Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


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.

Susan Ito has served Literary Mama as a Fiction Editor, CNF editor, and columnist of “Life in the Sandwich.” She edited the literary anthology, A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She is the author of the SheBook, The Mouse Room. Her work has appeared in CHOICE, Hip Mama, the Bellevue Literary Review,, Making More Waves, Growing Up Asian American, the Kartika Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Fiction Editor, Columnist, and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Literary Mama.

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ok, that put tears in my eyes... p.s. why are you sitting at a computer when you are in Hawaii????
Oh Susan, how well I remember those years! When Alisa came back to the Bay Area and immediately began to look for an apartment, it was a momentary shock...and then a delight. She was launched...and she had purpose and direction. Who knew?! It sounds like you did it right and sent a healthy, independent young woman into the world.
Very nice, Susan! This made me vividly 'see' MY girl a couple of years from now: "I remember the thrill and pride of living in that place, of feeling ecstatic over a pot of Kraft macaroni and cheese." Thanks for sharing.
Susan, you write so eloquently and force us to stand back for a moment from the daily hustle-bustle and notice what it all means. Thank you!
Your sentence about leases makes me yearn for San Francisco.
Hi Sue, Quite the poignant entry! It is especially interesting because I had been thinking about the same topic, what constitutes "home", having had to travel on business a bit recently. Having moved around so much in my childhood ( 6 towns, 7 houses, in 3 states) the concept of home is very different for me. Rather than a single place, it is a multitude of places and memories, and of family. I have envied those people, like you, who grew up in one town, in one home, and had roots to put down and reflect back on. Indeed your daughter's finding a place to somewhat call her own, someplace she will now begin to think of as home, is a big step, and a step I hadn't thought about for a long time. I think until I moved to our present house, where we have lived for 19 years now, have I really thought about a place as home since high school. Someplace familiar, comfortable, replete with memories and a strong sense of family. A place where I can wake up in the dark and navigate the whole house without turning the light on and not bump into anything other than the odd Lego or dog toy left on the floor. It is a nice feeling. Thank you Sue, for taking me down a path I hadn't considered. And of course in your life, another milestone for you, and your daughter, in the slow breakaway and formation of her own independence. Keep these blogs coming, I truly enjoy your writing! Love, Ken
Lovely column, Susan. So evocative. I remember feeling that way about San Antonio, where I went for college: it was the first place I had *chosen* to be, and the choice alone was thrilling.
Great column! Wonderful details! Just the right amount of sentimentality. Fabulous last line. Go, Susan!
"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." (Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn!)
You're giving me a beautiful preview of life six years from now--I can see our loss ahead, but more, our joy and pride in our daughter. Thank you, Susan, for this lovely column. (Oh, I remember my first apartment! A nondescript flat in Costa Mesa, in one of those California apartment buildings with the outdoor courtyard in the middle and the tiny concrete balconies--a couple of miles from the beach. Two plates in the kitchen, one cup and one teakettle. I was in heaven.)
I'm chuckling, because our son dropped the same bomb on us a couple of months ago. He and his roommate have found a townhouse, they're thrilled at the prospect of having their own place, and although it's closed this summer for renovation, he's already talking about just staying at school after that. I did the same thing, so I'm trying hard to button my lip. But it doesn't make missing him any easier, and led to this plaintive and only partially toungue-in-cheek text message the other day: "Mommy misses you. Call please?" He didn't. He's stretching his wings, and my husband and I just have to learn to live with it. As always, wonderful writing and wonderful thoughts.
Right behind you, Susan, and learning from you all the way...
Your last line brought tears to my eyes -- yes! It's that moment of signing on the dotted line, and in signing, giving your daughter one more big gift of independence. It hurts! and yet it's so important. What I love about you as a person AND a writer, Susan, is your honesty about such emotions. Your daughters are so lucky to have a mother who remembers what it was like to be on the other side, thrilled to have her own place, her own young life, all possibility.
Thanks, Susan. My own daughter will (hopefully) leave for college in 2 years. I tease her and say she can't leave me w/just the guys (my son and husband). Just me, the guys, and football I guess.
Great story. My son moved away to college, and it is hard to accept that he doesn't want to share that part of his life with us. When I ask about friends and housemates, I hear "you don't know them, Mom." When you have only 1 child and they move away, especially out of state, you are so cut from them; and if it's a male who doesn't talk, you can only hope for snipets. My son has decided to take a year off from school and become a ski bum. I wish I could learn more about his life. At least I know we taught him independence!
I'm 46 and I STILL wonder where the grownups are!
This is lovely, Susan. I fast-forwarded and could picture myself in the same situation with Stella. Some day I'll have to revisit and lean on your words.
so beautiful. i hope i get to write a similar story when my son is of the age to be finding his first home away from home.
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