Teenage Sympathizer

Hey, I have so many mom friends and relatives who have a son or daughter graduating high school this June.  I love all that buzz of buying ‘that dress’ or do you rent or buy the son a suit? – and banquet tickets, famous commencement speeches, and then the after party and after, after party … It makes me think about the chapter I wrote in Text Me, Love Mom about the first time our family spun our way through all that…

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.

– Hesiod, Eighth Century BC

One Wednesday late in June, my husband,Will, arrived home and politely inquired as to why so many of our daughter Zoë’s friends were gathered in our backyard again. He had yet to notice that the boys were in their boxers. Forever a teenage sympathizer, I handed him the ice for his drink and said calmly, “Some of them just wrote their last exam. I think they’re feeling celebratory. Let them be.”

“Will there be another party when the rest of them write their last exam?”

“Seriously, Dad, this isn’t a party,” Zoë told him, wrapping a towel around her bikini-clad body. “It’s just a few of my friends celebrating a bit.”

Zoë’s a good kid. If it were a party, she would certainly have let us know. Eight kids having a water fight, with the boys in boxers and the ones of age knocking back a few beers, followed by a session of whipping up nachos in the oven accompanied by rap music, was definitely not a party.

Just then, two of the more manly looking boys skidded by the kitchen window in their boxers and socks. As Zoë’s dad leapt out the deck door to grab them — not that there was much to grab them by — I became a full blown supporter of their… youthful charm. “Come on. Come on. They just finished high school. Twelve years. Of course, they’re giddy.” Zoe’s much younger sister, Lily, and her friend, Heidi, waved at Will from their post in our dilapidated tree house. The younger girls looked entertained, as if they had balcony seats to a reality TV show.

Will waved back at Lily and Heidi but yelled at the others to get dressed or all thunder would break loose. They might have been unfamiliar with that expression, but the guys rushed back into their jeans. Will stepped back inside to demand further explanation. “Wasn’t there a party for this already?” he asked Zoë. He turned to me. “Didn’t they call it graduation? Wasn’t that the night we spent a zillion bucks dressing Zoë up so she could sit at a banquet for two hours, have three dances, and then change back into her street clothes in a washroom cubicle like a superhero, before vanishing for the real celebration out of our sight? Furthermore, wasn’t there a party here three days later, after we watched five hundred of them march across the stage?” His excitement was elevating to match theirs. “And what the heck was last Friday? Wasn’t there a whole lot of teens in a celebratory mood here then, too?”

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“Oh, Dad, that was the last day of classes. Cole’s friends were here, too.”

Will pointed to a tall boy from four doors up the road. “Cole’s friends are here now, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Dad, you can’t count Jacob,” Zoë said. Jacob, our son Cole’s closest friend, was now helping to distribute the nachos. He was almost a member of our family, but then that was true of our younger son, Hudson’s pals, Robin and Mark, from around the block, and Lily’s entourage of blonde twelve-year-olds — Heidi and Charlotte, who were Jacob and Robin’s sisters, and Mattie from across the street. This was a popular strategy with our four kids — pointing out that the number of friends that each of them has over isn’t that out of line — say two or three a piece — resulting in Friday nights with a dozen or more kids sprawling about the house.

“That was the last day of classes,” Zoë explained again to her clueless father. “This is the last day of exams…” She lowered her voice and stuffed a nacho into her mouth, mumbling, “… at least for some people.” Zoë and a few others still had four more days before their last exam and then it would be their turn to be giddy and celebratory… and in their underwear.

“You see,” I said, “maybe this is the universe’s plan to help us let her go away to university in Vancouver. If they drive us insane over the summer, it will be easier to separate.” I choked on the s-word. I really did need to grow up. I needed to be a Shirley Partridge type of mom, hip but mature enough to set some rules, take back the stereo and put on some Fleetwood Mac instead of Bowling For Soup, and take her shopping for school supplies and a sensible raincoat. As a responsible mom, I would study tourist guides of Vancouver with her and teach her how to grocery shop for ripe melons and reasonable cuts of meat.

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But I wasn’t ready for all that. There was something magical about the summer after high school. I felt more like Lorelai Gilmore, the mother-as-friend from television’s Gilmore Girls, than my generation’s sensible Shirley Partridge (though she was a singer in a pop band). The moods of the kids around us were contagious. At that point, we still had Zoë’s eighteenth birthday party to plan, as well as some sort of big family gathering before she officially went away. Forget the grocery shopping lessons, bring on the nachos, I thought, kicking off my Clarks so I could take a run through the sprinkler.

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Seventeen Year Olds Do Stupid Shit

Mid-January and I’d be so happy to steal away to my favourite latte shop, bring a hot one home to my little office, stare out at the winter white and brown back yard and get back to that novel I started way (seriously way) too long ago.  But this wise guy that I’m married to insists that, having taken a good chunk of the last seven years writing and publishing Text Me, Love Mom – I should put some of my restless energy into sharing it (okay, promoting it) to all those folks out in the wide, wide world that I was writing it for.  Readers are telling me that Text Me, love Mom is funny – funnier than I thought, as I was caught up in the drama of those four darn kids freaking me out with the insanity of ‘twenty-four being the new eighteen’ as they made their way in the world. Read Text Me, Love Mom; Two Girls, Two Boys, One Empty Nest and you’ll find the funny bits, but I decided this January morning to offer up a more dramatic ‘teaser’.  The chapter is called ‘Teenage Runaway’ and begins with this great quote from my sassy youngest kid –

“You and dad are really the wrecking ball of all of our outlaw, runaway fantasies. Why couldn’t you jerks go and be crack addicts or religious fanatics so we could have excuses to live on the wide open road?”

– Lily

 

This is a story of all the ways and times my kids left home, but there is a chapter I thought best to leave out until Lily granted me her permission to put it in. “It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “It will add drama. I’m happy to supply some drama. Just as long as you remember in the telling of it, that was then. This is now.”

lily poster seventeen year olds

This is the story of Lily running away — only she, of course, never calls it that. Much to her chagrin, the rest of the family does. I try not to think about it too often, the way you do with times in your life when you are so terribly off balance. In fact, those sixty odd, uneasy days when Lily ran away were the first time we had a completely empty nest.

For twenty-three years, one month and twenty-nine days, I was a mom with children living at home. In the early autumn of her seventeenth year, Lily was going to be the last kid still residing with her dad and me. After a summer of living with us and doing lucrative summer jobs in Calgary, both Cole and Hudson had returned to the coast. Hudson had moved in with a bunch of guys in Victoria, and Cole, elated to be starting a film production program in Vancouver, was renting a room in the house Zoë and her boyfriend lived in. As I look back on it all, there had been some foreshadowing of Lily’s departure before she left home in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.

To be fair, Lily would tell it differently. She woke me up at two a.m., putting her face up close to mine to whisper that she couldn’t find her social security card and needed it for a new job she was applying for early the next morning. She went on to explain to me in my groggy haze that she was going to stay over at a girlfriend’s near the job’s location. I stumbled out of bed, despite her telling me not to. Standing in the light of the hallway, Lily told me she loved me and gave me a long hug, apologizing for disturbing my sleep. You are not a mother for twenty-three years, one month and twenty-nine days (Zoë’s age) without knowing something is bloody well up when that sequence of events takes place, but somehow I fell back into bed and had the last restful sleep I would have for weeks…

– poster by Shea Proulx and Creativision.

 

Text Me, Love Mom – the book is coming!

better nestI’m so excited to tell you that Text Me, Love Mom – Navigating (Not Stalking) First Flights From the Nest – the book, will be available this summer of 2014 from Iguana Books. I can hardly wait. The painting on the cover will be the art work of my daughter, Shea Proulx.

Our four kids left home in quick succession. Not enough time passed between Zoë, the oldest, moving away to attend art school and Lily, the baby, running off to another city at just seventeen to test her independence.
In this age of bubble wrapping our kids, letting go of them isn’t easy. Text Me, Love Mom – Navigating (Not Stalking) First Flights From The Nest is the story of four artistic characters who queue up to leave the family home at a rapid pace. The media would have us believe that we have overindulged, overprotected and generally, now that parent is a verb, over-parented our kids. I was able to stay connected and endure their flights from home with the aid of satellite communications, during this anxious time of back and forth texting, calling, consoling, and applauding that goes on as everyone in our family got their bearings again. Text Me, Love Mom – Navigating (Not Stalking) First Flights From The Nest offers an opportunity to contemplate and laugh over the perpetual trial and error of another stage of parenting.
So excited to share.

Chill Out, Mommy. Chill Out.

Gatwick South Terminal international arrivals ...

Image via Wikipedia

March 31st, 200_

Our youngest daughter was once again about to leave home, city, country, continent.  Continent!!! To go traveling around Europe for two months.  (It gets scarier.)  She was just eighteen and had never even considered going with someone.  In less than twenty-four hours she would fly to London, England and then to meet Canadian friends already in Barcelona.  She was trying to calm the parental unit.  Rest assured, was her message, as we pictured her enveloped by a group of large Canadian seasoned travelers whose sole purpose was to take care of her.  We tried not to think that they might be a bunch of scrawny yahoos, who may or may not give a rat’s ass about her safety.

She would be traveling on her own from Calgary to London, Heathrow, then to Gatwick, from there to Reus airport at which point she would take a bus into Barcelona – a foreign city of more than a million and a half people.  And then, she said, as if this was the easiest part of the equation, I just have to get to Café Zurich and my friend, Teddy, will be there waiting.

So we are supposed to find some comfort in this guy being there, in the dark (she arrives late at night) in the café in Spain.  I wish he had a different picture on Facebook.  He is two years older than her, but the only image I’d seen of him was the one he used for his facebook photo from when he was a gapped-toothed five-year-old.

While I contemplated my anxieties around this – she should have been in the house finalizing her packing, making sure her papers were in order – passport and medical insurance forms, maps and directions, youth hostel and Eurail pass.  But she wasn’t.  She was`out with friends, saying her good-byes before her two month adventure.

Her dad and I both confessed to each other of being jealous of how much freedom she’d have in the next little while, but right then we didn’t want to think about that freedom or her being able to follow the whim of the day.  We wanted to know where she would go and exactly when – maybe even why.  Of course, our need to track her movements was part of what she was supposed to be getting away from by traveling around Europe.

She had attempted to comfort us by saying that after Barcelona she would go meet a cousin and his girlfriend in Amsterdam, who were already off on their own backpacking experience.

I’ve been to Amsterdam myself on the backpacking trip I took with a girlfriend after we graduated high school thirty some years ago.  I rememberhow after we left the train my girlfriend and I were offered coke, LSD and pot from various guys sitting on the station steps in the Netherland sunshine.  When I had left my parents at the Calgary airport I understood them to be happy, even excited, to see me off. They had informed me years later that they were scared out of their minds.  I know I sent them a few letters but that was all they heard from me for the ninety days that I was away from home.

I expected to get fairly frequent emails from Lily, but still on the afternoon before her trip, I was incredibly anxious, because any way you cut it –with all the technological advances and far reaching communication, it was still a big wide world, with millions of people who would be blocking the path between us.  I managed to take her out for a few last minute purchases and afterward we shared a quick meal together in a pub, where I delivered a few more safety lectures in between bites of quesadilla before I brought her home to pack.  I had barely time to say, oh yeah watch out for blah, blah, blah when she was out the door again.

Her final laundry and packing, and my putting a dozen items in teeny zip lock bags happened well past midnight.  What was driving me crazy was that I simply couldn’t figure out why, instead of preparing for this huge trip, my usually organized daughter was devoting way too much time to hanging out with friends and staying out late somewhere else – downloading music for her trip onto her ipod.  I think if I were to ever see my children pack ahead of time I might feel confident that they were preparing like adults.  I would take some comfort in their setting priorities and putting details in order.   Maybe I would even decide that in their time away from me they would continue to behave maturely, taking care of what needed to be done, not fall to the evils of wild and impulsive poorly planned acts.

April 1, 200_

So it was April.  The first.  No April fools jokes had been played.  My baby was flying to London, England alone.  It wasn’t until I woke her to get up and head to the airport that she said, “Oh my God Mom, I’m leaving for two months and I don’t know if I have what I need.”  I swallowed all the lectures, assured her that she had, and if not, the last time I checked there were stores in Europe, and then her dad and I looked on while she tried to get her top heavy pack on her thin frame.  She thought about taking out the heels a girlfriend had advised her to bring the night before.  No, no, I said.  You’re a heels girl.  You’ll get to Europe, look around at all those beautiful women in their beautiful heels, and want yours.

In no time we were rushing out the door, her cell phone purposefully left behind on the kitchen counter, a link broken.  Her first task after customs in London would be to find her way to a shuttle to take her to Gatwick, where her second flight would depart to Barcelona.  Landing in Barcelona at ten o’clock at night (after dark, in my world – early evening, in hers) she would have to make her way to Barcelona where she would meet a friend at the Café Zurich in Cataluna Plaza.  She had been online to figure out the shuttle times between the two British airports and I trusted her friend, this guy with the impish photo, had given her directions to the Café Zurich.  Suddenly, on route to the airport, I was certain that I would have assisted my three older kids at the same stage, in finding the correct information before they left home.  Now, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.  What kind of a mother was I?

The one she had made me, I guess.  Nature vs. nurture is a bit of a circular argument.  I may have nurtured my kids to become one sort of person, but nature has created them to be oddly distinct individuals who in turn require an individual type of mothering.

Lily’s older brother, Hudson, came to the airport to keep the mood light and the lectures down to a minimum, though I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out how many times a pickpocket might have grabbed Lily’s possessions as she sat her small open bag here and there, while she checked in and grabbed a Tim Horton‘s chili (at ten am.)

Her brother told her, Don’t let anyone rob you, hurt you or steal you.  I nervously concurred and kissed her seven times and then two more while the young security guard looked impatiently away.  I let her go – my baby, slipping out of my grasp again.  Bon Voyage Lily.  Bon Voyage.

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.