And Away She Goes

By Mary Helen Berg

The last year of living with a teenager before they leave for college is a bit like living with a “Pushmi-Pullyou.” (Read your Dr. Dolittle: it’s a creature with a head at each end that tries to go two directions at once.) They push you away HARD trying to establish that they are – Yes they are! – ready to fly. And they pull you close every once in a while, just to torture you and remind you how much you are going to miss them. I had been told that the summer before college, our relationship could be schizophrenic, that some kids become oozing sores so that you can’t wait to turn their bedroom into an office. Others turn sweet as pie so when they leave they may as well take one of your appendages with them. I wondered which one my daughter would choose and vowed that no matter which, I wouldn’t cry. I would make it easy on everyone and be tough.

Anyone who knows me knows this is a joke. I like to appear to have the hide of an armadillo, but underneath am a soft underbelly that qualifies me to write for Hallmark and does not serve me well when I make promises not to cry.

After a childhood of symbiosis, and then pushing me away hard in her last year at home, my oldest child decided to become a young woman the summer before college. She worked fulltime and became as reliable and reasoned as the best friend you always wanted.

Turned out, her image of moving to college came from an episode of the Gilmore Girls where Lorelei Gilmore helps Rory move in. Lorelei sneaks out the old dorm mattress to replace it with a fresh one. Cut to evening in the dorm room: mother and daughter stay together on the first night at college.

Other media references helped us prepare to say goodbye. In Toy Story 3, Andy tries to hold on to a few special toys when he leaves for college. In the end, he gives them to a little girl who he knows will take care of them. Then he drives off. I wept.

“Didn’t you think it was sad?” I asked my college-bound daughter.

“No. What was sad about it?” asked she who held on to her dolls ‘til she was 16 and her little sister pried them from her hot, sweaty hands.

“Wasn’t it sad when he gave his toys away?”

“I am not giving my toys away,” She said. “I am taking them with me.”

She was having none of the mushy stuff.

Then, she saw The Kids Are All Right. At the end, the older daughter is dropped at college.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” The words spilled out, half sincere and half for the theater of it all. “The kids were playing Frisbee and no one asked her to play…” she babbled, reverting back to kindergarten for a moment. “I’ll be all alone.”

“No. You’ll have three roommates,” I say. This time, I was having none of the mushy stuff.

Finally it is the day: Nine hours until we say goodbye. We walk 20 blocks up Broadway to campus. She takes my hand and holds tight the entire way. Neither one of us minds that palms are sweating. We are symbiotic again.

The move-in is smooth. The clock ticks. Three hours to go. We lunch on campus with some of her new classmates. Will any of them be a soul mate? I step aside to take a phone call, and she texts me: Where did you go? I am only a few feet away, but she wants me closer.

We sit on folding chairs and listen politely to the orientation speech by the charismatic college president. Our shoulders touch and we sit as close as we can without her being in my lap. I watch the clock. The president talks of the changes to come, of who these promising young women will be in four years. I strategize again about how I will not cry, but I know I haven’t a prayer. I breathe deeply and try to distract myself. We are in an auditorium of 100 people and I can’t help it – I sniffle.

I tell myself, as long as my shoulders aren’t shaking, and I keep looking straight ahead, no one will notice. Then a big, fat tear slides down my left cheek and hits my daughter’s bare shoulder. She jumps as if the ceiling is leaking and then realizes the origin.

“Awwww, Mommy,” she says, and puts her head on my shoulder.

So little time left. Outside the auditorium, a few brave parents start to go. She says: not yet.

We sit at a table under the trees and now she is in my lap. Families are trickling out, and there are few excuses left. But she says, look at the clock: it’s not time. Fifteen more minutes.

Then, it really is time. We walk to the courtyard near the front gate. We are buried in each other’s arms. We whisper in each other’s ears: “I love you,” “I love you,” “I am going to miss you so much,” “You are going to be great.” Now, she is crying, too.

“Over this last year you have become one of my best friends,” she says.

I tell her I will always be there, for whatever she needs. I decide she should be the one to go, and I tell her I will watch as she walks to her dorm. I will watch her walk away. She finally releases me and turns to go. I watch as she walks across the brick courtyard. Halfway to the ivy-draped doorway, she stops and turns around to look for me, to see if I am watching her. Yes, I am still there. Still watching. She smiles and turns away again. This time she doesn’t look back.

About this writer

  • Mary Helen Berg Mary Helen Berg is a former journalist and a current essayist and writer of children’s books. Her essays have appeared in a variety of publications. She practices mothering on three children in Los Angeles.

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2 Responses to “And Away She Goes”

  1. Francine Garson says:

    Your beautiful essay made me think of Hodding Carter’s famous quote, “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots the other is wings.” It sounds like you’ve given your daughter both!

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