Mothers have been saying goodbye to their children since the beginning of human time. And I don’t know how they have done it. Prehistoric mothers surely loved their babies fiercely and if they were able to raise them to the point of adulthood, say maybe fifteen like my son is now, or likely even younger, they waved goodbye from the cave entrance as their child went off to forage for food or battle a wooly Mammoth, not knowing if he would ever make it back. Certainly their hearts ached as much as their hungry bellies.
My own great, great grandmother Flynn may have stood on a Crosshaven dock in County Cork round about 1847 waving goodbye to her son and my great grandmother as they left for America, knowing she’d likely never see them again and she never did. Much like mothers whose sons have left for wars through the ages or daughters who have followed their hearts and their dreams west to the prairies. There is always a not knowing if that face that is imprinted in a mother’s heart will come back home….for one more hug. Another meal shared. A few more words of wisdom.
It wasn’t until recently, as my 17 year-old daughter began more earnestly considering her options for college, that I came to realize what my own trip West must have meant to my mother. She was 21 when she gave birth to me. In a way we grew up together. I went to college 40 minutes from home, but after that first semester of adjustment I didn’t visit all that often. Just about every time that I did return home, I had what my father called a “high falutin’ idea” about how I was going to study abroad. One month the dream was Tuscany, a few months later it was Provence or Madrid. One visit I was bringing home brochures from St. Petersburg and the next it was a packet of information from Oxford. My mother always dismissed these plans, knowing full well that I could barely scrape up the money for the next semester working in the teen fashion department at Ivey’s over the summer and on spring and winter breaks. There was little chance that I could afford to go spend a “Semester at Sea.”
A couple months before my college graduation, when my first credit card came in the mail to Morrison dorm with an $800 line of credit, my first purchase was a ticket to Los Angeles. Never mind that I’d not been further West than East Tennessee. Never mind that I had no job lined up or a plan as to where I’d live….or a car. Never mind that I’d done no research on Los Angeles and didn’t know there wasn’t the public transportation system I’d experienced in Washington or Atlanta. I was going far away so as to take my first steps as an adult without the eyes of disappointment upon me as I made what I anticipated could be monumental mistakes. I told my mother several times about my plans, but she didn’t believe me any more than she believed that I was going to join the Peace Corps or to study French in Lyon.
It was when we went to the dentist just before college graduation that it finally registered for her. Dr. Brooks had been our family dentist since before my first loose tooth. With water and tools, fingers and gauze alternately in mouth, I attempted to answer his questions about my future. I shared that I’d be departing for Southern California on June 9th with a return ticket for December 22nd. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got there, but I was going to give myself six months to figure it out. He seemed impressed with my guts, though perhaps a bit concerned about my foolhardiness.
My mom was next in the dentist’s chair and when she came into the waiting room after her check up, she looked disturbed. I figured she must have been told to come back and get some cavities filled, but when we got into the car she started to cry.
“Dr. Brooks says you’re going to California and I just had to play along with it as if I knew all about it even though it is the first I’ve heard of any such crazy idea!” she sobbed, “I felt like a fool! Like I don’t even know my own child! What are you going to do? You don’t have any money and don’t you think that your father and I are going to support such a hair-brained plan!”
Mom didn’t go to the airport with me. She stood there in the entry hallway, her face colored with ten shades of guilt. I kissed her goodbye and promised to call when I landed. My father drove me to the airport, silent by my side. At that point I was grateful that he didn’t ask me where I was going or what I intended to do, though I probably needed to have a cogent discussion with someone before I took my $200 in savings and my Visa that now had $597 left in credit along with my two suitcases to a city I’d only read about in an occasional novel or seen a few times on The Brady Bunch.
But this was my dad and he wasn’t one to ask questions. He joined the Navy at 18 and that was the first time he’d left the Appalachian Mountains. Because my college was a rival to his favorite team, he never even crossed the literal red and blue line that spanned Highway 54 into Chapel Hill until the month before my graduation when the family came for an Easter picnic on my campus. We were eating our tuna salad sandwiches when daddy said, “So Suzanne, what is it you’re getting your degree in anyway? Some of the fellers from work wanted to know.”
So, no, it wasn’t surprising that my father didn’t express much interest in my post-college intentions, other than a comment about when I was going to find me a man and get married like any respectable twenty-two year old.
But saying goodbye to my father didn’t haunt me. I wasn’t as concerned with letting him down since he wasn’t likely to let me know if I did. My mother’s opinion was the one that mattered.
And yet, when I was recently looking through the photo albums and scrapbooks from when I was a teenager and well into my twenties, it struck me that my mother had become irrelevant in my life. Friends and ballgames and cups of beer filled my photographs. Very few were of my mother in her forties. I had pushed her away as I forged my own path, which isn’t all that uncommon, and maybe it is what we’re meant to do. But the thought of being irrelevant to my own children devastates me. What must my mother have thought as the regular calls became less frequent, as I came home for visits but spent only enough time in the house to get the car keys and head to a party. Why didn’t I think to take a few photographs of my mother and me on any of those visits home? Of course I couldn’t have known that she’d be gone by the time I was thirty-two. I couldn’t have know how desperately I’d one day want to see an image of us together before I ran out the door to reconnect with my high school friends, most of whom I’ve not been in touch with for years.
Naturally, as a lifelong photograph taker and scrapbook maker, I’ve always been my own family’s historian. Videos and movies have documented my children’s every accomplishment, every adventure, every performance and the day-to-day cuteness.
Then they grew up. They got iphones. They started going places without me. I say, “Send me a photo!” as they head out the door. Sometimes they do. But most often they don’t. Their lives have gone on, documented by them on their phones with occasional family trips captured by me and my Nikon. There are parties I don’t go to now. Special moments I’m not a part of. I may hear about what happened, but only if they care to share. When they were little, I saw all that they saw. I revived my joy of discovery through their experiences with things that often go unnoticed in adulthood. Bubbles in chocolate milk! Clouds that look like dinosaurs! Worms on the sidewalk after the rain!
Now they are forming their own visions of the world, out of my surveillance. This is how it is supposed to be. This is setting the stage for their departure from the omnipotent mother who sees and filters all. They are becoming solid, intelligent, compassionate decision makers. Overall it seems I’ve done my job.
But I’m left wondering if, as my oldest prepares to leave the nest and her brother is just a few years behind her, will they come home and want to have a family dinner? Will they ask my opinions and actually WANT to spend time with me? Will we take “selfies” on hikes in Griffith Park so they’ll have a picture or two with their mother when they are in their twenties?
Or will I be irrelevant as my mother was for a good chunk of a decade as I tested my wings and crash landed a few times. Will they call when they hit a rough patch or will they keep it a secret like I did for those first years when I had no car and walked to work down the mean streets of Hollywood, too proud to share my fears and determined to hide my disillusionment?
In a few short months, I will help pack suitcases and load up the truck and cart my daughter off to whatever college becomes her best fit. And I will help her decorate her dorm room, take her grocery shopping and get her the last minute supplies that will make that room her temporary home. I will hug her tight and make sure she knows that her room in Burbank will be waiting should she need a safe place to land for a bit. I will tack a picture of the two of us on her bulletin board and I will say goodbye. For now.
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