My son is waiting for Johnny Mathis to die.
When he calls from college, returning my messages, we catch up about the mundane daily happenings in each of our lives. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the singer’s possible demise.
A complete vinyl collection of Mathis’ work is stacked up in a milk crate in our basement in Marine Park, Brooklyn. My son fashions himself an entrepreneur. He thinks the value of these dusty albums will increase exponentially after the singer is laid to rest.
We’ve had a few false leads. A quick search on the Internet pulled up several “anticipated obituaries” — the articles news organizations prepare and keep at the ready in case of a celebrity’s sudden demise. One is posted on the website Necropedia with this disclaimer: “What follows is not a real news article; nothing (that we know) happened to him.”
But if you read quickly, as I did, you would think the crooner had already passed. My son took the bad news that he was still alive in stride. Both of us were temporarily transfixed, staring at the blinking curser on the computer screen that displayed the website article. Then we turned to each other and laughed.
The Mathis fixation is one of the quirky ties between us as we renegotiate our adult son, middle-aged mother relationship. I’m learning that, to forge that connection, you have to go counter to what all those well-meaning child psychology articles tell you and just allow yourself to be silly.
During his first semester away at a private university in Boston, my son selectively answered phone calls. My phone calls! I suppose it may have had something to do with my way of turning phone conversations into interstate cross examinations, minus the bright light and hard-backed chair.
“Did you get to your 8 a.m. class on time?” I would ask every Tuesday and Thursday. His schedule was stuck to my refrigerator at home with little food-shaped magnets — although, by week two, I had already committed it to memory.
“Did you do your laundry? Are you getting along better with your roommate?”
If I elicited the answer, I felt satisfied that I was still in control. Control meant being a mother. It meant that I was doing my job. For 18 years, I had hovered — long before anybody had heard of “helicopter parents.”
I was well equipped at preparing healthy snacks, arranging play dates and finding lost Hot Wheels. I was felt rudderless when we steered into the next phase of our relationship.
Three months into my son’s first semester, I went out to lunch with a friend. It was a crisp fall day at an outdoor cafe, the perfect setting for adult girl talk. But I was not ready to relax.
“He’s gone,” I blurted out, choking over a cup of bubble tea. As if that weren’t dramatic enough, I added: “He hates me.”
“He’s just growing up,” my friend said. “You want to share a quiche?”
How could she could be so nonchalant at a time like this? I kept checking my cell phone, hoping to get the affirmation I needed: A call back from my prodigal son. I had only left — at last count — three voicemails. Four of my text messages remained unanswered.
Images of Shirley MacLaine crawling into the crib to check on her infant daughter in “Terms of Endearment” seemed utterly sane as they replayed in my head. Boston was a galaxy away. Why had we agreed to let him live in a dormitory anyway?
The return call came eventually, as it always did. And the questions, on my part, eventually stopped — as they always did, too, after I exhausted all my worries. Checklist completed. Mother-son fix satiated.
Then, miraculously, around the winter holidays the tenor of our exchange changed. “How’s the writing going mom?” he asked one day. The query did not sound like a veiled inquisition, like my questions did. It sounded suspiciously like an expression of genuine interest in something that I was pursuing.
“Great,” I said. Then, sensing this might actually be an opportunity for normal adult conversation, I remembered something funny. “I have to tell you what Aunt Estelle said at the party over the weekend.”
And just like that I officially put down my mommy armor and exhaled. When I gave up my role as interrogator, real communication began to fill the void. The miles between us did not seem as daunting. One-word responses and long silences were replaced by laughter.
While he is unlikely to make a mint with the sale of those Mathis albums, I commend him from not discarding them after finding them in our attic. A part of me must have once thought they had value too. I had lugged them from my childhood home and stashed them for years.
Despite the advance of digital technology and instant music downloads, old vinyl has become cool among young hipsters like my son. These vintage recordings with their imperfections have a new value that goes beyond just their price tag.
My son spent the summer back at home. His days were filled with getting a driver’s license, hanging out with buddies, and working part-time.
Meanwhile, I got the old turnstile out and played “Chances Are.”