© 1989 John Dallas Bowers
To be fair, the dean of students warned us. In fact, during Vanderbilt’s on-campus freshman orientation this summer, they had one whole session (parents only) devoted to "When Your Student Comes Home to Visit." I thought it was amusing. My wife recognized it for what it was: an omen.
But that was six months ago, and Susan and I had been doing well in adjusting to our daughter’s first extended absence. We rediscovered that while three had never been a crowd, two could be very fine company indeed.
Yes, we missed our only child, but with regular letters and even more regular phone calls, we felt we could sustain some form of life until her first visit home at Thanksgiving. It was in that mood of cheerful anticipation that we began the final countdown on the day of her return.
The early signs, however, were not promising. After calling American Airlines and being told her nonstop flight from Nashville was "in the air and on time," Susan and I waded through an hour of peak afternoon traffic, arriving at Philadelphia International with only minutes to spare.
We needn’t have bothered. Not only was Jennifer’s flight not on time, we were told it had never left the ground, and, in fact, had been cancelled earlier in the afternoon. Such was the state of agitation around the American counter, however, that Susan suspected another scenario, one which she shared with me back in the car: Jennifer’s plane had left the ground, only to return at a rate of 32 ft/sec/sec. The fruit of her womb had joined the rest of Flight #980 as it dropped like a stone over some desolate Midwestern cornfield.
I left her in the car (to fend off the ever-vigilant airport constabulary) and went inside to separate fact from histrionics. Through the kind intervention of an empathetic American Express travel representative, I was able to track down our daughter in the Nashville airport. We traded tales of self-pity, and then I assured her we would return to pick her up when her meandering flight (which was to include an airline change in Atlanta) touched down at 1:15 the next morning. It did -- and we did, with equal measures of exhaustion and relief.
That first weekend, it appeared we had a very tired student in our midst. Depending on the time of day, there was a blond lump in the bed, at the kitchen table, or in front of the television. Having returned earlier than most of her friends, Jennifer seemed content to live in a semi-vegetative state, gathering her strength for the reunions anticipated a few days later.
To be sure, she allowed us to take her shopping and out to dinner. But Susan had been expecting more, and as Jennifer’s priorities became clearer, the flickers of anxiety started to blossom into mild agitation. This isn’t some hotel, young lady. This is your HOME, and I’m your MOTHER!
Well, you see, that was the problem. It seems that in the three months that Jennifer had been at Vanderbilt, she had, in navy parlance, "transferred the flag." We discovered this in brutal fashion when she mentioned to a friend that she was flying "home" (back to Nashville) on Sunday. Susan freaked when she heard it.
Even I, one who harbors no illusions about the wrenching metamorphosis leading to independence, was startled. I had loved my four years at Lafayette and had bridled at the notion of conforming during my periodic returns to parental rule. But I never stopped thinking of home as home. I guess each generation finds a new way to torture parents.
Of course, there were many moments of pleasure during those nine short days. Quiet talks, shared recollections, just being together. And with lower expectations, I was able to enjoy Jennifer’s stay. At times, it was harder for Susan. For the most part, I tried to remain in the eye of the hurricane as the two of them swirled through a few difficult moments. Their imbroglios were nothing new, but watching a daughter’s detachment block a mother’s goal is never a pretty sight.
All too soon, it was over. On the way back from dropping her off at the airport, we thought about how some things had changed, while others never seem to. It was clear, for instance, that Jennifer had come to visit, not to stay. The open suitcases scattered around her room were silent testimony to that fact. On the other hand, it was a cheerful reminder of her consistency to discover the tops left off every container of toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant in her bathroom (we needn’t mention the perpetually empty toilet paper roll).
So this is how it’s going to be, I suppose. Those seamless years of complete access to our daughter’s life have vanished in a twinkling. What remains is an homogenous mix of wonderful memories and some aching regrets.
But I can handle it. Just as many a film’s best moments are provided by cameo appearances, I suspect Susan and I will derive a new, if different, pleasure sharing smaller portions of Jennifer’s world. The trauma of losing influence over her life will be replaced by the pleasure of watching her gather confidence and maturity.
Besides, it’s happening in easy doses. We just saw her a few weeks ago, and now it’s only days until she returns for Christmas. If her mind is more on her friends and the upcoming Charity Ball than pampering her parents, that’s okay.
And I’ll try to be sensitive when I remind her of this in about twenty years.
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