My sixteen-year-old daughter and I drove through seven Northeastern states in a week and a half this August. We visited ten colleges, often two in one day. As we sat through the drone of information sessions and trailed backward-walking tour guides through campus buildings, I kept pushing away what all of it ultimately meant: she’s leaving home.
The catalogs and view books piled up in the back seat of the rental car. I hummed and looked out the window as she said things like, “If I lived here …” As I considered the possibilities — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York — my stomach churned with excitement and dread.
I know some parents who would not allow their college-bound children to visit, or even consider a school three thousand miles away. For me, driving through the muggy, lush green landscape, felt like going home. In fact, it was. I’d made a cross-country driving adventure the summer I graduated from college in New York, ended up in San Francisco, and began the longest vacation (24 years) of my life. But I had to keep reminding myself that if my daughter ended up back East, I would still be staying in California.
We toured Barnard, at 120th and Riverside Drive in New York City — the neighborhood where my mother grew up. It’s a few blocks from where fourteen of her lifelong friends, and a few relatives now live, in a retirement home. “If I came to college here, maybe Nana would come too, and live at Isabella House,” my daughter said. “She’d have all her friends, and then I could come see her every weekend.”
That might be the only way it could work. Even though this girl is chomping at the bit for her independence — she has been ever since she took her first steps — I have terribly mixed feelings about her departure from our home. We’re all balanced out here, the five of us, and she and my mother are an inseparable twosome. One of their favorite activities is Shopping and Lunch — after all, I grew up in New Jersey, the land of Ten Thousand Malls. My mother feels at home among the familiar stores, always the same from state to state. She holds up her Macy’s card, my daughter demurs ceremonially, and they arrive back home with bulging bags and a “fashion show” in the living room. I’m afraid that when my daughter goes to college, my mother will be unmoored, devastated by the loss of this one who loves her so much.
They’re fiercely close, in the same way that I was close to my own grandmother. My grandmother would laugh till she cried, modestly holding her hand over her teeth as I did a faux Japanese dance in her studio apartment, twirling a fan dramatically in the air, hopping on one foot. My daughter also does crazy dances in our kitchen, and my mother wipes her eyes, wheezing laughter, “Enough! Enough!”
When this girl goes away for three days — or three hours — my mother is vigilant, looking at the clock, or the calendar. “When is she coming home?” she’ll ask.
On my most recent birthday, I drove my daughter to begin four days of sleep-away rowing camp that morning. We were discussing where the rest of us might go for a birthday dinner that evening. “Who’s going?” my mother asked. “The four of us,” I replied. “Well, I’m not going if she’s not going,” my mother huffed. We finally convinced her to join us at a nice Italian place, and she poked at her giant meatball. As far as she’s concerned, if my older daughter isn’t along, it just isn’t a party.
We’re all crossing our fingers that my daughter might find a college fit within close driving distance. But it might not be: she wants some very specific things — the ability to continue her Japanese studies, and a competitive women’s lightweight crew team — a combination not prevalent here on the West coast.
I think about her going away, and I get restless, thinking there won’t be enough people in the house. As much as I contend with the juggling of five people’s schedules and needs, it’s something I’ve gotten used to, and almost thrive on. My husband and I have rarely been content with “just us” in the house. When our daughter was less than a year old, we invited a friend, recently immigrated from Nicaragua, and her baby daughter to stay with us while she got settled here. Our girls grew up as almost-sisters together. The stay stretched into five years; the family in the downstairs room grew to four, then five, as a brother, mother, girlfriend, aunt and cousin joined us. When they finally left to rent a home of their own, the house felt quiet and lonely. Then we invited my husband’s niece, recently graduated from high school, to stay for a year and a half, and then came her best friend, who has merged into a beloved family member. I fantasize, half-seriously, about foster children, about college student boarders.
When we attended a relative’s 50th anniversary celebration, there were over a hundred people there, some of whom were family, and many of whom were “virtual family” because they’d spend months, or years, living in the spare bedrooms and garage apartments of the celebrating couple. One man with graying hair stood up and said, with moist eyes, “They took me in.” That’s the kind of home I want: a house with open doors.
When my mother moved in with us, we knew we needed to offer her more than our basement laundry room/guest room/all purpose room. So we moved across the canyon to a larger house where she could have her own room. We shifted to become a multigenerational family, and even though it’s had its bumps, it’s our normal now. A husband and wife. A grandmother and two girls. Somehow, we’re all balanced. When my daughter leaves, I fear the house might tip over.
A year from now, we will be saying goodbye to our girl, who has lit up this house with her intense energy for the past almost-seventeen years. I can’t imagine her being truly, irrevocably gone. (Yes, I know they come back and visit, but it’s never the same.) I pray that my mother’s heart won’t break with the loss. And I wonder who else might end up living under this roof. I feel change in the air, and for now I turn my head in the other direction, not wanting to think about it too much, just yet.