K is for Kitchen Table

tableMy youngest daughter, Ally, who had our old kitchen table at college, wanted to sell it before studying abroad for a year. I, however, insisted on storing the table during her absence, certain she would need it upon her return.

But it was really my need: for Ally to still want to keep a part of home, and for her to remain with us, “in storage,” during the temporary absence that foreshadowed the permanent separation of growing up. Although the table would be cumbersome to move and store, I wasn’t ready to let go.

After all, it was so much more than a table. I remembered how my future husband set it with yellow roses and homemade spaghetti soon after we met, and the subsequent family dinners once we had kids. I recalled the homework, the crafts, the cookie decorating, how the table contained the overflow of books, mail, and all the stuff of family life throughout the years. I had held on to the table to forestall feeling the loss of these cherished times, the ache of the empty nest.

Transitional objects are not just the loved-to-bits blankies and stuffed animals of childhood; they help us cope throughout life. We hang on to them until we do the work of integrating and grieving what they signify, and can relinquish them once they become just the thing itelf.

So after remembering, and mourning, I called Ally and said, “Sell the table.” It had become just a piece of furniture to me, and a ratty one at that. I could bear its loss, and even look forward to what might open up in letting go.

In the end Ally decided to keep the table. Perhaps she still needed a token of home while growing up. Or just a place to eat dinner and throw her books.

*

What have you hung on to, and what has helped you relinquish it?

Dinosaur Extinction

Dinosaur plateThe plate is at the top of the stairs, where we put stuff we’re ready to donate.

“That’s odd,” I think to myself. But things have ended up in stranger places when my husband unloads the dishwasher. Jonathan forgives my never remembering how to use the flash drive, and I forgive his never knowing where anything goes.

I put the plate back in the cupboard. Jonathan takes it out again.

“Do we really need this anymore?” he sighs.

“Yes! ”  I reply, a little too adamantly.

“See if you can move it somewhere else. It’s in the way.”

Smiling dinosaurs in bright colors chase each other around the plate’s rim. Three separate compartments enforce the First Commandment of Children’s Food: Thou Shalt Not Touch. Smooth melamine ridges segregate the applesauce from the mac and cheese. Suspicious interlopers like spinach are safely sequestered in their own tiny corral. The brave toddler who stomachs the two-bite portion is rewarded by uncovering twin baby triceratops frolicking with their delighted mom. She, no doubt, is also encouraging her offspring’s herbivorous adventures.

My wary toddlers are now 23 and 26. They favor fusion foods and can be trusted with dishes that shatter.

Still, I need this plate. The dinosaur era is one of the sweeter pleasures of parenting. What other passions appeal to both sexes, all ages, inspire awe, and transform a trip to the museum from torture into an adventure? Besides, I have packed so much away in packing my children off to adulthood; I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to the little green creature hatching out of its eggshell. Maybe our grandchildren will eat from this plate someday, discerning T-rexes from brontosauruses as they diddle with their vegetables.

My husband’s ready, though. He wants to clear out the cupboards to make room for what the children’s needs have obscured. What might we assemble together without all the clutter?

With one last fond sigh, I put the plate on the donate pile.

Cleaning Up Our Act

SolesIt’s time. Past time, actually. Emma is 26 and has been living in Brooklyn for the last 18 months. She’s graduated not just from college, but to full independent living, not counting the occasional Trader Joe’s gift cards I send her. I do this when I become too anxious that trying to make it on $12 an hour in the Big Apple may force Emma into dumpster diving. (Possibly it is not the threat of starvation that might drive her to this, as you will see.) Also, Emma’s still on our Verizon family plan. I am convinced that when the stages of human development are revised for the current era, getting your own phone account will replace marriage, mortgages, and having children as the signposts of adulthood.  Still, aside from these minor caveats, Emma’s grown up. Gone.

Her stuff isn’t gone, though. True, she did a major purge to mark her graduation from college. But I might have been a tad too optimistic when I chronicled the demise of Emma’s hoarding days. She really just scratched the surface. One thing unearthed during that earlier excavation was that I am a hoarder by proxy, and I didn’t demand that Emma dig deeper. I believe that closets and basements were invented for hanging onto things until we are ready to let go.

Apparently, I haven’t been ready. Although I’ve professed a desire for a guestroom for years, Emma’s partially denuded bedroom has retained its status as part shrine, part dumping ground. The one thing we did get rid of after she left is her loft bed, so now even nimble guests (or returning daughters) have no place to sleep.

My husband and I finally got a new mattress, which provided the impetus to move the old one into Emma’s room and turn fantasy into reality. It is not quite the guestroom of my dreams. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a dumping ground with a bed in the middle of it, surrounded by junk. Emma’s junk.

I wish I were the kind of mother who could just start tossing, confident that the appropriation of kids’ former space no longer induces trauma once they are old enough to fall off your health insurance under Obamacare. But I can’t. I’m an enabler.

It would probably be better, I think as I riffle through high school term papers and ugly glass figurines, to adopt a version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t tell Emma about that mysteriously disappeared fake hand we got for Halloween one year, and she won’t ask. Or care. Or even know! But perhaps I have never gotten over the box of stuffed animals my mother tossed. More pragmatically, I regret that the baseball Jackie Robinson autographed for my husband when he was a boy did not survive a major move by his unsentimental (and financially unsavvy) parents.

I don’t want to make such mistakes, or make Emma’s decisions for her.So I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking iPhone pictures of stuff, then sending them to her so she can decide. Plus, if I succeed in the time-honored trick of substituting photos of stuff for the stuff itself, we’ll already have the photos! Cyberspace is such a vast new wasteland to clutter up, our humble collection will barely make a dent.

Hopeful, I arrange scarves, trinkets, purses on the bed, and send off my first batch with the subject line “Keep or Give Away?” I am careful to avoid the word “discard,” which sounds so dismissive and final. Maybe “give away”  might stimulate some deeply buried philanthropic urge.

“Save!” Emma emails in response, the act of hoarding itself apparently a rescue operation. This is not working. But then, a different response to one of the four pictures arrives: I am allowed to get rid of—sorry, give away–two hats.

So I send another photo, this one containing a pair of shoes and a pair of cowboy boots with holes that the Marlboro Man could ride his horse through. I’ve appended a message: “HUGE holes! Be brave!”

Emma writes back, “I really like the strange compositions of these photos you have been taking! But unfortunately I will have to ask you to retain this pile (it took me so long to find cowboy boots—I will get them resoled).”

And I will need to get re-souled into a different kind of mother, if I ever hope to have a guestroom.

*

Where are you on the spectrum from minimalist to hoarder? How do you deal with your grown kids’ stuff? How did your parents deal with yours?

The Stranger-Danger Generation Goes Couchsurfing

dog on couch

Beware of men with cute dogs and couches!

My wonderful writing group, The Write on, Mamas!, performed at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl last weekend. Our theme was “Let Go Or Be Dragged.” As the mother of 20-somethings, I have a lot of experience with this. I read this piece (originally published in the now-defunct Underwired Magazine). What have you needed to let go of to avoid being dragged?

*

My daughter Ally is studying in Spain for the year, meaning she occasionally attends classes in between jetting around the continent. Recently she emailed that she and her friend Amy were off to Belgium, where they planned to save money by couchsurfing.

Parents lucky enough to dwell in a state of ignorant bliss might not know about couchsurfing. It’s no longer a euphemism for being one step away from living on the streets, but a new social networking sensation among the young. When Millennials tire of tweeting about revolution, they log on and find people willing to put them up for free anywhere in the world.

Ally was excited because a 41-year-old man had offered to host them.

I curbed my impulse to scream at her before alerting the State Department. Instead, I did what any normal mother would do: Googled “couchsurfing,” and immediately clicked on the “bad experiences” link.

First up was a Facebook page subtitled “The Dark Side.” It read like a plot-pitch competition for the sequel to Taken, a movie about college girls in a Paris nightclub who are picked up by cute guys. “Picked up” as in kidnapped, since it turns out the cute guys are really working for Albanian sex traffickers. Luckily, one of the abductees has Liam Neeson for a father; a former CIA operative who proves to all that he is not so much paranoid as prescient. And pretty skilled in dirty tricks.

Ally’s mother and father, alas, are not so skilled. Like a lot of parents these days, our talents consist of hovering and fretting about our children’s happiness. We belong to the generation that wouldn’t let kids play in the woods lest they stumble into the creek or an outpost of perverts. Our preschoolers’ circle time featured picture books about green, red, and yellow lights to inoculate them against stranger danger.

So like all good parents, my husband and I drilled Ally to run away from the hypothetical nice man with a litter of puppies in the back of his van. No, she declared, she would never go see the puppies, no matter how cute he said they were!

“How about a man who wanted to show you a litter of kittens?” I quizzed.

“What would be wrong with kittens?” Ally asked, perplexed.

Having reached the limits of generalized thinking rather quickly, it seemed pointless to expand the horizon of potential danger to include 41-year-old men with couches.

Particularly to a five-year-old.

Now the Stranger Danger Generation is all grown up. And going couchsurfing. Who says irony is dead?

I clicked out of the “Dark Side” and went directly to the source: www.couchsurfing.org. True, this is a bit like relying on Big Pharma for advertising failed drug trials, but what’s a mother to do?

Couchsurfing International’s motto is “creating a better world, one couch at a time.” The website* features a large map festooned with pushpins, creating the impression that you can track your far-flung child the way politicians track every last voter in every last precinct. “The World is Smaller than You Think,” proclaims a headline. This subliminal leap to Disney’s “It’s a small world, after all” induced a nostalgic trance, and I felt myself being lulled into a more trusting state. No matter that predators are equally skilled in setting up their prey.

As I read further under “Safety isn’t one-size-fits-all,” I encountered the same conversation about stranger danger that I had attempted years earlier. It wasn’t so much about puppies and kittens as checking references, trusting your gut, paying attention to the internal red, yellow, and green lights. This time, the target audience had the cognitive skills to make such assessments.

I recalled a service trip to Mexico Ally had made a few years earlier with a church group. Before our teenagers embarked, the minister tried to assuage parents’ anxiety about drug violence. “The world is a risky place,” she said. “I worry each time my own children travel to faraway countries. But then I realize that the far greater risk comes from never leaving home.”

Now as then—as with every stage of parenting–I had to swallow hard and trust in the universe and Ally’s judgment. From crib death to solid food to sleepovers to dating to driving to leaving home—couchsurfing was just one more thing on the list of stuff I couldn’t control.

Ally returned from Belgium an ecstatic and avowed couchsurfer. Their host had taken them ice skating, handed over the keys to his apartment, and prepared a feast of mussel stew.

Thank you, universe, for taking care of my daughter.

And thank you, kind stranger, for making her feel at home.

_______

* The website has changed since I wrote this a couple of years ago, so you won’t find the same verbiage or graphics anymore.

 

Ending Summer

Ally and Me

“This has been the summer of my dreams,” I say to my daughter Ally.

“That’s pathetic,” she replies.

Maybe. But it’s true. In the three months Ally’s been home between graduating from college and leaving for a job teaching English in Spain, we’ve been each other’s best companion. Long walks, picking blackberries, lattes, massages, cooking side by side, a mani-pedi to mark the dwindling days of flip-flops and of our time together. We’ve even managed some good conversations until I inevitably mess up with questions like, “What if you fall in love and decide to stay in Spain forever?“

I dreamed of such a summer four years earlier, in the fleeting weeks between high school and college. But back then my dream was Ally’s nightmare. So she stayed out late with friends, sleeping in till the coast was clear from my incessant offers of ensnaring lattes.

Four years away have allowed Ally to come back not only with a college degree, but with an independent identity that makes our bond less threatening. Free lattes? Bring them on!

Our first separation was a dress rehearsal. This time’s for real. Ally’s going off to adulthood, not college.

Songs from Fiddler on the Roof keep coursing through my mind:

“Is this the little girl I carried?”

”May the Lord protect and defend you.”

Mostly I feel like Tevye on the station platform, seeing Hodel off to Siberia. I know it’s not as dramatic as “God alone knows when we shall see each other again.”  For one thing, the shtetl lacked Skype. But the pang still runs deep.

The day of Ally’s departure arrives. She navigates the ticket counter, hoping the agent will turn a blind eye to her bag’s extra weight. It’s hard to move abroad for under 50 pounds. The agent waves Ally through, and we sit awhile, steeling ourselves for goodbye. I repeat something I heard on the radio, about imagining someone you sorely miss in the next room. “I’m going to think of you in the next room,” I say as we hug. To distract ourselves, we search out one last latte. It helps wash away the lump in my throat.

Last free latte!

Last free latte–at least for awhile!

I watch as Ally goes through security. It’s hard to see through the plate glass that separates us. Between the throng of travelers and the reflections of people waving goodbye, I soon lose track of her. Suddenly I feel the same panic that overwhelmed me when Ally was three, and we lost her in a museum. As my husband and I frantically searched the nearby exhibits, I glanced from the balcony into the lobby. There was Ally, calmly talking to a guard, unaware that she was lost.

She’ll be fine now, too.

I hope I can say the same for myself.