The youngest member of our family will graduate from high school in a few weeks. On Tuesday we wandered the maze-like corridors of the neighborhood school for our very last set of parent-teacher conferences. We said our farewells to beloved faculty members and to the rows of brightly-colored lockers and to the just-a-little-dusty trophy cases and framed and fading photographs of the valedictorians of 1962 and 63 and 64. The cunningly tedious FAFSA financial aid report will put its dagger deep into the heart of our weekend. I love the footnote on page three of the FAFSA that says, “Parents are welcome to complete the FAFSA before completing their federal income tax return, but they will regret it.” Formerly I suspected that college seemed to our child like a mirage on the far side of a wide and arid plain of sand, but with the glossy brochures still arriving for her in the daily mail that mirage is changing into an oasis. In big and small ways, she is launching her life.
Every young person has a way of getting the message to parents about independence. They all say it differently but all they mean something like this: “As you know, father, I am my own person now, increasingly independent of you and pretty happy about that too.” My daughter and I were running errands the other day and we forgot something and had to stop back by the house. I pulled the car into the driveway and handed her the house key so she could zip in. This is where I would traditionally say, “Please make sure the door is locked on the way out,” but she preempted me. She turned and said in her dry and playful way, “Be right back. I’ll be sure to let the dog out and unlock all the doors!” She has inherited the family’s absurd sense of humor.
So this was her satirical way of saying, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, father, but I actually need less instructional parenting than you are accustomed to giving me. Perhaps, in many circumstances, I need hardly any at all.” I had to smile at the implication and at the gentle poke in the ribs to her old man. I hope she knows that it will take a little while for me to get out of the habit of relentless parenting. But I plan to do it, I really do. I like the cross-over into the territory of parent and adult offspring, where something much more balanced goes back and forth between family members, something that can endure, with luck and skill, for years to come. We get to be adult family members for all the rest of our lives.
I was waiting for her in the car Wednesday outside the library, and my phone started buzzing in an unfamiliar way. It was a FaceTime screen. I didn’t even know I had that app on my phone. When I tapped it, my mother’s face popped up there. She was sitting in her armchair in the living room. I could see the small blue rectangle of the TV reflecting in her glasses. We’ve been trading snapshots by phone this winter. I send a snowy view out the front window, the bird feeder, say, with a few inches of fresh white icing on the roof, or the flowers in tiny vases, no more than four inches tall, that are my spouse’s customary form of windowsill decoration in the kitchen. My mother sends back a snap of the pointsettias still ablaze in front of her fireplace, or the deer and fawn cutting across the lawn of the condominium on a shortcut from the woods. She looks dashing and sounds great on the FaceTime screen—her white hair coming back in after last year’s chemotherapy, her energy rising, getting to be herself once again, not weighed down by medical procedures. You look at her and you say to yourself, that’s the kind of 82 year old I hope to be someday. Or any age, for that matter. My mother, her granddaughter. Two strong and interesting women, each making her way forward. They are a pleasure to behold.