"Hey, Meiko, do you still have that fake ID?" Katja asks her older sister when we visit her at college. Meiko's a first-year student at Barnard in New York City. The three of us are scrunched in the back seat of a rental car driving down Broadway to have lunch in the East Village.
"You have a fake ID?" I interject, real casual-like. This is a new one. There's nothing in the college guidebooks about your kid showing you her new fake ID as you visit her in college for the first time.
"Where'd you get it?" I ask, wondering who would provide my kid with such contraband.
"I'm not going to tell you!" Meiko says.
She can't tell her mother every little thing. But she shows me the card, replete with a swipe strip on the back, very realistic. It says she's from Maryland and was born in 1984. Nothing like the cheap laminated one I ordered from some company when I was in high school, desperate as I was to be part of the 1970s disco scene, "Saturday Night Fever" and all.
Meiko is by all regards a very sensible and responsible young woman. But what do I know? What did my own parents know about me between the ages of 18 and 21? Our weekly phone calls were cursory and reassuring. They kept sending money, I got decent grades, and I got drunk virtually every weekend.
Maybe my own parents did know what was going on for me. Maybe they could tell I was hung-over when we talked on Sundays. They're gone now, and it's too late to ask them. Even if I could ask them, would I? Ummmm, Mom, did you know I was, like, sort of a habitual binge drinker in college, and I only stopped drinking when I got pregnant with Meiko?
"How much did it cost?" her dad asks from the front seat.
"Sixty dollars. I had a cheaper one, but it looked really bad. I got a good deal on this one."
God, do I have to know all this? Sixty dollars of my baby's hard-earned savings from her summer job at the bakery. I mean, I've done my share of partying, to the point that I don't even drink anymore, but somehow I thought my kids might be spared. Somehow I thought only the trouble-making, wild kids bothered with fake IDs. You know, the ones who gather Halloween night at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, fill their Camelbaks with beer, and set cars on fire. Not my bright, lovely daughter, not at Barnard College.
"Everybody has one," she says. "It'd be stupid not to."
When we drive Meiko back to campus and walk her up to her room, I peek in the refrigerator in the suite she shares with three other brilliant young women, first-year students, our future leaders, and it's got Heinekens in it, and some colorful bottle lying sideways, along with the pad Thai sauce I made for her and some take-out leftovers.
Last year, my friend Allegra visited her daughter -- smart, politically active, and a world traveler -- at Oberlin, and found that she and her roommate had turned their large walk-in closet into a fully stocked bar. Twinkle lights, stools, a fridge. She told me this story in an amused sort of way, before Meiko went away, and I thought it was pretty outrageous. Shouldn't the college crack down? Shouldn't Allegra have done something?
But now, I'm thinking differently. Trying to prevent your college-age child from drinking is like trying to unflood the levees of the Ponchartrain. I'm sure there are those wonderfully mature or uptight students, but I didn't know any when I was in school. Even the Wellness Floors that all colleges have now require only that students don't party in their rooms, not that they refrain completely.
Back in Milwaukee, I run into another mom from our kids' graduating class, whose good Catholic daughter is the portrait of common sense, a lovely, bright responsible girl, one of Meiko's best friends. "Pray for Beth," she requests as she leans toward me, as even Beth is walking a little on the wild side away at school.
I pray for Beth, Meiko, and all those good girls. I wrap them in white light and beseech their guardian angels -- those benevolent, omnipresent, fluttery whatevers -- to protect them in ways I cannot. It's all about letting go, we know this, and college is a time of exploration and experimentation on all levels. But then there are laws and university policies, and responsibilities of academics and living on your own. Not to even mention date rape, alcohol poisoning, and worse. Prohibition backfires, lectures bore, and scare tactics incite fear instead of common sense. I want my daughter to be confident, sensible, and safe.
I suppose that Meiko has to develop her own relationship with her freedom. That she has to figure out how to take care of herself and what her priorities are. So far, she's been way ahead of my own learning curve, and she's enjoyed many more opportunities for growth than I had as a child, from Waldorf education to arts and athletics, and her gap year and semester abroad. And she has a different relationship with me and her dad than I had with my parents, who were well-meaning, high-achieving immigrant parents practicing "Don't ask, don't tell." Ed and I are more like "What'd-you-eat-for-dinner-tonight?" parents.
Let's hope all our years of attachment parenting pays off. Even more than our many conversations about growing up, I'm counting on just the day-to-day effects of living together to rub off. I'm hoping I've modeled how not to abuse your body, how not to anesthetize emotions, how to relax and have fun without substances, how to strike one's own path, and how to stay awake and alert and sensitive.
Meiko and her friends are playing at being grownup as they go to clubs and concerts, use the subways day and night, choose their own class schedules, and determine their own destinies. Yet, they still have parents to fall back on as they slowly develop independence. I, too, savored that exciting, heady freedom before marriage, kids, a house, and a job came along.
I'm just counting on the allure of alcohol to wear off at some point for these young women, even though it never does for many people. I know I'm at the wrong party, usually with lawyers, when people start telling bender stories. And our culture doesn't help either, with incessant advertising, from raunchy TV beer ads to elegant full-page vodka ads in the New York Times Magazine, giving the impression that alcohol is a necessary part of life.
From political activism to mothering to teaching, my work basically consists of encouraging people to live up to their highest potential. I hand the Maryland ID card back to Meiko, I close the refrigerator door, and I decide not to report her and her roommates to the authorities. Back in Milwaukee, I talk to her a couple times a week, surround her with loving prayers, and entrust her to her angels. Come on, guardian angels, get busy!