In the beginning, after the school day had faded and they had come home alone to the small frame house in Arlington, and the long hours stretched ahead, Cyrus Khambatta would spend the time thinking up escape plans.
If the robbers came, he figured, he would grab his sister Sarah, and they would go out the back door and over the fence and then to a neighbor's house. "Sometimes it seemed like all we had to do was hold on for one more hour and then Mom would be home," he remembers of those distant days when he was 10.
He is blond, blue-eyed, disarmingly open for 15, an age when teen-agers often retreat into the quiet cave of their mistrust. "I did things for Sarah; I depended on her for comfort," Cyrus says now, looking at his sister. She is 12, brown-haired and soft spoken, her smile a quick communion that connects the two of them across the room.
Latchkey kids is the awkward description that hangs now on children who take care of themselves for at least part of the day until a parent comes home. The immediate image is one of temporary orphans wide-eyed and pathetic, left to raise themselves in the silent spaces of a parent's absence. It settles strangely on the intricate dynamics of the Khambatta family, settlers who have circled the wagons in this uneasy country.
Cora Lee Khambatta listens intently to her children. She has dark curly hair, dark eyes and a lithe dancer's body that is curled like a question mark in an old easy chair. She is 43, a music teacher in the Arlington County schools during the day, and in the evening she often gives piano lessons or teaches drama at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. She is a blunt woman who has long abandoned coyness in her confrontation with the world; she survives with the counsel of a tough-minded intelligence.
"At first I resented the time I had to spend away from them," she says, holding her daughter's hand in her own. "And there are a lot of things I do feel ill at ease about. I teach music, and yet I never have been able to give them piano lessons, or that kind of focused attention. I've never been able to ferry them around. But somehow, we've had real special times, more enjoyment of the times we do have and more understanding of that enjoyment."
It began 12 years ago with the fission of their nuclear family. They had to rearrange the atoms after a divorce. There was no reason to live, Cora Khambatta remembers, except for the children. She would live for them. Still, the healing was slow. "I had to find a way to like myself again." She remembers that at first she would come home after work and "crumble in a heap in the middle of the floor." Her children would bring their blocks and build a wall around her, trying to protect her as best they could.
Cora began to work longer and longer hours, in part because they needed the money, in part because it was a way to staunch the bleeding, to make herself whole again. They had to accommodate themselves to the changes. There was only one way to keep their fragile boat afloat and that was if they found a balance, abrogated the ancient enmities between parents and children, acknowledged their dependencies.
Cyrus was about 10 years old, and Sarah was only 7 when they first became independent in the afternoon, untended by babysitters or watchful neighbors. The idea was that they would babysit each other, Cyrus remembers.
"We were supposed to judge each other and if there were no fights, then we'd get paid." Instead, of course, they entered into a closely held conspiracy. "I'd hit you and you'd play a trick on me and then we'd say, 'I won't tell if you won't tell,'" Cyrus says to his sister. He would tell her stories, ghost stories, stories about Santa Claus and other childhood icons. "If I'd been here alone, I don't know what I would have done. This is when we got close."
The skeleton of their days is simple enough. Some days, they get home from school about 4:15, but often, with the soccer games, and tap and gymnastic lessons, it can be as late as 7. They do their homework and the laundry, although, after the breakdown of several systems, it's everyone for himself where the towels are concerned.
For the last year, the responsibility for dinner has fallen on Cyrus. In the beginning, there were the usual experiments with the usual ambivalent results -- the creations that contained most of the spice rack -- but now he can whip up a beef stew or bake a chicken with the nonchalance of a veteran. He doesn't mind it now. "When you throw all this stuff in and you taste it and it's pretty good stew, then it doesn't seem like such a task," he says.
Some nights, Cora does not get back home until 9 or 10 or 11, and then it is time to unravel the skein of the day. "You make time," she says. "Maybe the math homework doesn't get done until midnight, but it gets done."
There are rules -- don't go out of the neighborhood, don't go to the park without an adult, call if you're going to be late, call if you want a friend to come over. She worried. Would they be all right? Cyrus was fascinated by matches: Would the house be in cinders? She couldn't know who might come to the door. Once a nearby church gave Cyrus M&M's in what seemed like proselytizing, and she had visions of brainwashing religious fanatics. "It scared the hell out of me," she remembers.
There are resentments: "I think you resent it when I can't take you shopping and do things with your friends," Cora says to her daughter. Sarah shrugs. "I always find something else to do. But in the summer I like to show off that my mom can do things too."
"We know she has to do this, so we live," says Cyrus, "but sometimes you get angry all the same."
Slowly, quietly, the old hierarchical relationship between the mother and her children shifted, sometimes in small nearly unnoticeable ways, sometimes in sharp epiphanies. They began to see each other in a different field of vision, one where she was no longer the blinding light of an autocratic, arbitrary authority, but a prism reflecting a variable intensity.
Sarah remembers a minor infraction, a dime she took from her mother's dresser. Another girl threatened to tell her mother as a way of coercing friendship; finally, Cora found out about it. "We didn't know how you would take it," the children explain when Cora asks why they didn't tell her in the first place. "We didn't know how your mind works," Cyrus tells her.
But the changes were most noticeable in Cyrus, as he walked the mine field that separates childhood from adolescence. In the beginning, he remembers, he was "really closed up, a real longhair, antisocial. I didn't know that I could talk to anyone. I felt that everyone was down on me, that if I talked to anyone, I would be betrayed. I didn't know that I could talk to her." He looks over at his mother. "You never said, 'You don't talk to me; talk to me,' and when I was ready you didn't say, 'That's no good,' or, 'That's a bad feeling.' You supported us. And then one day I was talking to you and you were really listening."
Last year they did a lot of talking, particularly after the day Cyrus was introduced to Wild Turkey bourbon, after he began to hang around with some boys who were getting a reputation for experimenting with drugs. "It really frightened me," Cora remembers. "I had to rethink a lot of things. I know the neighbors didn't know how to deal with it. But I saw an individual who is trying to find out what life is all about. He is responsible for his own life, but I have to be here for him to discuss things."
The discussions went on into the night. If there were questions as to whether her absences might have added to the problem, they didn't surface. "We were so involved that I never thought about it in terms of guilt," she says.
The children say she has changed, softened. She says, "They give me every reason to believe they're reasonable." Perhaps it is just that there is little room in this delicate balance for a remote authority, for the children to act the parts of small sinners in the hands of an angry Mom.
"We understand what she's going through, and that we can help her," says Cyrus. "Last year I would say, 'Why weren't you home like you said you were going to be?' and she would explain, and it sort of ticked me off, it wasn't fair, because she expected me home when I said I would be. But as I got more understanding, she got more understanding. I laid off her, and she laid off me." Now, she says, "I get parented as well as them."
One night last spring, late in the evening, Cora got a call from Cyrus, and in his voice was all the urgent poetry of a boy on the brink of his life, wild to fling himself into it. "Mom," he said to her, "I just want to ride my bike somewhere, anywhere, to a corner of this earth and go to sleep some place where I've never been."
"I said," she remembers, "'This isn't how you do it. We'll discuss the possibilities. But tonight, I want you home.'" In the end, Cyrus took a bicycle trip to the beach with a friend. It was up to him to choose the route, and plan the places they would camp out, and what he would need to take in the way of food and clothes. The wanderer returned, blue eyes bright with his adventures.
She smiles a rueful smile. The ability to trust and to let go was born of a barren necessity; she couldn't be there to follow them with anxious eyes, and yet it has been the unexpected gift. They have learned a different harmony from the one that families often sing. "Sometimes the neighbors assume things are kind of loose around here, and I guess they are," she says. "But I see it over and over again with two-parent families: If I had been here all the time, I wouldn't have evolved this track, I would not have learned to trust them, I would have been watching over their every move."