She's Leaving Home

Memoir by Fran Cronin

A Mother Struggles with Letting Go

 


When I was pregnant with my first child, strangers shouted from across the street, “It’s a boy!”

"Dandelion Seeds" © Cynthia Staples

My husband and I had no such certainty.  Anecdotal wisdom may have led total strangers to assume the watermelon shape of my belly was proof of the maleness within, but the case made by family genetics was stronger: My husband was one of two boys, and his brother had fathered two sons. My in-laws maintained that a girl had not been born into the family for 60 years.

So when the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!,” my husband shot back, “It’s a girl?” Then, to me, he repeated with certainty, “It’s a girl.” Belying expectations, we had brought our daughter Dora into the world.

Dora is now 18 and has just graduated from high school. Eighteen years may seem to be a long time when you think about all that can transpire. In my case, I had another child (a son, now 15); I moved three times; my hair turned gray; my mother died. My father sold the house my three brothers and I grew up in and now lives in an assisted living facility nearby. I lost my husband and have been a widow for almost 15 years. I survived cancer.

But in my brain’s faltering calculus of time, my husband is holding our newborn daughter in his arms—her small, furrowed brow a replica of his. Her seven-pound, eleven-ounce body a rib-bulging torso with an oversized head. Then I am tucking her in close, clutching her like a football in the grip of a wide receiver gunning for a touchdown. Nothing can dislodge this precious cargo from my arms.

That rush of maternal certainty, of animalistic protection and devotion, has never left me.  It’s a state of being I never questioned. Yet, in the fall, my daughter will be off to college, and I will, I know, be the one who waves the final goodbye.

The columnist Ann Landers is often quoted as saying, “Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”

Chinese fortune cookie wisdom, but also true.

Shaky in my belief that I was parent enough to raise my two children as both mother and father, I’ve hovered like a she cat on the lookout for the unwanted. I have been more prone to sucking in air to scent danger than to exhaling long, breathy praise, always aware that I might fail to launch my daughter. I was determined to see her successfully advance to college.

But now that college is imminent, I falter. Have I done well by her? Will she—like me at age 18, when I anointed myself the master of my future—maneuver herself into unnavigable shoals? Battered by my own inner storms during my time at college, it took years for me to emerge as a wiser, perhaps less fearless, woman. It was a high price to pay.

"Dandelion" © Cynthia Staples

 

We reminiscence a lot, my daughter and I. She has been fatherless since the age of three and a half, and I rekindle her youngest memories—and mine—through the retelling of old stories, worn from use but as beloved as a still-clung-to baby blanket.

My late husband was a tall, rangy man, and Dora loved being high up on his shoulders. “Soldiers, Daddy, soldiers!” she’d demand with outstretched arms, and my husband would scoop her up and plant her securely on his shoulders, her legs dangling. Her belly laugh cascaded down in lusty waves, as if she were channeling a giddy adult and not the toddler she was.

The summer Dora was five, I heard her sobbing in her room. Expecting blood and bruising, I rushed in. But she was on her bed, hugging herself and rocking, no mayhem in sight. I put my arms around her, wiping heavy tears and sticky hair away from her face. “What’s the matter, sweet pea?” I asked. “I can’t remember,” she sobbed. “I can’t remember Daddy’s voice.” Was this my daughter’s first encounter with the heartbreak of letting go?

Despite all the times I’ve gone to sleep at night promising myself that the next day I’ll be a better mother, I have not perfected the art of parenting. I have unwittingly raised a daughter too much like me: restless, willful, and walled against the fragility of life. She is hunkered down in a world of her own making. When she exits the house each day, her true north is the worthiness of her friends and the love of her boyfriend. At home, she leaves her bravado at the door. She nests, swaddling herself in blankets and curling like a cat in her chair, her computer on her lap.

“Mama, can I have some tea?”

I bring her tea and cookies, marveling that I’ve managed to hold onto our home. Our money should have run out years ago. From the perch of our house, I am an owl, swiveling my neck in all directions, looking for signs of danger. With my vigilance, my daughter can safely play the part of being grown up. To me, she’s still a little girl in search of dress-up clothes.

In Justin Torres’s first novel We the Animals, Ma, mother of three boys, tells her youngest son on the day he turns seven why he shouldn’t get older like his brothers:

They changed…wriggled away when I tried to cuddle them, wouldn’t sit still on my lap. I had to let them go—had to harden my heart…

Rereading this passage, I’m frustrated by Ma. Actually, I’m borderline mad. She’s refusing to see the man inside her son, to embrace the expected arc of his life.  And I wonder if Torres himself is ambivalent about the thinning connective tissue as a child grows up and away from home.

Is Torres saying that we parents only get two choices in our children’s steady march to adulthood: a prolonged dependence or an abrupt severing of ties? If so, neither appeals.

I know I’m a tug-of-war of emotions. My brain babbles with warnings of encroaching superfluity—I will become unnecessary save for the occasional request for a handout. Red neon flashes with a genuine fear for my daughter as she plunges headlong into unmapped terrain. It’s that old aphorism roaring down on my head: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” My daughter is blithe to the pitfalls that will pave her future.

In September, when I turn to say goodbye, my daughter will lean in for a kiss.

“I love you,” I’ll say.

My kiss, an offering: a talisman, a moat, a torrent of love that will give her a current she can ride.

 

"We the Animals" book cover


Publishing Information

  • We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

Correction, June 12, 2013: The reference entry for the Ann Landers quote has been removed here, because we've been unable to verify the quote's original source. Landers is certainly quoted all over the Internet, however.

Art Information

 


Fran Cronin is a contributing editor and columnist at Talking Writing.

 

"When my hair started to gray at a somewhat respectable age, my dying mother—who finished all her sentences to me with “don’t ever tell anyone your age”—did not leave this earth until she said with her last breath, “And please dye your hair.”— Eileen Fisher’s Got My Back


 

Comments

Dear Fran,
This is beautifully written and such a courageous expression of your love for Dora and reflections on your role as mother and father and everything else.
With my admiration,
Barrie

Oh, Fran, so beautiful. My older son turns 30 on Friday, and I too have been remembering the day he was born and all the birthdays that followed. Your daughter sounds lovely. She will always need you and you will be surprised by the moments of closeness that come once she has left your nest. Letting go is hard, but once you can, the mother-child relationship will grow into something even stronger and more lasting.

Your essay is so beautiful. It stirs up memories of when my parents dropped me off at college. I remembering wanting to appear strong as they walked away. I was strong ... but I was so happy when they snuck back and found me in the closet crying. It is a moment I will never forget of my mother's voice, and of her kiss on my cheek. In that moment and throughout her life, she reminded me that no matter how old I got, how much I thought I knew, how far I traveled, I would always be her baby. Your daughter sounds like a very lucky young woman. ;)

Dear Fran,
I, too, remember spunky, precious Dora at five. Letting go has been on my mind these days as my "baby", Zack, is also leaving for college in the fall. It was easier to let my older ones go than to let this youngest one leave, yet your words reminded me to "see the man inside my son, to embrace the expected arc of his life."
Your poignant essay is beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. Keep writing.
fondly,
Lora

Dear Fran,

Your lovely essay came as a gift in my in box this morning, just days before the dreaded Father's Day.

I, too, am a widow, age 62, greying daily, with an adopted Chinese daughter about to be a sophomore in college in Boston. I raised her on my own since she was 13 and often think of how different she'd be had her handsome, competitive architect dad lived.

My long departed Southern mother's comments echo as you describe your own mother's ("Is that how girls in Philadelphia are dressing now, in cowboy boots?" and "In my day the nice girls lived on the Upper East Side, not the West side...").

Never once did I comment on my child's weight gain, acne, alopecia areata, questionable taste in clothing. Instead, I said, you look great, I adore you, you can do whatever you want in this life. And she has. She is coming home for Father's Day, and we will laugh at photos of her with the dad whose first words upon a diagnosis of melanoma were, "I want to see my daughter grow up."

And I assure, your daughter WILL come home! She'll say she won't, as my Lili did so often, but it is not true.
Liz

Dear Fran,

Your essay was spot on, to the core, real and raw with emotion.

I am a parent with two years left before my eldest son goes off to college.

Thank you for reminding me to relish and hold onto every moment with my son as he dips his toe into this wild, wondrous and scary world these next two years with the starting of driving, a first girlfriend and interests of his own. And yet, reminding me also, to let him go, to let him become the man he was meant to be, and one day, finally, wave good bye to the little boy I once cradled in my arms.

Your writing is divine. And...I like your hair gray!

Monica Dashwood

Fran,

If you haven't already shared this with Dora, I hope you save it for her. Priceless, like you.

Yours in imperfect parenting
Xoxoxo s

Fran,
I'm typing this with misty eyes. Remembering that day when Dora was five.
Back then, our daughters played together everyday...it seems close and far at once. Recently a friend wrote that "The empty nest is a can of worms." I suspect this is a "fortune cookie truth". Let's meet for Chinese food and raise a toast to our college girls this Fall?

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