Picture of nestThere are signs of new life in the empty nest. For one thing, Ally has blown back in for the summer from a year teaching abroad in Spain . We don’t see much of her, but we can follow the debris trail all around the house to know that she’s alive and well.

The mess is even more apparent on our back deck. Dead grass, strands of shredded bark, an overturned container of old clippings. I can’t blame Ally, since this particular untidiness preceded her arrival.  Has it really been so long since I’ve taken a broom to the redwood planks? Perhaps there’s been a localized wind storm. Or the neighbor’s cats, not content to merely pee on the plants and dig in the mulch, are upping their antisocial game.

My husband solves the mystery when he tries to spend some time in the hammock with a good book. After just a few minutes, he’s back inside, squawks of distress audible through the sliding glass door.

“I don’t want to give these poor birds a heart attack,” Jonathan says, pointing up. “Look!”

There, atop the drainpipe just under the wide eaves, inches from our kitchen door, sits a nest. It’s rather free-form and sloppy, but in a charming way–much like Ally’s bedroom. If we very quietly peek from the kitchen, we can spy the roosting bird’s beady eyes. If we’re careless, and go out this door to water the plants, cacophony ensues as the parents defend their territory. I’m not sure these birds have made the smartest choice, given the cats and their unconscientious landlords. But they do have a good view of the garden, which counts for a lot when contemplating a long confinement tending to children.

The birds may not have assessed the cat thing correctly, but I suspect they chose to squat on our deck because they are wise to our non-BBQing ways. Perhaps they scoped out the antiquated model of our charcoal grill (Weber circa 1986), the thickness of the cobwebs covering it. They probably even lined the nest with some of the gauzy strands.

I guess we won’t be barbecuing for awhile. I’m happy for the excuse in the same way that I appreciate droughts for making our failure to wash our cars look noble instead of derelict. I’m less happy about not using our deck or opening the door from the kitchen, but my mother-in-law assures me that it’s only for a few weeks. At least it saves me the trouble of putting out new yellow jacket traps.

The garden we put in last year has survived hard freezes, drought, deer, and my ineptitude as a novice gardener. Now it will have to survive neglect so the nursery can thrive.

But these things, like Ally’s unwashed dishes, are small nuisances. What a pleasure it is to welcome new occupants to the nest!




Travels in Siberia


Missing my daughters a lot today, so here’s one of my old favorites:

Emma, my 22-year-old daughter, has long dreamed of Russia. Its exotic onion domes promise delivery from the dull safety of her suburban upbringing. At last she is there, studying for a semester in St. Petersburg. It’s not Siberia, but the vastness that separates us feels like a kind of exile.

Thousands of miles and eleven time zones are not all that keep us apart; Emma has always required her space. Her penchant for privacy was coupled as she grew with a vigilance against usurpation. Once I made the mistake of lavishly praising a picture she had drawn. Emma savagely scribbled all over the paper, destroying her creation but also any attempt to appropriate what was hers. I often made such inadvertent incursions.

Eventually, I learned to heed the “No Trespassing” signs Emma posted from an early age. When she withdrew further into the interior, as every adolescent must, her natural reserve had already prepared me for the unrequited longing all parents must bear. Growing up is always an act of exile, a necessary escape from the soft smother of love.

My friend Leslie recalls when her teenaged son skulked away from their once-close bond. She said to him, “I know you need to do this, but I’ll miss you, and I’ll be glad when you’re back.” A decade later, he put his arms around her when she was doing the dishes, and said, “I’m back.”

Emma is far from being back, and I miss her. When I take the dog out at night, I look up at the sky and travel light-years to her through the star-strewn blackness. It helps to know we are under the same canopy.

Still, it is not enough.

I read in the newspaper that the writer Ian Frazier will appear at our local bookstore to read from Travels in Siberia. If I venture through the portal of his book, maybe I can sneak into Emma’s territory without tripping the alarm. My friend Roberta tried something similar. She hates baseball, but learned all about RBIs and earned-run averages so she could talk with her son throughout his adolescence. Their bond is deep, as is her grasp of baseball statistics.

Hoping to emulate Roberta’s success, I drive to the bookstore, buy Travels in Siberia, and take my seat. Maybe I will find Emma along the way, or at least understand her case of what Frazier calls “the dread Russia-love.”

Ian Frazier sports a middle-aged paunch, but he and Emma have a lot in common. For one thing, they are both lousy photographers. I am charmed by Frazier’s out-of-focus slides of dreary horizons, his low-key intelligence, and boundless curiosity. Frazier is infected with a fever for “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia,” relishing, as does Emma, its simultaneous greatness and brokenness.  I go home eager to travel the miles through his prose to my faraway daughter.

I feel like a trespasser, though. This is Emma’s journey, not mine, much as I want to accompany her. What if she needs the vastness between us now more than ever, and regards me as another marauding Mongol sweeping across the steppes? I do not want to force her again into scribbling out what she has created to protect against invasion.

But Frazier reassures me; setting out on his epic road trip across Siberia, he marvels at the absence of fences and “No Trespassing” signs. Encouraged that the unbounded landscape is spacious enough to absorb both Emma and me without crowding, I press on.

Commenting on the loneliness of exile in Siberia, Frazier writes, “Longing and melancholy worked their way into the very soil.” So it is with parents and children of a certain age. Standing now on the opposite end of a lengthening road that takes Emma farther and farther away from childhood, I feel the sorrow of exile as she goes down the road without me.

It has not been easy for Emma either. Her once-sure trajectory unspooled erratically as she zigzagged in and out of different colleges and half-baked plans. “All who wander are not lost,” I tried to reassure myself. But what if she could not find her way back? It looked like breakdown to me.

Frazier, too, encountered breakdowns on his journey across Siberia in a rickety van. Initially he fretted that it kept sputtering to a halt, just as I fretted about Emma. Over time, though, Frazier came to see the fits and starts as essential to the pleasure and genius of discovering what to do when things go wrong.

I have come to see the same about Emma.  Eventually I learned to trust that her breakdowns and detours were not so much obstacles, but the road itself that would take her where she needed to go.

Right now Emma needs Russia, with its convulsive revolutions. How could she not? It is every adolescent’s job to overthrow the tsar, and every parent’s job to surrender the throne. The old order gives birth to the new in benign or violent spasms, but there is no stopping the transformation.

Emma on the cusp is drawn to places in transition. Like Frazier, she savors crumbling Soviet-era housing blocs, babushkas hunting for mushrooms along busy highways, the ubiquitous trash. Russia, stubbornly insistent on remaining itself despite the homogenizing onslaught of progress, offers a bulwark as childhood edifices give way to Emma’s relentless induction into adulthood.

Siberia is no longer synonymous with the disappearance of exile. Frazier freely comes and goes after the Iron Curtain is lifted, and Emma, too, is less shuttered. In fact, she’s back. Not in the arms-around sense of Leslie’s grown-up son, but back from St. Petersburg and the need to keep us at arm’s length. Our mouths water as Emma describes fat dumplings stuffed with minced beef and onions. She is thrilled that Russians mistook her for a native. No wonder; her face, bright-eyed again, reflects her great-great grandfathers’, who fled the mother country in their own passage to adulthood.

We ask Emma to show us her photos, and she reluctantly obliges. My husband and I sit next to each other at the dining room table as she positions herself on the side. Emma removes certain photos before carefully placing each of the others at an angle where we must twist our heads to see them properly. We politely ask her to set them straight before us. She politely ignores us, allowing only an oblique glimpse into her edited world.

Emma’s pictures are terrible: A shot of sky with an onion dome in the corner, a kitten that’s only a speck in the foreground. They are as blurry and without context as Frazier’s shots of the endless horizon.

But they are hers. And she is ours again, if we let her set the frame.


Originally published In Underwired, July 2012


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: 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.




Trash bags

Every family has a pack rat. In ours, it’s Emma, my 25-year-old daughter. I’ve bequeathed Winchester, the moth-bitten stuffed panda from my childhood, to her. She’s the only one in the family I trust not to mistake him for trash. An artist, Emma sees the potential in everything. You’d be surprised what you can do with scraps of paper and odd socks.

Emma’s room is like an archaeological dig—prehistoric Legos followed by the era of My Little Ponies, which in turn are overlaid with the Beanie Baby then the Barbie strata. Pat the Bunny coexists peacefully with Harry Potter, and a history of girls’ fashion resides in Emma’s dresser drawers. The artwork papering her walls ranges from pre-K scribbles to sophisticated masterpieces on canvases she stretched and framed herself.

Ever since Emma left for college, I’ve been nagging her to go through her stuff. Sometimes I threaten to toss it all myself if she won’t. But Emma recognizes a hoarder by proxy when she sees one. She knows I’ve kept vigil over her room like a shrine since she’s been gone. I’m not ready to throw away Emma’s Girl Scout swaps—little bits of felt tokens exchanged around years of campfires—anymore than she’s been.

But Emma’s ready now. After a lengthy and sometimes tortured path through college, she’s stopped fighting the inexorable slide into adulthood. At last she’s cleaning out her room with a vengeance in preparation for moving to the opposite coast. Bag after bag of old papers, clothes, the detritus of long-gone years are finding their way into areas designated for Goodwill, recycling, or trash.

I pull things out of the discard pile, nagging replaced by laments.

“Are you sure you want to get rid of this?” I ask, fingering an old sketchbook. What if Emma is the next Picasso?

She’s sure.

“You’re not going to get rid of Winchester, are you?” I say.

Emma smiles. “Don’t worry, Mom.”

But of course I will. Now I’ll have to sort out  my own transition.