On mornings when she drove the carpool, sometimes my mother would let me know I had crumbs around my mouth and before I’d had a chance to wipe them away, she’d already licked her own fingers – as if for collating papers – and gone about dabbing the corners of my mouth, her spit a magnet for any breakfast left behind. I’d like to say this always occurred before we picked up other kids in our carpool and before the humiliation could be witnessed, but it was completely random and mostly dependent on when it dawned on her to assess her youngest’s appearance – the outfit, combed hair, and those errant toast crumbs.
My most vivid carpool memories are of us crammed into my dad’s car – a classic white 1969 Ford Mustang convertible with burgundy vinyl interior. Not sure why she found herself having to negotiate this three-speed manual steering drafty child carriage instead of her station wagon, but maybe our Ford Country Squire wasn’t the dependable family ride its faux wood siding evoked. The Mustang steering was so tight that she’d ask for help from whomever was in the front seat, typically my sister or me, and we’d lean in to help turn that stubborn wheel.
We didn’t have any carpools with my kids but I do recall that moment when the ride to school changed, probably as early as third or maybe it was fourth grade, when the school drop off necessitated omitting any form of motherly affection. I still wanted to hug them goodbye and sometimes I’d look around and when the coast was clear, remind them no one was looking and we could get in a quick hug. It was a rushed hug, but a hug nonetheless. Of course, as years passed those drop off hugs all but disappeared.
We started biking to school and then my boys would walk themselves and later on, drive. I’m glad to have had the schools that we did, with great teachers, close by and with a wide variety of people. A slice of real life in an urban enough setting, but still with plenty of green spaces to roam. I’m still getting newsletters from our high school and occasionally I’ll scan them for details on the postponed graduation festivities. Instead it’s full of the usual back-to-school information, complicated further by this pandemic, though now intended for other families. I wonder how long it will take me to voluntarily opt off this list. Or how many Augusts I will see school buses pass by and remember all these years. I’m swollen with gratitude and love.
It’s exactly a week from today that my younger son, my last, leaves for college. I remember the first college drop off two years ago and the drawn out two day, 13-hour drive to get there. This time, this child is moving all of 10 miles away, but still, in my mind the preparations are largely the same. Outwardly he seems rather relaxed about it all, and understandably ready to leave, and leave behind the drone of his mother’s voice forever etched in his mind, these days a screaming pitch of nonstop questions which land like a spray of bullets: Should we get two sets of sheets? Which of these comforters do you prefer? Will you take a look at these shower caddies? Certain in the midst of these questions he’s asking his own: Will she ever stop?
Today he and I will negotiate Bed Bath and Beyond for dorm essentials. Nothing like last minute shopping, but seems we need this looming deadline to get in sync, into an agreement that now it is indeed time to shop. I hope to get in and out quickly as pandemic shopping doesn’t afford us the luxury of over-analyzing mattress toppers. Besides, he has no interest in finding a new comforter or even towels and washcloths since, budget-minded like his dad, he’s chosen to raid our linen closet for these. I remind myself that I have boys and unlike my sister’s and my own college preparations, there is no room theme or patterned comforter or puffy pillows to hunt down. It’s all business and their nest needs minimal fuss. I hope they’ll each carry good memories in lieu of the current parental annoyances they and I’d venture to guess most college-bound teens about to leave the nest experience. Now home from Bed Bath and Beyond, we have all our loot. It was a great shopping trip, the store wasn’t crowded and we found everything he needs. He’s excited to test out his coffee maker and said he’ll make a cup in the morning. He will try out the mattress topper too, another simulation of his life to come.
I think sometimes you must take the lead your child is providing. If he needs a second set of sheets he reminds me he can simply drive himself to Target. “Let go, woman,” I believe is the message. I’m trying. Really I am. At the suggestion of another mom, I joined his college’s FB group to learn and share information with other freshman parents. One mom’s son is boarding a plane from Singapore and is expressing her gratitude that other parents have offered to be her son’s in case of emergency, his home away from home. Her vulnerability in letting her one and only child go is palpable and instantly I’m feeling my own. The wistfulness is coming, I feel it behind my eyelids. I can get this way nearing the end of a wonderful book or even a Netflix show that’s moved me and is about to end, so like it or not, it comes easy.
I don’t know exactly how I will feel once he’s gone. I expect we’ll walk by his room and his brother’s and see the picked over state of things, a lamp gone, his pillows and clothes, also gone. Like my friend Carol, herself a mother of two college-aged boys, shared when I mentioned how shocking the empty room was two years ago when my first left: “The empty room is the worst. I do the same – going in there, afraid to vacuum up a single bit of DNA in case he needs to be reconstructed somehow… It does feel like a death – and we do stalk them online hoping for glimpses of their day and to see who their friends are and to know everything’s ok.”
This plethora of questions is not intended to irritate; instead it’s my way of making sure everthing’s ok. That’s all we parents want. All we’ve ever wanted when we invade your privacy with our questions or ask about the eye drops or lighter or bottle opener in your car. We just want you to be ok because we have this vision for you, that you will lead a long, happy and productive life. And when we find things that seem like they’re going to undermine that plan, we sometimes get in the way.
I want you to find your way and in many respects you already have. These last few days together won’t necessarily be a week of final family moments, but more realistically will be a rush to pack you up even when sometimes I still just want to hold you tight. And just when I’m feeling all strong and mighty, I feel those tears again waiting in the wings. They keep asking, is it showtime yet? Are you ready for us? As our children will, these tears also will come and go, and the timing for either remains out of our control.
As different as my children are so are their college experiences. One moved six states away, and now one is moving to the next county. One walked New York City blocks to get to class and the other, at least in the beginning, will attend two thirds of his classes from his dorm room’s XL twin bed. Throw in a pandemic and the high school graduate of 2020 finds himself in the most extraordinary of situations. An ample supply of masks and hand sanitizer will need to accompany him, and finding a way to socialize while mostly masked will I hope in a few months’ time become a distant memory. Please, vaccine, please come soon.
I can’t wait for so much of it. That feeling of newness and excitement he’ll have as he navigates college life. The intensity of the classes on topics that intrigue him – no more French classes! – that push him far away from his comfort zone and that teach him better ways of thinking and surprise him with new ways to connect the dots. His mind and heart will soak it all in and when I see him again, he will have rich stories to share. We all will.
In the meantime, as I did two years before, I find myself scanning back to all these busy years, and noticing it all, as if I must relish both the grand and the mundane. I walked the deep yard this morning and came across all his targets riddled with holes from when he shoots his bb gun. He perches up high atop our carport and leans his forearm on an old folded quilt to achieve his steadiest best aim. I walked past our old playground, now picked over as his room soon will be, and I take comfort that another family, also with two boys, is now enjoying the slide, the swings, and the rope swing, thanks to our playground organ donations toward their complete playset.
I look back at life with both my boys and can’t help but smile. What a ride this has been and still is, for all of us! So much is around the corner and ahead. I hope when they look back in their own rearview mirrors, which they sometimes will, that their own memories are even a fraction as sweet.