At the Climbing Wall
by Ken Smith Thursday, April 26, 2018

Driving south in the early spring is an excellent kind of time travel. In Michiana last weekend the magnolia buds were just thinking about opening and the tulips weren’t even close. But down in Bloomington on Saturday bulbs rioted on the street corners, the spring-flowering trees reached out gaudily on almost every block, and the grass needed cutting. Walkers and saunterers were out, uh, walking and sauntering, stylish patrons stood in lines in front of restaurants for the open-air seating, and I put on a baseball cap so I didn’t get a sunburn up there.

We were visiting for the start of our family’s birthday season, but we parents arrived almost empty-handed. It’s hard to know the right present for either adult child now that they live far away. So at a Bloomington sporting goods store we invited our youngest to pick something. She walked straight to the back and tried on a climbing harness.

That’s not necessarily the birthday present a parent is eager to give. A climbing harness looks like a hefty, ugly, utilitarian belt for the torso with two smaller belts hanging off that support a climber’s upper legs. And near the navel, through which mother first nurtured each of us so long ago, there’s a sturdy loop for clipping in the heavy safety rope that is meant to prevent, well, you know. Later in the day we parents drove out to see the climbing wall. At the front desk we filled out some ominous waiver forms, then we sat on a sofa in the middle of the tall warehouse room. From floor to ceiling the walls were pocked with strangely shaped little handholds and tiny wedges just big enough for the front bit of your foot. Safety ropes dangled down all around the walls.

And for the first time we watched our two adult children, into whom we have sunk so many years of parenting, take turns scaling what was maybe a four story wall while the other tended the safety rope at the base. We watched as they made their way up the wall, as they puzzled out the routes, where to put this hand or that foot so as to be able to reach the next handhold and scoot higher. Saw each of them eventually slap the topmost handhold, inches from the ceiling, marking their success. And once or twice, we saw each sibling slip, drop a few inches while the safety rope caught hold and held firm there at the navel. Then, in turn, each climber paused, faced the wall, took hold once more, and climbed on. I had a confident feeling I’ve had many times before: that these two are going to do something worthwhile with their lives. Hey, the country’s a wreck, we have to hope they will. No pressure, you two.

Outdoors again in the bright air of spring, I noticed at the edge of the parking lot a slender, crooked redbud, maybe my favorite spring tree, with its ethereally purple flowers small and tight along every branch. The family piled into the little car, two adults in front and two in back, and headed for some college town pizza.

Driving south last weekend got us, the parents, a happy, ten-day-ahead preview of spring. The trip out to the climbing wall also marked an episode of time travel. It confirmed boldly what I’ve known for a while now: that the adulthood of our children has commenced.