A Place to Cry Outloud

Having our daughter Lily leave, at the age of sixteen, to live with an unknown family in Italy, as part of a foreign language immersion program was one of the biggest nest-departing challenges I’ve faced.  Lily had never minded checking in with me and sharing what was going on.  What I found hard to set boundries around was that when she told me details other kids would never divulge. I had a hard time not opening my mouth and attempting to guide her through her often impulsive, sovereign exploits.

Almost all of her contacts with home during her Italian Immersion program were through email.  What she discovered about her peers in Calgary at that age was that out of sight was almost out of mind.  As a result of that, I’d like to say I was treated to an almost daily email, but they were definitely not always a treat. At just barely sixteen, in such a unfamiliar situation, Lily needed guidance from me and her dad.  My headstrong daughter didn’t always agree.  Parenting loses a lot of its punch when you are a continent away from your child.  When you say, “hang out with your host instead of that stranger you met on the bridge,” and your honest daughter tells you she isn’t going to comply with your rules, it is hard to enforce consequences.

So we bickered via email, I was forced to make great strides in the art of the consoling email, and we gave each other a sense of the life we were separated from, zapping our words across countries and oceans.  Lily did tell me that she found a place to go to cry out loud – her preferred style of crying- and during those months she had reason to go there.  Her older sister, Zoë, and I had a friendly wager about whether or not our sensitive, finicky Lily would last the full five months without sobbing that we had to bring her home.  It was hard to determine the odds.

So On the Level

“Can you believe I’m doing this and I’m only sixteen?, my daughter, Lily, asked as she helped haul her two giant suitcases out of the trunk at the airport.  She didn’t realize how seriously I was trying to understand why the hell I did go along with this proposal from its inception.  Lily was organized, motivated, and I think, fairly sensible.  She was a kid who, simply put – got things done.  But whole books have been written about that other side of her personality.  By definition she is what you call, a sensitive person.  Sensitive to other people’s moods, to the clothes she wears, the food she eats, and especially to the shades of light in a room.  How could I agree to such an undertaking for her, as five months in the home of stranger’s in a foreign culture –  as part of a language immersion program, and why, oh why would she seek that out?  The most reassuring theory is one that I read years ago when I first began to worry about her adaptability.  The theory was that these kids (sensitive kids) are, in fact, the ones that grow up and seek out adventure and unheard of challenges, because they feel they have been challenged and forced to adapt all their lives.   If you didn’t know someone like Lily (and you probably do), you might say she was just fussy.  It is different than that.  It seems to me that while so many people are willing to just go along, people like Lily strive to seek out the best circumstances for themselves, though it can be distressing when she feels her disappointment in failing to do that so deeply.

Lily has learned that ordering chicken quesadillas in a restaurant almost always works out for her – of course, she checks to make sure the onions are green, not white and has explained to me that that the biggest issue is the chicken – “it has to be the kind of chicken that rips in strips, not that weird white chicken that can be cut into neat little cubes.  Anyone would agree that stuff is gross.”   (Really, she had a point with the square chicken bits.)  If the onions are white and the chicken is square she switches to a pepperoni pizza, though she prefers the pepperoni on top of the cheese, please.

This daughter, who went out of her way to seek out well-lit interiors and spoke some French, but very little Italian, and worried too much about who liked her, this daughter had decided to immerse herself in a far away land on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, surrounded by strangers who would speak a foreign tongue and who may or may not like her, and who would likely abide in shadowy, ancient homes.    Still, she spent a season  walking home from school, hugging the last rays of sun on short winter afternoons listening to Italian CD’s.  She had experimented with different pastas, and had agreed to try inner crying, rather than sobbing aloud when circumstances defeated her, and had said she couldn’t wait to see what everyday life in Rome had in store for her.

And hey, it’s true, she has cried in public places, but joy overcomes her too, and she’s been known to merrily skip in public, or burst into song, or make candid observations to others – complementary, but surprising all the same.  “Try not to be a weirdo,” I said as we headed for the airport check-in counter.  “Don’t worry, Mom”, she replied, understanding perfectly what I meant.  “I will be so on the level.”  She made a broad gesture with her hand, slicing straight and even through the air and raised her voice so that other traveler’s eyes were on us.  “So on the level.”

What the Little Brat Was Talking About

The sweet young women handling the interview for the Cultural Immersion organization asked our not-quite sixteen-year-old daughter, Lily, what sort of rules we have in our household.  This woman sitting in our living room with my husband, Lily and I, was here as part of the in-depth study of the prospective applicant, trying to determine if Lily had what it took to live with a host family abroad, immersed in a new language and culture for five months.

Back during the crazy hey-day of Lily’s older sister’s high school musical theatre involvement, when our home first became the place to congregate on a Friday or Saturday night (maybe Thursday and Sunday, too) there had been a time close to the opening night of Joseph and the Amazing Techno-Colored Dream Coat when I had felt the other kids were taking advantage of the largess of my willing to host them.  Better put, our place was turning into party central. One morning I woke up to evidence of underage drinking, along with the sight of two kids, one a girl with an extremely strict mother and the other a guy, who had crashed for the night in the same bed, albeit fully clothed.  Rules for our house were immediately posted on the basement door for the duration of the play.  Of all the rules that currently governed our home ie. inform me before you borrow my car, phone when you’re out super late,  we eat pizza on Friday ….Lily decided to reach back a few years, to one I’d posted on that basement door during the musical and tell the nice lady, “I can’t think of any. ..  Oh, I know a rule we have.  Boys and girls that aren’t related aren’t allowed to sleep together.”

After the crimson left our faces and we stuttered out some explanation for what the little brat was talking about, the interviewer indicated that it was a wrap.  The interview process was a safe guard against families that were really wacked out, she said, and ours was,  of course, fine.

“Hang on,” I wanted to shout, “this kid is too young, fussy, protected, small…” whatever they wanted to hear to stop the whole ridiculous plot.

Prego. They found Lily to be a well-rounded candidate and decided she could go to a little Italian village (little sounding safe).  Lily begged them to let her go to a city, urban girl that she was, and they complied, congratulating her on her being accepted to spend five months in Rome in an Italian language and cultural immersion program.   For five whole months she was to live in one of the loveliest areas, of the loveliest cities in the world – Trastevere –one of the last pockets of medieval Rome, in the home of a family who we had only exchanged a few brief emails with, people referred to by the organization involved as her host mom and dad.  Will and I had been replaced.

Gathering Twigs and Sticks and Bits of String

Emptying the nest.  I  fought that concept tooth and nail. My strategy was to refuse to empty mine without building others.  When our eldest daughter, Zoë, left home I masked my fear and insecurity around letting her go by setting her up in her little apartment with every single necessity I could get my hands on.

It was all so psychological – the building of that satellite nest, Zoë had never considered a gap year, but she was our first born, and a daughter – and I do buy into all that birth order pseudo science. But the gap had been just the ticket for Cole, son number one – so why did I hesitate to bring it up with Hudson, our second son?  What unprecedented fear makes us crazy parents so darn relieved to get them back into school after one short summer between high school and post-secondary?

Hudson is a philosopher, was born a philosopher, in fact.  When his kindergarten teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, he wanted to go inside of people.  “Like a doctor?” she asked.  “No,” Hudson said, staring at her through the lenses of his tiny wire rimmed glasses, “no, I want to be really small and see what it’s like inside there.”  Cole once commented that when other kids got heavily into drugs in high school as an escape or dive into alternate reality, his brother Hudson, got heavy into philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, existentialism – all the isms.   So there is no question that he was a deep thinker but, he was just seventeen, I tell others now.  What was I doing encouraging a seventeen-year-old boy to move away from our boisterous house to go off on his own to study?  The poor kid couldn’t say, “I’m too young to do this.”  Boys don’t say things like that.  I should have clued in to Hudson’s reluctance by how impossibly uninterested he had been in packing for his new life style until the day before his departure.

The ‘launch’ wasn’t getting one bit easier for me.    Delivering him to his tiny dorm room in Victoria, B.C.  – a province, a mountain range, and a bit of ocean away from home, I was coming to grips with the idea that I was going to let another one of my kids go and was in full let-me-replace-myself-with-fuzzy-blankets-and the-right-supplies mode again. Only damn it, there wasn’t a blanket fuzzy enough.

My boy was patient with my hanging around town for a couple of days taking trips to the mall for various new nest necessities. On my last night in Victoria, after an Italian dinner downtown, I took the scenic drive along the ocean on the way back to the university, prolonging the moment that I had to leave him and overwhelmed with an urge to review all parental lessons at break neck speed.  I covered; responsible drinking, meaningful relationships, and even safe sex in a couple of blocks.  “They handed out condoms at orientation,” he said, cause me to shift gears, searching for a big life motto, something you would tell Oprah was the truism your mother taught you.

“Don’t be surprised if you get a low mark on your first paper,” I said instead. That happened to me a zillion years ago.  I was shocked but I talked to the prof.  You have to talk to the prof.”

“I don’t intend to get low marks, but I’ll do something about it if I do.”  Bless him for his confidence.

I pulled up to his building and he hopped out.  “I have to get my kettle from the trunk,” he said. He had recently started drinking tea.

“I have a few other things for you,” I told him.  “Laundry detergent, computer paper, an extra pillow, and mugs.” … and all my needy love that was going to explode when he popped opened the trunk.

I stepped out to hug him and whispered my goodbye against his cheek, surprised again by the bristle of blonde whiskers there.

“I’ll miss you,” I said, “but I’m okay.  Really I am.”

“I know,” he reassured me, walking away, with his kettle and tea, my son, the soon to be overwhelmed philosopher.

 

 

Gap or Gorge?

Two weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday our eldest son landed his dream job. Whistler Blackcomb resort had held their hiring fair in November, but warned potential staff that they wouldn’t actually be working until there was sufficient snow. After spending his meager savings on the flight west and accommodation while waiting desperately for snow, Cole found himself with the highly sought after position of liftie, or as he stated in subsequent resumes he was responsible for the safety and operation of the fastest upload capacity lift in North America. Our ecstatic boy was able to snowboard from the small apartment in staff housing that he shared with two strangers from Quebec, to his position at the chair lift, stationed at the top of the mountain.   He was so high up that he actually had cell service, nothing else was interfering with the signal up there, and he would occasionally call me before the first skiers showed up.  “Mom it’s sweet up here.  The sky is pink, seriously pink, and I can see over half a dozen mountains.  It’s cool.”

“Should you be on your phone?”

“No, but who would know?  When there’s no one coming up the lift it’s, I dunno know…lonely.  I mean, it’s just me.”

Cole called often in the beginning, justifying his need to make contact with some request, could I send Cd’s he left behind,  or he’d make an appeal for super warm gloves from a camping store.  Other times he would call and ask to speak to his brother, and eavesdropping I realized he was sharing the wilder aspects of being a liftie that I wasn’t privy too.   At the same time that he gained a few dozen new friends his cell service became less reliable.  I’d interrupt him trying seven-twenties in the snowboard park, his friends shouting in the background, or at a party any night of the week, a rapper rhyming nearby.  “Sorry Mom, I think I’m losing you,” he’d shout.

“Everything’s cool, Mom.  You’re breaking up,” he’d say and I was supposed to believe he was out of cell range when he lost me.

Yet as the winter carried on, working alone at the top of the mountain got lonelier, and the nights, in contrast, were perhaps too chaotic, if that were possible.  Cole came home in the early spring determined to save up for one more adventure.  His job, bussing tables at a popular bar on Calgary’s now famous Red Mile, was cut short by an Easter snowboard accident that left him with a cast on his arm and time to contemplate his new fascination with Buddhism.    Despite his Buddhist teachings he was distraught.  His year hadn’t gone as planned.  He had the itch to further his travels.  He wanted to be able to work despite the broken limb.  He suddenly ached to return to the freedom he’d known on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb, which while not Belize, or remote Chili, represented a Mecca of sorts for him. It was there he’d first lived on his own, amongst a community of his peers, and there that he’d escaped the confines of his parents rules and learned to make a bean and rice wrap.

Never-the-less, with his one good hand he typed up the application to university in our hometown of Calgary.  We held our breath.  He talked more of Whistler, of the power of the sunrises over the peaks, of the new friendships forged.  Forward, we had whispered into his ear.  “Talk to your big sister Zoë.  Zoë loves being a student again.” (Of course, Zoë always liked being a student.)    “Try university.  Study whatever you think you’d like.  The boy/girl ratio is two to three.”  (We were desperate.)  “You did Whistler. You worked.  You broke your arm.”  Of course, all the while we wanted him to believe he was coming to the decision himself.

He sat in the sun on a summer’s day and chose courses – an eclectic array of mind expanding areas of study.  Still he wondered whether he shouldn’t take more time off, make the gap larger – let it turn into not a gap but a chasm, an abyss, a gorge … 

He thought the three day university orientation would be lame, but instead it was cool.  The way he went on to Hudson, who was beginning grade eleven, about the kids he knew and the tight barbeque and how he, Cole, (the guy who would switch from general studies to film production) got on an outdoor stage at some point and addressed his peers, you’d have thought I’d slipped him twenty bucks to influence Hudson to earn the marks to get there.

I drove Cole to his first day of university (how could I refuse?).  On the way up I told him I was proud of him for reaching this milestone.  “I guess,” he’d said, adjusting his hat.  He’d picked out his first day ensemble the night before. The look was casual with a hint of mystic – a 1940’s style gangster hat and 1970’s aviator classes, his dad’s  plaid shirt from some other decade, his brother’s jeans from this decade, and his very own new running shoes.

We pulled into the campus behind a line of cars driven by this generation of hovering parents.  I tried not to say too much.  Cole gave me a big grin before skateboarding away from me, asking directions from the first friendly looking girl he spotted on the fly by.  For a few minutes after he disappeared from view I let the car idle before driving off.  We’d done it.  We had made it through Cole’s gap year.  So why then couldn’t we trust our instincts when it was Hudson’s turn to have a gap, instead of leading him down the path to a trying experience?

To Gap or Not To Gap

Having had to sweet talk Cole, Hudson and Lily into beginning a university education I have come out strongly in favor of the gap year.  I remember reading about Royal Prince William’s gap.  He was taking a year off between completing his high school A levels and beginning his studies at Scotland’s St. Andrews University.  Prince William was going to fill his gap by; working on a UK farm, teaching English in a remote part of Chile, hunting on an African Safari, and trekking in Belize with the Welsh Guards.   Cole’s plans weren’t so lofty.

Of the many definitions for ‘gap’ in the Webster’s dictionary the most appropriate is – a break in continuity.  Cole’s father and I verbalized our support for the gap, desperate for it to lead our energetic son to decide with conviction, “Man, I want to go back to school.  I ‘m so down with getting on with my education.”  It seems there has to be a certain rhythm to the gap.  You want them to work hard at low paying jobs  – like the UK farm perhaps in Prince Williams case, but not spend too much of their earnings or time crowd surfing in mosh pits, drunk with freedom away from math homework and biology tests.

My father had feared the gap for his kids.  I graduated in 1977 from the same high school that Cole attended.  When I should have been studying for my own grade twelve final math exam, I had been stretched across my girlfriend’s bed listening to Elton John belt out Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and daydreaming about climbing the Eiffel Tower, and eating real Italian gelato –  as soon as our summer jobs had earned us enough to purchase; airfare, a youth hostel card, a Eu-rail pass, an awkward and heavy pack back, and the requisite pair of hiking boots.

Flying across the Atlantic Ocean I left the coziness of my parent’s house – where not only was there a meat and potatoes dinner on the table every evening, but my siblings and I had the luxury of cruising around to our friend’s homes in my dad’s Chrysler LeBaron.  Criss-crossing Europe I learned to stretch my food budget by eating a whole lot of bread and jam, and to decipher train schedules in a half dozen languages, all with little communication with any one at home – no texting for us.  Like a kazillion young Canadian (and Australian) kids, Cole’s dream was to spend a winter at a ski resort with a job on the mountain, living like a bohemian.  We were okay with that plan in a shaky parental-milestone way.

A university campus might have been a safer environment for the exploits of a barely eighteen-year-old boy intent on snowboarding through the winter with a pack of other hearty bohemian wannabe’s. (Three of my four kids graduated six months shy of being eighteen.  Warning – when thinking your chatty, obviously smart four-year-old is ready to start school – instead of calculating whether you want your little one to be the youngest one reading in grade one, figure out whether he should be the youngest drinking, smoking and asserting himself as a teenager in grade ten?)

While many of Cole’s friends were saving hard to travel to Thailand or Australia as their gap destination, Cole felt suitably wealthy with $900 in his bank account to set out for the Whistler Blackcomb resort to make his mark on the world.  With his room empty of his boarding gear, CD’s, guitar, and hacky sack collection, Cole was sitting on his duffel bag programming his new phone with a pensive look on his face.

“Do you feel kind of off- balance?” I had asked him.

“Shit Mom, yeah.  But why?  I’m so ready to do this.”  I told him that my dad had explained it to me years ago with an analogy.  We all have dens where we’ve matted down the grass and we’re comfortable in them.  Cole was leaving his den, and he didn’t have a new one yet. I told him Grandpa’s theory was that until he got comfortable in a new den and got the grass matted down there, he’d feel unsettled.  “Word, Mom,” he said.  “That’s good.  Yeah, I get that.”

Who would have guessed that the WestJet agent would be the guy to make me cry?  But here my oldest boy was, having just shaved off those hairs from his chin, that weren’t really whiskers yet.  The agent was explaining in a respectful, but detailed way; the gate location, baggage tags, and boarding time, aware that Cole, attempting to appear so casual wasn’t a seasoned traveler and was having trouble concentrating.  I blinked, and blinked, and blinked back tears.   It’s not that I don’t want them to grow up.  Growing up is okay, but watching my second child heading toward airport security didn’t make me feel at all secure.

I had launched another kid. I was stunned by how fast it had happened.  Cole was a small mammal looking for a den and for a while I would be that mother bear again.  I was going to lumber about in circles for a week or two, bewildered and confused, clinging to my cell phone and to the two younger kids left at home…

Stay tuned for  Thursdays blog – ‘Gap or Chasm?’

Phone-less in San Francisco

Seven P.M. on a Sunday night my twenty-year-old daughter calls,  obviously near tears.  “Someone stole my phone,” she cries.  “I feel so cut off without it.”

But she is on a phone, one the cell company she’s been dealing with, has given to her.  Born in 1959 myself, it takes me a minute to catch up.  It’s not the phone, it’s the information in the phone.  “I feel like I have to start over meeting people, making contacts.  I feel so alone again, Mom.”

“Honey, honey, I get that you’re upset.  But those people will call you.  You’ll get your numbers again.”

“Mom, it doesn’t work like that.  I’ve done this enough to know lots of those people were never going to call me.”  What she’s done enough, is move around, this daughter of mine.  This is the third time in her young life that she has by choice surrounded herself with absolute strangers – situations where she had to work to have even a single friend.  From our home in Calgary, at age sixteen, she bravely did a high school exchange in Rome, Italy – isolating herself further by having to learn Italian.  Her siblings went to school on the west coast, but she headed east to Concordia University in Montreal.  Now, trading another cold Canadian winter for a foggy one, she was taking part in Concordia’s school abroad program by doing a year at SFSU in San Francisco.  “People here have their own friends.  I’m the new one.  I have to call them,” she explained further.

I was alone in our renovated, too big house, when she’d called.  Her dad had taken two of our nephews to an early hockey game.  The weather outside was shifting, from a Indian summer to light flurries.  Earlier I’d been in the yard pulling down sweet pea vines and raking leaves, and wishing I was cooking a Sunday dinner like some of my friends would be, for kids who stayed in the city for jobs and school.

“What are you doing right now, Mom?” she asked quietly.

“Missing you guys.  Dad’s gone to a hockey game.  I was going to make toast but the breads gone moldy.

“Mine too,” she said.  “My bread’s gone bad, too.”

“I guess we need each other to finish a loaf of bread,” I said, from where I watched the sky turn dark outside the living room.

“Yeah, we do.  I miss you guys so much.”

“You’ll get your numbers back, Lily.  You’ll run into people.  And some friends will call.  It just seems bad now.  I’ll email you Zoe’s and Hudson’s and Cole’s and your cousin’s numbers.”

“Will you do it now?”

Of course, I told her, yes, I’d do it right away.  And I would add a note to her email, about how brave she was, and how I knew the next time we talked she would be okay again, having found her friends.