From the endless battles of sibling rivalry to the endless worries about getting indifferent students into—and then graduated from—college, raising boys is the adventure of a lifetime for any mother. Prudence Mackintosh has not only survived the adventure but has also written about it with her signature wit and style. Her essays about life with sons Jack, Drew, and William have entertained the readers of Texas Monthly and other prominent magazines for nearly three decades, offering solace to similarly beleaguered parents and a knowing chuckle to everyone who enjoys watching the real-life sitcom of a fundamentally happy, intact family.
Sneaking Out completes the story that Mackintosh began in her earlier books Thundering Sneakers and Retreads. In this collection of new and previously published essays, she recounts life with her adolescent sons as they race headlong to first jobs, first driver's licenses, first girlfriends, and first flights away from the family nest. She also follows them into the college years, when both parents and sons have to find a new balance in holding on and letting go. Along the way, she offers wise and witty reflections on being a woman at midlife, supporting her sons through the beginning of their adult lives and her parents through the end of theirs.
In my late twenties and through the decade of my thirties, I wrote with some frequency and urgency about my experiences with family life. The writing was "urgent" because I had so few hours to do it. Some of it was scribbled standing up in the kitchen. The first book, Thundering Sneakers, chronicled my life with growing toddlers, revealing my great expectations and, frequently, grave misgivings. The second book, Retreads, carried the family of five (in which I am the only female) rather quickly through the years leading to adolescence.
This third volume on the domestic scene has been long in the making, though not for lack of material. Life with teenagers and young adults is far richer than life with inarticulate, lisping toddlers. The letting go and their breaking away is only part of the story. These are also the years of being stretched thin between two generations. I had to remember to pick up my own prescriptions before driving three hours to my hometown to pick up my parents' prescriptions, and often stopped halfway (Sulphur Springs) to call the reluctant scholar in Austin to remind him that Thursday was the last day for crucial "drops" and "adds." These years kept me scribbling as furiously as the seemingly endless housebound days of toddlerhood once did.
Time with children speeds up mightily about age twelve, however. They seem to go from twelve to twenty-one in half the time it took them reach six. Trying to capture these fleeting adolescent moments on paper presented several problems. Who needs a mother publishing color commentary on his teenage years? I declined a book contract in l985 when my favorite characters turned fifteen, thirteen, and nine, respectively. If I'd had daughters, I probably would have had to close up shop much earlier. My boys never protested what I wrote about them; they never read it. They did inquire, from time to time, if I was making enough money with my typing to buy them a motorcycle. They are now grown men living elsewhere who write well enough to pen a Mommie Dearest on me if I fail to respect their privacy. I could probably still buy them off with a motorcycle, though.
Why write this book at all? I have little advice to offer beleaguered parents except, once again, the solace of shared experience. My children sometimes behaved preposterously. So did I. I continue to believe, however, that life is richer and perhaps more understandable if I can wrestle it to the page. These are the years when as a parent, one moves from nurture to nature, finding great comfort in theories of unalterable, genetic disposition. How I loathed as a young mother hearing that a dour Scottish strain ran in my husband's family that I would be powerless to change. How accepting I am of that idea now.
What I know and write about my children during these years is, of course, suspect. Every parent of teenagers knows how the fun-house mirror can suddenly tilt with a phone call from school, a message left on an answering machine, or a policeman's knock at the door. Suddenly, all that you had perceived about your healthy, well-adjusted, law-abiding child is called into question. I sometimes think that this is the first generation that has sheltered their parents—or needed to.
My sons have been remarkably forthright with me, asking my advice on subjects that I could never have broached with my own parents. And yet there is much that I do not know about them. (Probably much that I do not want to know or certainly should not know about them.) Nevertheless, boys are careless. They leave things in their pockets. Stuff tumbles out of their backpacks and rolls under the bed. They write letters full of what one hopes is teenage braggadocio to their friends and save them under irresistible titles in my computer. Their English teachers often required them to write personal journals at school, and I found those disturbing revelations (or was it fiction, designed to "smoke" the snoopy English teacher?) tossed in the trash basket at the end of the term. If they had been more diligent about taking out the trash, I would have known less. I never steamed open their mail. College acceptance and rejection letters can be read through the envelope if held up to a sunny window.
On the other hand, I have always felt that notes, letters, receipts, and other items left fully exposed on the floor next to smelly socks or in jeans pockets that I had to empty for laundering were fair game as long as I kept the non-life-threatening information to myself. It wasn't always easy to pretend to be clueless.
Many times, however, we were clueless. Recently, over dinner one evening, my husband and I declared that the statute of limitations had run on things that happened in high school. This announcement elicited the real story of the dent in the side of the car circa 1985. How had I kept a straight face when the three of them explained that year that they had just been taking turns tossing the garden hoe like a javelin trying to dislodge two basketballs caught in the goal net when the hoe escaped someone's grasp and slammed into the side of the car? It seemed plausible to me, since none of the three had a driver's license in '85. "Duh, Mom . . ."
These were the years when the brothers began to speak in apparent non sequitur code. If I hadn't seen the movies Spinal Tap and Raising Arizona, I would have thought they'd all had strokes. After a decade of trying to rip each other's ears off, they declared a physical truce (never a verbal one) and closed ranks on their dad and me. It enabled the youngest to say tantalizingly when the two older ones were in high school, "You think you know about my brothers. You think we're all nice boys. You know NOTHING."
I never said they were nice boys. That was their Grandmother Jane.
A contributing editor of Texas Monthly magazine, Prudence Mackintosh is a popular author and public speaker, whose commentary on family life, schooling, Texas women, and Dallas architecture has also appeared in such magazines and newspapers as McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, D Magazine, Parenting, and the Dallas Morning News. She lives in Dallas with her husband, John A. Mackintosh, Jr., with whom she looks forward to completing the conversations interrupted by their sons thirty years ago.