Our college daughter recently informed us that after much searching she had found the apartment of her dreams. "It's got hardwood floors, and a fireplace, and . . . !" She and her two future roommates were beside themselves with excitement. I had to sit down to catch my breath.
Swelling violins and a rousing chorus of "Sunrise, Sunset" flooded my brain. "Is this the little girl . . . "
It was one thing to send her off to her college dormitory. They have "house fellows" there, a semblance of human authority figures whom I can imagine are taking care of her on some level. (Although she told me that she and her friends often feel incredulous to be living in a "kids' village without adults . . . whoops, we are the adults!") To leave the campus borders, which the majority of students at her university do after their first year, means a whole other state of independence.
The parents' association at her university sent an email to first-year parents: "What to Expect During Winter Break." It was an attempt to prepare us for the inevitable truth that life would not be as we knew it four months ago. Point number eight brought me up short: "Your student may begin referring to their life in college as 'home.'"
Oh. Thanks for the heads-up. I started running imaginary scenes in my head. She would say, "Oh, I'm really homesick for all that snow!" Or, "I left my red sweater at home." I practiced keeping my face still and just nodding.
But then I remember the excitement and pride of transferring that label of 'home' from one place to another, or even using it for multiple places. I remember my own first off-campus house in Ithaca, New York, a rustic cottage on the edge of Cayuga Lake, at the bottom of seventy-eight rickety wooden steps. I remember the thrill and pride of living in that place, of feeling ecstatic over a pot of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
I loved Ithaca. I love it still. It was the first place that I ever chose to live, where I truly left my childhood at the door and began my adult life. I chose that cottage without my parents seeing it, checking it out, knocking on the walls or checking the thermostat. I did it all by myself. When the steps were thick with crusted ice and salt, and I nearly broke my neck maneuvering down them with armloads of groceries, I never regretted it, never longed for the modern conveniences of the on-campus apartments.
I remember the sense of giddy hope and anticipation with which I signed so many leases: the triplex in San Francisco's Cole Valley, with the life-sized Einstein poster on the front door; the tiny back apartment carved out of a giant Victorian near Japantown; the studio covered in fog near Ocean Beach.
So here it is. She's going to have a place called "home" thousands of miles from where her family lives. Ours is the third house she's lived in. She was born into a small A-frame cabin on the side of a steep hill that we outgrew when she was two. Then we lived in another house for twelve years, an eccentrically built place with cedar shingles in patterns like ocean waves. And now our family has a big house, the dream house with the many bedrooms (one of them hers), the cathedral ceiling, the large kitchen with the marble island.
Unlike my daughters, I never moved around in childhood. I lived in the same mint-green suburban ranch house from the time I was brought home as an infant until I went away to college. I kept coming back, for holidays, or to visit, until just five years ago when we sold it after my father's death. My childhood room remained unchanged, the same Eagles posters thumbtacked on the walls as when I'd left it in 1977. That house was my anchor. I mourned the loss of that place, the beginning of my known history, almost as hard and as deeply as I grieved for my father. I dreamed about it relentlessly, of being able to walk its narrow hallways again, of seeing it intact with all of the threadbare furnishings. I had nightmares about it being torn down and replaced by an unrecognizable mansion.
My husband asks, "Where do you think you would you want to live . . . later on?" He means when it's just the two of us. Our younger girl has three and a half years left of high school, and my mother is eighty-six. We have no idea when this hypothetical "later on" might be, but we muse about what that life might look like. We talk about Guatemala, Brooklyn, Vancouver. I fantasize about returning to Ithaca, perhaps a little cottage on the lake. And then we think about staying put, right where we are.
It's my daughter's turn to move around, to experiment with picking up and putting down roots in all kinds of places. I feel a vicarious thrill, and a pang, when I look at the online photos of her home-to-be. The hardwood floors are beautiful, the fireplace charming and the black-and-white-tiles in the kitchen are sweet. The shot from "out the front window" shows the looming university stadium, home to insanely rowdy football games. I bite my tongue and refrain from saying, "Won't it be noisy? Is it safe?"
It's her turn to make her own nest, far away. It's time for us to be the anchor, for us to be the familiar spot that everyone comes back to. I get a packet from her first landlord, asking us to co-sign on the lease of that apartment in the Midwest. I take a deep breath, sniffle a bit and sign on the dotted line.