“You’re not off duty when your kids turn 18,” says Tom. “Not even when they’re out of college. A good friend warned me long ago that 30 is the new cutoff.”
Marge is wearing an “Illinois State Mom” tee shirt, which is what initially caught my attention. I earned my undergrad degree from Illinois State University and was pleased to see the unexpected Redbird pride.
“Our daughter is studying communications,” she said. “She’ll be a sophomore.”
Their son, the firstborn, the graduate, had studied accounting. After a prolonged search and a move back home, he recently landed an accounting gig, complete with an office to finally mount his well-earned degree. Tom and Marge tell me he was back home in Chicago –at that moment– unloading cardboard boxes into his first grown up apartment.
Marge is distracted by her cell phone. “It’s him,” she said, smiling down to the phone screen.
“Ask him if he saw Colvin hit,” Tom says excitedly across the table. She doesn’t reply. “Ask him about Colvin.”
Marge’s slender fingers are nimble across the keypad. He watches for a moment, waiting, but she doesn’t look up. Tom turns to me and tells me about baseball, how his family loves the game, how he hopes to visit every major league ball park.
“Just visit and tour,” I ask, “or will it only count if you see a game?”
Tom pinches his face, disapproving of my absurd suggestion. “A game,” he said. “Gotta see a game.”
The Cardinals played the Colorado Rockies that night, I learned. Marge rejoined the conversation, “He saw it. They took a break from unpacking.”
More accurately than “rejoined the conversation,” I should say that Marge was finished with her text conversation. She would politely engage with us when pressed but, mostly, she listened as Tom and I talked. Initially, I worried that she was annoyed with my questions. Then, I thought she was feeling drained from a full day in the sun or weary due to the late hour. When Tom announced that it was their 27th wedding anniversary, however, I recognized Marge’s nonplussed posture as simply a patient immunity to her husband’s enthusiasm for talking to strangers.
“Twenty-seven years,” I say. “What segments were the hardest with your kids?”
“It was scary when they were learning how to drive,” Marge said without effect. “They’re a lot more fun now that they’re out of their teens.”
“The elementary years were my favorite,” Tom said. “It was seventh and eighth grade that frustrated the hell out of me.”
Marge looks up from a menu. “You have to pick your battles,” she said.
“Yeah, you gotta pick your battles,” Tom said, flinging his hands into the air for emphasis. “She would always tell me that, but it wasn’t always easy.”
His smile was at once sheepish and precocious. I could imagine their span of years punctuated with fits of laughter, tight-jawed debates, picnics in the living room, beers in the backyard, a four-bicycle parade through the park. I could also imagine a catalog of skinned knees, broken toys and near-disasters. Every family has them, especially families with children.
“I kept reminding my kids that every sly move they were thinking of, we’d probably thought it or done it,” Tom says. “Smoking, drinking, making out, fighting, all of it. Kids want to believe they’re so clever when they’re young.”
“Just like we did,” I remind him.
“They appreciate things now,” Marge adds.
Tom smiles at his wife, settled by some truism. “Yeah,” he says, his voice sloped at the edges now. “It’s a great feeling when they start asking for your advice again.”
Marge and Tom have another night in Milwaukee. Both have family within an hour of the city and have decided to include the summer drive as part of their anniversary getaway. I congratulate them on their celebration and on getting their kids safely into adulthood.
“Whatever will you do with all that space and free time?” I ask, teasing.
Tom looks to Marge and then turns to me with an all-star’s smile. He leans in, speaking slowly and deliberately: “Whatever we want to.”