You’re a parent. Your child, Samantha, is five. You walk Samantha to school for her first day in kindergarten, ignoring the growing lump in your throat. You wonder if the butterflies in your stomach rival hers in number and wingspeed. You fight back the memories of your own first day in school: the scary Lunch Lady, the weird kid with the nasal condition, the best friend who “forgot” to invite you to her birthday party.
Should you have prepared little Samantha, somehow? She’s so small and innocent, with her little lunchbox and easy smile. Before your eyes, your little girl’s dress wrinkles, her smiles turn to tears, and her innocence is shattered. The vision makes you want to grab her up in your arms and run her back home, back to “Sesame Street,” back to yesterday, when she was still a baby.
“If you love someone, you have to let them go,” the cliche goes, and parents practice this from the minute they let someone else hold their newborn. Children accept this struggle from their parents, demanding that they support them when they need support and give them space when they need space. As children, we often don’t learn how to offer that to someone else, until we have children ourselves.
It’s hard to let your little girl walk away from you into the kindergarten classroom, when she’s your mom.
Houses, perhaps not unusually, are important to my family. My parents bought their first home before my birth and sold it before my brother’s. My mom discovered she was pregnant and stood in the kitchen, voice shaking, saying, “I’m not bringing my son home to this house.” Our next door neighbors kept multiple cars and boats in their front yard and driveway, held loud parties in the back yard. When I spoke once, through the fence, to our neighbor’s blond son, my mom found out and unwittingly re-enacted a scene from a 1960’s race drama set in Tennessee, wiping her hands on her apron and basically saying, “I don’t want you seein’ that boy no more, y’hear?”
But my brother was conceived during a “buyer’s market.” My parents sold the house at a tiny profit that just covered the loan my grandparents had given them to buy it. My grandparents accepted that money, even though it meant my parents could not afford the down payment on another house.
We rented for the next ten years. The seven homes we lived in, during those ten years, usually did not have back yards to play in, garages to fix bikes in, or strips of earth to garden. We did those things at my grandma’s and aunt’s house, at friends’ houses, at parks.
The 1920’s Craftsman my parents bought, when I was turning seventeen, wasn’t just a house, it was the fulfillment of a dream turned nearly into obsession. For my mom, particularly, home ownership was not just an investment or a symbol of security for her family. It was a vocation. She didn’t want landlords controlling her living conditions, and she wanted to express herself through decoration and renovation.
My busy dad offered his services on the weekends, my grandpa spent a few weeks installing a toilet, cutting countertops. But the bulk of the work, from painting beige walls a warm gold, to replacing windows, to finishing a bathroom in the upstairs office, was my mom’s doing.
She was also a dedicated homemaker/housewife, delighted whenever she could prepare an elegant meal for guests, make a gorgeous pillow from a second-hand skirt, set out a box of tissues and bedside clock to turn any space into a guest room.
In November, I returned to the US after four months in Europe to find my mom staying with my brother in his small apartment, cooking massive quantities of chicken and crying at the drop of the hat. She had nowhere else to go except to family and friends back in Seattle. Although she knew she had to find a place to live, she would call an apartment ad on Craiglist about once a week. Her depression was so great that leaving her to her own devices seemed unthinkable, but more than that, she had no devices to be left to.
So it should have felt like a family triumph when, earlier this week, my mom moved into her own apartment. But it’s hard not to remember how long it’s been since she has been in this position. After ten years of happily stripping wallpaper, sewing drapes, framing in walls, tiling and wiring, twenty years of raising children, and thirty years of marriage, she now lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment built into a Victorian home. The charm of a claw foot tub, hardwood floors and a stained glass window is not balanced by the duct tape patching broken glass on one small window, the narrow stove, and the tiles missing from the bathroom floor. Not only is it not hers, it belongs to someone who doesn’t do the simple repairs for his tenants she could do for herself in her sleep. If it belonged to her.
Add to that the ramifications this has on her role in life. There is no spare bedroom for guests, no kitchen roomy enough to prepare enormous family meals. No garage, no backyard, no driveway.
Despite all this, she unpacks boxes, cleans the floors, buys furniture, and makes this apartment her home. She does what has to be done, while I struggle to accept the changes that have been forced on her, and on our family. I struggle to let go of a woman who should be enjoying the freedom of an empty nest and a full pocketbook with her husband.
It may seem arrogant to compare one’s mother to a kindergartner, but after the past two and a half months, I am, and I do struggle to let her walk into the classroom, out of my sight. To hang her coat up on the hook, say hello to her new teacher, and smile at all her classmates.
The parent struggles as much as the child, on that first day of school, and my case, however metaphorical, is no different. I have to walk home from that school and find some way to fill my day besides making PB & J’s and listening in on “Sesame Street.”
I have to adjust to no longer knowing exactly who my mom is, or what her self-defined purpose in life is. It’s so hard to let that go.
At least in my case, my kindergartner is a smart, kind, generous, strong woman. So strong. She’ll figure out a way to rule the school, and all I can do, is let her.