Ellie was home over the weekend with her boyfriend. In about a month, the two of them are taking a place together on the North Shore of Massachusetts, a good five-hour drive from where we live, and a distance that I make a conscious effort not to think about. Of our three children, she is the only girl, the one who still allows me to wrap her in my arms and kiss the side of her head. Sometimes I pass the back of my hand along the curve of her chin, and the smoothness of her skin feels no different from it did when she was a “little one.” She is the middle child, the rose between the thorns, as someone aptly said, and still my baby girl.
Her room at home is slowly being emptied of clothing. Discarded T-shirts and juvenile flannel pajamas, party dresses left over from high school, and chunky boots and shoes that she wore as a teenager years ago remain. My husband recently hung a bunch of trousers in her closet, winter items that merely clutter his own closet in the heat of the summer. He tells me to do the same, and yet I am not ready to use the space in there. For me, it’s too final a reality that Ellie doesn’t live here anymore.
This is not exactly how I pictured things would go. I thought that Ellie would move back home (at least for the summer) with her wardrobe, books, and CDs, photo albums, and general clutter. She would find a job, and then take an apartment in the city with a girlfriend. I anticipated an adjustment period as she learned to live again with her parents and younger brother on a daily basis, and even anticipated some door slamming and under-the-breath mutters with mea culpas on all sides just moments later as though nothing happened. Then again, I worried that she would be lost in the city, concerned about her navigating the subways, and being pretty much by herself since at this time in life, friends are in a diaspora as the recent graduates try to find their place in life. She’ll be 22 at the end of September, so I know that she’d be living on her own around this time of life anyway…still, the distance is tough to rationalize. She’s not, as her older brother is, a cab ride away where we could meet for lunch or coffee on the spur of the moment, meet at Bloomingdale’s, and just spend a few hours browsing the racks and ending up with a new compact or lipstick, just to say we shopped. She’s not, as her younger brother is, still in college and home for summers and in between. Her brothers call her the “enigma” now, a sobriquet she hates. What I realize, and she doesn’t, or perhaps doesn’t want to face, is that they miss her. We all miss her. For me, I’ll miss the early evening talks we always had before her father would come home at night.
Probably the best thing we can do as mothers is to let go. We have to define that thin line between mothering and smothering as our children get older. It’s like when they finally take their first steps, and we move all the obstacles out of their path, cushion the corners of furniture, and stand a few feet away as they stagger like drunkards into our waiting arms. I suppose I look at this move of hers in a similar way, except for my ability to remove obstacles from her path. Sure, if she falls, I’m still here. Her father and I are her “safety net” as I’ve told her a million times in the last few months. Of course, should she come back home, there would be the challenge of dealing with either a broken heart or the guilt about breaking someone else’s, and rounds of analysis as to what went “wrong.” I suppose at the most primal level, this is the same dynamic as the learning-to-walk: you take a lot of tumbles until you’ve gotten the hang of it.
I have to admit, I have pretty calm about all this. I suppose that part of my calm is because I trust my daughter. I trust her choices, her calculated risks, her intentions. I believe that we have to chase our dreams, and find things out for ourselves one way or the other. I remember when she left for college, and I was nearly heartbroken. I didn’t feel she was ready, and I was correct: she was so homesick it didn’t give me time to shed a tear after the drive home. Who would have thought that four years later, this child who could barely stay up at school for two weekends straight, would be moving so far away?
And so Ellie has grown up enough to give her heart, and take in someone else’s. I remind myself all the time: this is her life, not mine, and yet she is such a huge part of me that I have to steal myself from feeling her every bump in the road, not to mention wanting to somehow steer her around them. All of this falls under the aegis of not meddling. And I watch her navigate from a distance, knowing it is someone else right now who strokes the side of her face and wraps her in his arms. Letting go with all my might and hoping she still feels my arms around her.