Late last Thursday afternoon I drove to campus to help my son pack up his room, which proved dusty and hot work that took longer than we'd expected. It was seven o'clock before we remembered dinner. We decided to eat at a dining commons, his favorite. I detected a note of institutional pride in his step as we walked to the building, and once we'd arrived he gave me a tour of the varied culinary offerings, so many more than were available when I was in college thirty years ago. We sat and ate, and he reviewed his freshman year for me. It was a good year, full of social and emotional growth obvious even in the way he interacted with me over dinner.
As we finished up eating I half-closed my eyes and imagined myself a student at his university. I wonder sometimes whether I am alone in doing this. I am always inserting myself into strangers' lives, trying them on for size, not because I am dissatisfied with my own, although of course there are small dissatisfactions, but because I am so curious about the lived experiences of other people.
My son is much more able to be alone than I was at his age, much more comfortable in his own skin. In college I was not settled unless I was surrounded by people, who must have been acting for me as some sort of validation of my social worth. I was reminded of this as I looked around the dining hall and saw quite a few students alone, seemingly content to be so. I voiced this observation to my son, who told me that sure, he dined alone now and then, if he could not find a friend to join him. "Do you bring a book, or your phone, when that happens?" I asked. He looked puzzled. "No," he replied. "Why would I?" Indeed.
How did we get here? How am I old enough to have a child turning twenty years old in October? How will I be fifty years old one month later?
(We got here in the usual way, one foot, then the other. So many single moments, most forgettable, make up a life.)
Do you know what about my older son makes me the most proud? It is that he is political. He spies moral wrongs—so many just now that it makes one's head spin. He articulates them, and he believes in fighting them.
Reintegrating a college student into his old household poses certain challenges. I don't want to treat him like a child. But neither is he yet an adult, not quite, although he believes himself one. It is far too easy to fall into old, familiar patterns, and when he and his brother interact, I will not lie, they might as well be ten years old and six years old, as if the intervening decade had never passed. They are not at their best when they are with each other.
Despite the brotherly sniping, I am grateful to have our family, all four of us, under one roof. It will not last, I know, and that is precisely why it feels so sweet, on this day before Mother's Day.
Mother's Day: a holiday I nearly hate, between my ambivalence about my own mother (whose inability to mother is explainable and tragic but still felt by me as a loss, or more properly a hole), her now eight-year absence from my life and from life in general, and my belief that forced gratitude for a thing not only is not real but also actively pushes away what is real.
Still, I happen to be a mother writing about her children on the day before Mother's Day, a mother grateful to have her family, all four, under one roof, which I suppose makes today as much my own Mother's Day as the officially sanctioned one may be. If nothing else, the best lawn mower in our family has arrived home to take over that chore, gift enough, gift enough.
If Mother's Day is meaningful to you, I wish you a wonderful, chore-free day with the people you love. And if it isn't, know that I understand.