From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

When a Child Goes Off to College

How do you know the fruit is ripe? When it leaves the bunch.

André Gide

I thought I was taking her to kindergarten; then what am I doing on this college campus? Isn’t this the blanket I made for her nap time? Why am I putting it on this strange bed? What are we doing here? She’s so excited, and I—I’m pretending the stone sitting on my heart isn’t there. Where did the 18 years go?

There’s nothing left to do. The bed’s made, suitcases unpacked, she’s even putting up posters and pictures. Does this mean I’m supposed to leave? I kiss her good bye, smile and tell her to have a good time—but not so good she forgets to study. Then I walk out the door into golden autumn, unlock the car, slip behind the steering wheel and cry.

The drive home is long and lonely. I walk into the house; it’s so still, as though everyone is gone forever. Her room is so bare and quiet and oh, Lord, it’s so empty! I can’t believe it; you can even see the carpet! Her bed is made all neat and tidy, not even a lump from a lost sock. The curtains are straight at the windows and the closet is almost vacant. But... what’s that? The junk is still under the bed!

So that’s where my missing cups and the crystal glass disappeared to—all sitting on the dresser, surrounded by pictures of cast-off boyfriends. And there’s her favorite blouse in the corner. She forgot it. Will she forget my teachings as easily as the blouse?

I hear the school bus rumbling its way up our road, and my heart leaps because for one sharp instant I think she’s home. And then with a ragged sigh I remember: The school bus doesn’t stop here anymore. The driver rounds the corner, shifts gears and drives on, and I stare at the empty driveway. No more schoolgirl, the house full of friends, the trail of clutter, the messed-up bathroom. Just clean, tidy, dull, quiet.

This morning I was a mother, 18 years on the job. Then, just like that, I’ve been phased out. What do I do now? Whom do I nurture? So I want her to be independent, and I know I’m supposed to work my way out of a job, but why didn’t they tell me how one corner of your heart falls off when the time comes?

Wasn’t it just yesterday she cuddled in my lap, her baby curls shining in the sunlight? Then she turned a corner and her biggest catastrophes were skinned knees and loose teeth. Now she’s running down a whole new path, and the catastrophes loom larger—like broken hearts and dreams. And I no longer can heal her hurts with a kiss; Band-Aids and chocolate chip cookies just won’t do it anymore. I yearn to save her from tears and hurt—but I can’t. She has to learn it all by herself, cry her own tears and deal with her own heartaches.

I thought I was ready for this, had it all planned. I started a new career, dug out projects and filled up my calendar. I wasn’t about to sit around and indulge in the empty-nest syndrome. Not me; I was smarter than that. Why, I’m the “new” woman: bright, efficient, self-assured. Then why am I clutching my daughter’s old Raggedy Ann doll and crying?

Then I remember. Another autumn, another place. I was the young girl going away to college, standing on the threshold of dreams, the air crisp and sparkling with the excitement of new tomorrows. It was my father who stood waving good-bye, his whole body slumped with sorrow. Oh, my father, now at last, I understand!

A phase of living gone, a child you nurtured no longer needing you, an empty spot in your heart and days.

I expect I’ll recover and pursue new dreams, relish unlimited time, love not picking up clutter and grow to adore tidy bathrooms. But right now, for a little while on this golden autumn afternoon, I think I’ll just sit here in a young girl’s bedroom, clutch an old and much loved doll, cry my tears and remember.

Phyllis Volkens

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