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.

Snowboard Boy’s First Suit

Considering what we’d paid to turn his sister, Zoë, into a dazzling Mary-Kate Olsen look-a-like for her coronation, when it came time for our eldest son’s high school graduation his dad and I graciously decided, aware that he had spent his entire life in jeans and the obligatory hoodie – we would offer to buy Cole a suit, instead of going the rented tux route.   One of Cole’s crew informed me the rental shop he’d gone with had offered him insurance in case he threw up on his tux, i.e. a barf policy. I questioned whether my son shouldn’t just pick up a cheap rental, after all.  The absolutely most dressed up Cole had been in his seventeen years was cords, new runners, and perhaps a tucked-in shirt for half an hour.  “Even if you don’t wear the jacket often, it’ll be nice to have dress pants,” I reasoned.

“Sure,” Cole said, slipping into a herringbone jacket while the salesperson, who was a teenager himself, calculated his size.  Cole tripped me up by asking, “Dress pants for what though?”

“Well, you know, you don’t know what you’re plans are for next year.  You might get a job where you need something special.”  The three guys – Cole, his prepared to be barfed on friend, and the sales guy considered Cole’s image in the mirror – the classic jacket over his Bili-bong t-shirt and baggy jeans, with his baseball cap tipped backwards.  “For instance you might sell suits,” I had to add.

Cole had applied to a few universities but was leaning heavily towards taking the gap year.  His most recent employment aspiration was to work as a snowboard instructor in any range of mountains, the further from home the better – no suit need there.  Shopping, and any other slow paced activity, had never been his forte.  As a baby, even being held was too sedentary for him.  He grew into a kid who, when he wasn’t playing sports, was calling friends up to do some rails.  His greatest achievement in the eyes of his father and I, was that he sat still for six hours a day in a classroom for twelve long years.

The sales guy suggested Cole try on both pieces with a dress shirt.  “I’ll probably just wear one of my dad’s,” Cole said and I pictured him in kindergarten with a shirt of his father’s buttoned on backwards to keep the finger paint off it.   The sight I was treated to a few minutes later was stunning – my seventeen-year-old kid all put together in a gray herringbone suit.  We three stared at Cole, who stared at his own image in the mirror.  “Dude, it makes you look older,” his friend said.

“Yeah, you’re not kidding.” Cole agreed.

I swallowed.  The sales boy had seen blubbering mothers before.  He turned away to give us our moment of awe.  The suit didn’t make Cole look older to me.  It made him look handsome, but not older.  In fact, I couldn’t get the image of my little kindergarten boy out of my mind, which led to a mild panic attack.  There I was coming undone, trying to determine how we got from then to now.

We paid up, ordering minor alterations and I bought the boys chicken wraps in the food court.  They choked them down while checking out teenage girls, oblivious to me getting out a pen and paper and trying to gather my thoughts.  I’d dealt with Zoë leaving home to attend art school in Vancouver.  She was back for summer break and we were working on getting used to living together again.

But what about this one?  The son who I had to remind that we, his parents, were in fact, in charge.  Was he at all equipped to survive away from moi?   Once again I had to tally up what my teenaged kid didn’t know?

My kids had all mastered food foraging.  Judging from the theme he’d chosen for his bedroom, which was monk-like austerity, I didn’t have to worry that he would lose himself in his own mish-mash of belongings the way two of his siblings could.  This son would even gather up those clothes from time to time and do laundry, which was one of his most admirable characteristics.

Cole asked if I’d mind if they separated from me for just a few minutes to get the phone number of a girl.  “And you think she’ll give it to you?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure.  Why wouldn’t she?”

Optimism would get him places.  “Stalk her politely then,” I said, before ducking out of sight to make some anxious notations. Had I told him you can’t turn right on a red in every city?  To disinfect all his cuts? How to recognize a rabid animal?  To leave a window open in a tornado?

What about girls?  Did I tell him they just wanted him to listen?  In a more practical arena  – could he politely wind spaghetti onto his fork?

“Are you okay, mom?” he asked, catching up with me.  “You have your worried look on.”

“I just have a lot to do. And I’m running out of time to get it done.”

Slow, Simmering Panic

(note to readers: on Monday, I was compelled to post about, “How DOES a Grandma Dress”  – and I know I’ll stray again, but I am back to the book project – memoirs from this empty nest.)

It’s not like I’m a cry baby or anything.  I’d say on a scale with females of a certain age, I’m an average crier – not the final scene in the park in You’ve Got Mail, but when Tom Hanks gives Meg Ryan that daisy in her bedroom – oh boy.  Or in Juno, when Juno and her dorky boyfriend make-up with a kiss in the school field, I could hold back the tears, but oh my God – when those two kids are in the maternity ward bed together after the baby is born, who wouldn’t be overcome?

So normal crying, right?  Yet, for months prior to my eldest leaving home I would try to imagine her moving about in her own place and just thinking about it could bring me to tears.    I don’t know what it was that upset me – the vision of her alone in a quiet apartment, or our noisy house without my oldest daughter’s quiet presence in it?  Once she was living in Vancouver without me I seldom sniveled about it, instead the emotion I experienced from time to time when I got to pondering what Zoë might be up to on any given day was a slow, simmering panic.

The supper table had always been the best place to get – at least the feigned attention – of my teenagers as they gulped down their food.  The year Zoë left home I’d discovered a book called 365 Manners Kids Should Know.*  The book followed a calendar.  On January first – teach this manner, January second this one, all the way through 365 manners.  The author had never studied the attention span of my children.  We needed to fly through ten or twenty manners in a sitting.  I summarized for them. “Okay, it says here you can actually eat asparagus with your fingers.”  Unfortunately three of my four children wouldn’t swallow a piece of asparagus no matter what appendage they could handle it with.  “And it says it’s rude to blow on your food.”   The author had never been late for piano lessons.

My youngest son, Hudson, always looking for an angle, grabbed the book.  “Are you sure you want her to be our manner guru Mom?  She says right here that it’s rude to be late for anything.”  I gave up, which was why Zoë left home with only enough manners to get her into late March.  She was in effect missing nine months of manners.

Zoë went off to study art at Emily Carr university before SKYPE-ing was possible, but when two friends, both seasoned mothers, heard that Zoë was off to her own apartment they recommended a video cam – one on my computer and one on Zoë’s.  Why in the world would I want to spy into the privacy of my daughter’s place, I thought?

Why not indeed? …

I didn’t care to see if she was eating her asparagus with her fingers or not.  But there was a whole lot of other information I wanted to gather.  Did she eat a green vegetable ever?  A pea or chunk of broccoli, a bit of lettuce squished into her sandwich.  Or was salsa her veggie of choice?

Would I see her emptying her pockets of seashells from stress relieving beach combing, or would she pull out one of those art school roll your own cigarettes.  At what late hour would the camera see her come in?   Would she look tired and weary?  Zoë has always needed her sleep.  Would the video cam have let me in on any of this mysterious information?    And in fact, was this what I really longed to know?  If we had invested in the video cam could I have told her, “Put your face up close to the camera.  Closer Zoë. I want to see if you’re happy or sad or homesick.  Come on, Zoe. I want to see if you need me.”

 

[1]365 Manners Kids Should Know – Games, Activities and Other Fun Ways to Help Children Learn Etiquette. Sheryl Eberly, (New York, Three Rivers Press, 2001).