Elliot Silberberg looks back at the bus trip that made a shy 12-year-old start to feel like a man.
When I was a boy I was very shy and hesitant about learning to do the ordinary things adults do, like taking a bus by myself, for example. My timidity came from my mother’s side. Outside of her small circle of family and close friends, my mom was a shrinking violet. Seeing her own frailty in me and not liking it one bit, my mother took on the task of making me less bashful.
On an afternoon when our car was broken and I had to go to Hebrew School, she insisted I ride the bus alone. I was almost thirteen and had my Bar Mitzvah coming up. That ceremony would make me a man, symbolically at least, in the Jewish tradition, meaning it was high time to start growing up and use public transportation on my own.
The bus passed every 20 minutes and the stop was at a corner about fifty yards past our house across the street. My mother explained what to do, but standing there and waiting, I was petrified.
The bus swept round the bend at our house and headed my way as my mother watched from the distance of our second floor living room window. I wasn’t waiting exactly in the right spot, didn’t motion to the driver and may even have looked away. I crossed my fingers and prayed. Like a huge wave, the bus rolled on by.
I looked up the street towards my mother’s face in the window. She was too far away for me to see the disappointment, but it was hanging in the air. I walked back to the top of our driveway, afraid of what she might say. She was patient. “You have to signal,” she told me. “Put your arm up and signal.”
I trudged back, meditating on how signaling was a mighty brave thing to do. I waited. My mom’s eyes bore down on me. Finally, the bus loomed large. I mustered all my gumption and half-heartedly lifted my arm. The driver interpreted the gesture as a wave, smiled and saluted me as the bus swept past again.
I slumped back up to the driveway. “Get on the next bus,” my mother said, matter-of-factly. She was on a slow burn and meant business. I’d be late for Hebrew School, but that was beside the point.
The next time, I positioned myself in the right spot and prepared to raise my arm, but was scared I’d freeze. The bus swung around the bend. Once it passed our house I got a split-second glimpse of my mom in the window. Actually, she was jutting half-way out of it, furiously shaking her fists at me and the world and screaming her lungs out, “Stop that bus!”
I was shocked. In a flash I realized this was all about her too, and how much she wanted me to be better than her, more assertive and present in the functioning world. There was no way I could let her down.
My inhibitions vanished. I began jumping up and down, waving my arms and yelling, “Stop! Stop!” If the bus didn’t pull over now it would be because the driver was startled by the sight of a frantic kid. He had to brake hard and did, as if on command. The bus jerked to a stop.
Wow, I thought, amazed at what will power stoked by a mother’s desire can do. My Bar Mitzvah was still months away, but I already felt more like a man.
The driver opened the door and shot me a wary look, but I was calm now, an experienced passenger quite able to hail a bus, no sweat, thank you. I had my coins ready and tossed them in.
As the bus pulled away, I rushed to the back for a last glimpse of my mom. I couldn’t see her face clearly, but she was up there. I didn’t have to see her smile to know it was there.
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