What Little I Know…

is probably enough. Enough to realize that I know nothing. All the best-laid plans based on the soundest of information can go awry in a second. This happy suburban life can crumble with one sure, swift kick in the right place.

That said, the daily uncertainty is also what makes life interesting. It’s just that never knowing (or understanding) what awaits you when you wake up is how I spent my childhood.

Every morning revealed a new plan according to the whims of my parents. One day we would be off to look at their latest real estate prospect (some old wreck of a farm a la Green Acres), and the next, taking a quick trip up to New Jersey for a flat or two of blueberries.

Much of the routine was determined by weather, or the lack of it. Sunny growing seasons brought long, grueling days with late night dinners, but the dark, dreary winters demanded hours of doing nothing but eating, sitting by the stove and weaving dreams for future mirages that could change by the hour.

There are those who say “How wonderful that your parents were so spontaneous!” and I agree. It was, until that particular family trait became relentless and exhausting to a child who wanted everyone to be happy, and tried to people-please as a result. The constant shifting of my future well-being led me to find refuge in regular school schedules and visits with my conventional and steady grandparents.

When I reached adulthood, I sought the status quo at all costs. I thought that predicting every day would make me happy. It did not.

Surprise — those “spontaneity” genes I’d inherited kicked in and determined my days boring and lackluster. In response, I’d either blow things up or swerve wildly off the orderly path. Regular 9-to-5 jobs never worked out. Only parenthood kept me steady, and once again the school schedules gave me a time limit to all my ramblings and mental detours.

Recently, I was convinced that I had finally settled down in my old age: empty-nester working a regular part-time job (with a built-in, ever-changing schedule to satisfy those nonconformist cravings), conventional commitments to both church and state, plus a few weird hobbies thrown in for good measure.

And then the economy tanked, taking all those illusions of prosperity and security with it. My husband and I discover that the stable and placid institutions we work for have become roiling seas of fear and discontent. The status quo has taken a nasty turn into a maelstrom of downsizing and layoffs. And what do I find for my life preserver?

Those spontaneity genes again.

I’ve come prepared with the backing of all those sailors, immigrants and crazy entrepreneurs who sit in my family tree–from the ancestor who came over in the early 1900’s just to ride a motorcycle across the entire US and then go back home to Germany for the rest of his life, to the gutsy generations who fled war-ravaged Europe for another do-over on American soil in the dusk of their lives.

Yes, yes, there’s all that irony business when I realize something I hated as a kid is helping me cope with the present and future storms of life. This is all part of the great ocean of change, and the most I can try for is a balance between the humdrum and the upheaval. I really don’t know what will come and what will go.

But I’m ready for the voyage.

I hope.


Migration of the Collegian

Letting Go #14

Every fall, the young of our fair species stuff various modes of transportation with unnecessary materials that are deemed essential by teenage standards and begin the long trek to the halls of higher education, social advancement, community living and cafeteria food. There, said youth unpack what was carefully packed and strew their belongings on the front lawns of the chosen dorms, awaiting their turns to haul cartloads of the same unnecessary materials up many floors, only to repeat the process of cramming the stuff into a very small dorm room the size of most suburban bathrooms.

For years, we’ve watched this ritual performed by friends and neighbors from afar, and thanked our lucky stars it wasn’t us.

Well, this year . . . it was us.

It’s not like I didn’t try to prepare myself. As part of my “Nine” year of Letting Go, this was the BIG ONE in the overall forecast. But somehow, it just didn’t seem real until I was standing in my daughter’s non-air-conditioned dorm room with sweat streaming down my back after performing the migration ritual of pushing her entire world into about six cubic feet of space. At that point, I was struggling with my emotions. Part of me was proud that she hadn’t brought her entire bedroom for the year–she is not a very materialistic person and she takes care of her belongings. Part of me was excited for her–I couldn’t wait to plunge into the college social scene after living an isolated life on the farm during my high school years. And part of me just didn’t want to let go of the little girl.

I won’t know whether it gets easier as each child leaves home, because I don’t have that luxury of experience. This is our only one, and my husband and I get one shot at each milestone. There are no do-overs, in a sense. Now, I know that each child is different, and that if we’d had more children, the circumstances would vary as much as every cloud in the sky. Maybe the pain of letting go is just as bad during the next launch from the nest, but at least you know what that pain feels like from the last time. You know how you will behave. You will become familiar with it, like the attack of an unpleasant in-law or second cousin you have to endure occasionally at family reunions. It’s a necessary evil.

What I do know is this: after I helped carry armloads of her worldly possessions, set up the all-important bed, fan and TV, hauled back a box of her new textbooks from the bookstore, ate one final meal with her at an off-campus restaurant and stood in front of her dorm building to say goodbye, I did not sob and clutch her to my chest, or harass her with a string of warnings and dire predictions, or even insist on going back up to her room until she threw me out. In other words, to my great relief, I did not embarrass her (I think) or create a scene.

I gave her a kiss and told her to have fun. She has earned it. And then my husband and I took that long walk back to our car and drove home to an empty nest, because as parents of the collegian, we have earned it–whether we like it or not.