that, we thought maybe he was on track to become an attorney or, if things were to take a dark turn, a white-collar criminal.
He also briefly flirted with the idea of a future in politics when he determined at about age 8 that being president of the United States seemed like too much work. But the vice president didn’t seem to do much of anything and was paid pretty well, so perhaps that was a position to aspire to.
I recount all of this because as a parent, it is natural to overanalyze the pastimes and idiosyncrasies of our children as possible clues as to how their lives will unfold. Sometimes, you can indeed tell at age 3 what they will do for their rest of their lives; other times, the pilfered eggs mean nothing more than he wanted a few for the playhouse.
All children bring their own talents and passions, doubts and confidence to the equation, and their timetable is not ours. As all parents in the history of the world have discovered, part of the joy (and occasional fretting) of raising children is summoning the patience to wait and witness where they wind up — and to enjoy the journey they take to get there.
Our oldest daughter is now a registered nurse working in a hospital; her younger sister has a gift with words and has edited some of my books. Their younger brother did something that amazed us all: He attended Princeton University. (For the record, we did not bribe the sailing coach or anything like that. He’s also not a legacy, though my wife is very smart. Furthermore, our previous closest brush with ivy was pulling the unruly stuff out of the flower bed in the front yard.)
Princeton represented a remarkable opportunity that opened his eyes to the wider world, offering resources and support and extraordinary instruction from professors such as writers John McPhee and Pico Iyer.
How wide a world? For one class, he reported on the refugee crisis in Greece, witnessing up-close the grim living conditions and bleak futures of people who had risked everything to escape war, persecution and poverty in their homelands and sail on rickety boats across the Mediterranean. He also considered the thorny dilemma their presence posed for the hospitable citizens of Greece and the rest of Europe.
Then last summer, he visited the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, a curious place that is largely an environmental wasteland because of phosphate mining. It’s also an out-of-sight, out-of-mind location for Australia to park migrants it intercepted at sea.
Journalists are not welcome in Nauru, but Jack managed to spend a month there alone, getting to know the island and its people, including the migrants, some of whom have lived there for years under great strain and with little hope. His senior thesis about the island won prizes from Princeton’s English department and its environmental studies program.
Where this all leads we don’t know and neither does he, but we do know he’s come a long way from the 3-year-old little boy who on a family camping trip along the Oregon coast, chilly even in July, awoke one morning and requested that his mother “turn off the coldness.”
It’s satisfying, of course, when your children succeed — even and maybe especially when they succeed at doing what you do and doing it better — but we’re just grateful to have been able to witness their evolution: to watch them run and stumble and pick themselves up again, laugh and cry, savor triumphs and overcome disappointments on their way to finding their place in the world.