It’s been a week.
That sound you don’t hear is the sound of mothers from coast to coast, sitting amidst the quiet in their homes this evening. They’re walking past doors they slip a chain lock across at the end of the evening, past beds that remain smoothly made in tidy rooms and past towels that hang neatly – for days on end - in the bathroom. They notice the car parked outside, albeit with only half a gallon of gas in the tank. They walk past kitchen cabinets where favorite cereals, snacks and drinks that were on hand just one week ago, are all gone.
They’ve all said a post-Thanksgiving goodbye to sons and daughters who headed back to college following the holiday break. And almost no part of it feels very good.
This is the third year I’ve sent someone back to college after Thanksgiving. In 2008, my oldest son came and went, exhibiting a bit of the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude I’d anticipated from my college freshman but somehow was still not fully prepared to handle. In 2009 and again this year, my second and third sons joined in the fun of arriving home, hovering in and around the family for several days, and then leaping back into what had quickly become their new normal.
So – three rounds of this and you know what? It doesn’t get easier. At least for me it doesn’t.
What became evident to me, this year more than in the past, is that no matter how much you want it to remain safe and familiar, and no matter how hard you try to recreate a moment, you can’t do it. Life continues to evolve and the people in it do, too. Salinger expressed this so much more poetically in ‘Catcher’ when Holden talked about walking through the unchanging exhibits and figures in the Museum of Natural History: “Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. … Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
Well, let me think about this. Our rooms remain the same, with the same picture still leaning against one wall, waiting to be hung properly (it’s been there for eleven months – I’m not joking.) Other photos sit on a table, waiting for the right frames. The rooms remain filled with the papers, books, magazines, notes, flyers, and newspapers. [For years, I’ve believed in the ‘butterfly effect.’ A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and a piece of paper lands on a flat surface in our home.] But even if all that remains unchanged, I feel like we’re all different, in small almost indefinable ways this year.
For example, despite their protests, I used to “wait up” for the boys, dozing on the sofa until I heard the door open and I could hug them all good night. I don’t know why I thought this made a difference to the outcome of any activity on the planet, or why sofa-sleep somehow indicated I was more attentive than bed-sleep. (It didn’t by the way, although no one could convince me of that at the time.)
That has given way to “waiting up” while lying comfortably in bed, and sleeping lightly until I hear their footsteps on the stairs. I’ve told the boys that no matter the hour, I will hear them arrive home. At night, I have the hearing of an Egyptian slit-eared bat. Last week, I heard one, then a second son enter and exit a bathroom, then heard two bedroom doors close. In my mind: “Two? Only two? “ Someone’s missing… Click. A third door. “Ah, there he is.” And then I snuggled under covers and dozed off.
So what does that make me? Less concerned? Less committed to motherhood? Neither of those things. It just proves my point: the setting remains but the people evolve.
But I guess I’m wondering what Holden may have meant by having “certain things” stay the way they are. I don’t really want to stick anything or anyone in a glass case but the idea of preserving the moments I’ve cherished as the boys grew up is tempting. Then I remind myself that this is real life, not a museum of life. The only person I can think of who preserved the past to help him live in the present was Norman Bates, for God’s sake.
Every stage of their lives has been a fascinating journey of discovery as we all found out - incredibly incrementally I might add – who we were. Who we were when we were fighting, or furious. When we were thrilled with our circumstances and laughing uncontrollably. Or when we were bereft and very nearly inconsolable. And who we were for every single hour in between. Every moment left its own little footprint, and each one was a discovery we wouldn’t have made had we been frozen in one spot.
Here’s the thing. I watch my boys – who are really no longer boys, but young adults – and I think, for the nine millionth time – are you okay? I’m wondering if any of the fourteen thousand decisions I made about anything that was super-critically, God-we'd-better-get-this right important while you were growing up – not one of which I can name right now - meant anything in the long run.
At the same time, let me just say: they’re amazing people. All on their own, they’re each one an amazing young man. It’s been my enormous good fortune and blessing to have them in my life for more than twenty years. And in these last few years, as they wander in and out of our home on their way to the future, I keep thinking about another line from Holden’s visit to the museum: “The birds nearest you were all stuffed and hung up on wires, and the ones in the back were just painted on the wall, but they all looked like they were really flying south…”
So yes; I see them but they’re moving further away, on their way to a new destination.
But it’s all good! I’m good! I’m good with that. And I’m bad with that. And thinking: only about two more weeks until winter break.