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FAMILIES She’s Leaving Home

When a daughter leaves for college, a single parent has lessons to learn.
By SHEILA TAYLOR |

SHE DIDN’T COME HOME THIS summer-not to stay, anyway. She probably won’t ever again; well, at least not for a while. What’s important, though, is that if she does comeback, if she does end up living in Fort Worth, or wherever I am, it will be because she chose to come back and not because she was afraid to leave in the first place.

I’m talking about my daughter, Maurie. a senior at UCLA, and did I ever hate seeing her go that first time she went off to school. My friends had warned me that I’d be a basket case, but I’d just grin and say, “Oh, no. I’ve decided to do what Frank-lin Roosevelt’s mother did when he went to Harvard. She went right along with him. Writers can write anywhere. ” They’d laugh, but I could tell they weren’t completely sure I was teasing.

Funny and effervescent, Maurie is my favorite companion; people naturally gather around her while I, shy and reserved, hang back and let her gregariousness enrich our common experience. With my son eight years older than she and her father dead, Maurie and I have been for years a family of two. My flexible schedule allowed me to be home near the end of the school day. For six years, we even wrote a column together for The Dallas Morning News, and until she graduated from high school. I’d taken only one vacation without her.

Of course, I knew my life would change drastically after Maurie left. Almost unconsciously, I began preparing for it several years before her departure. I became involved in a job I really like, and I’ve kept a close circle of cherished friends. And all along I was certain of one thing: I wanted her to go away to school, wanted her to have the confidence that conquering a new place gives. I lacked that myself until it hardly mattered. I attended a college five blocks from my high school and three blocks from my house and have felt cheated ever since, intimidated by those whose experiences were farther ranging. That’s one reason why, when I was past 40 and Maurie was a high-school freshman, I took a job on the East Coast, the first move beyond Fort Worth and Dallas I had ever made. When she was 15, Maurie spent the summer at Boston University studying theater, and at 16 took summer courses at Yale, at first not knowing a soul at either place. I wanted her to know there is life beyond Texas, and I wanted her to see the future as a series of open doors rather than the path of least resistance. Two years later, when we came back to Texas, she took those open doors for granted and has been bursting through them ever since, sometimes, it seems, two at a time.

I don’t believe that single parents love their children more than married parents do. But perhaps we do miss them more when they leave. When happily married people say goodbye to a son or daughter, they rightfully look forward to time together. But when half of a happy two-member family leaves, there’s no escaping the void; there is one big chunk of life replaced by empty time.

I remember reading once that the psychological trade-off of tumultuous adolescence is the way it prepares the parents to let kids go, to welcome their release. Sometimes I wish Maurie had gone through a similar stage, but she never did. She never trudged through sulkiness or holed up in her room for days on end or put me down or took herself too seriously. I used to teach teenagers and thought I knew what to expect. She surprised me, remaining all the while as easy with me and other adults as with her schoolmates.

Still, a strange thing happened that last summer, the one right after graduation. This daughter, this practically perfect child, grew petulant. She balked. She stayed out too late. She whined. She became what most girls become at least briefly at 13 or 14: something of a brat, causing more problems in those few weeks than in her entire adolescence. “They’re all acting this way, ” said another parent, while still another sent me a copy of Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Today’s College Experience. The authors agree that pre-flight jitters are a universal phenomenon.

“Instead of facing their general anxiety about leaving home, they may focus on something that seems totally out of proportion to perplexed parents, ” the authors say. “Tension in the household begins to build. Students brag about the crazy things they’re doing and flaunt their irresponsibility. ” Ah, my daughter and her friends had turned into textbook examples: Their unpredictability had been predicted.

My own behavior took a curious turn, too. I started spending money like crazy for clothes I neither needed nor could afford. I dislike shopping, always have, yet there I’d be, running the racks at Neiman’s, taking home silk shirts that cost more than my wedding dress. Similarly, I’d thought one positive offering of living alone would be putting on my robe the minute 1 got home and reading in solitude all night long, but instead I began accepting every invitation that came my way. 1 soon came to myself, and a month or so after Maurie left, I was back to more or less reasonable behavior. Still, during her last few days at home, as the symbolism of packed bags and UPS pickups pecked away at my resolve, I remember once or twice calling a friend, a parent who, like me, had encouraged her child to fly away. “Now, tell me again, “I said. “Just why was it we decided the kids should go so far?”

I knew I’d miss her terribly. I still do. For instance, when I’m dressing to go out, there’s no one to tell me how wonderful I look. She was great about that, just as she was my best audience, laughing out loud-guffawing, really-at my funny columns and crying at the sad ones, as if on cue. Of course, I was always-and remain-Maurie’s most loyal booster, but 20-year-olds have plenty of gushing fans around; when you’re my age, they’re harder to come by. I miss her when I ride my bike, too. Since neither her friends nor mine cared much for cycling, we rode together for years. And last spring, when I walked into a small specialty shop and found myself lost in the middle of a dozen giggling, blooming high-school seniors, all trying on prom dresses, I missed her so much I had to leave the store. I miss my role of supervisor, too. Maurie calls sometimes to ask my advice on what to wear someplace, to a party, for instance, so I still have my hand in, but I have no say about where the party is, with whom she*s going, and when or-gasp-if she’ll be in. This, the lack of control, I’ve decided is okay, and I happily turned in my long-held title of Strictest Mother of Anybody Anywhere. No longer the guide, I’m now a tourist in my grown-up daughter’s life, a role I relish, sure, and deserve, you bet, but one that’s also a whole lot of fun.

“I told Annie that she better pick her college carefully because she’s going to stay put for four years or else she’ll be on her own, ” a friend said last year, and I thought how intimidating that must be for her daughter, fac-ing such an irrevocable decision at 17. It was only when I finally realized that few decisions can’t be undone, that few choices are carved in stone, that I was brave enough to make huge decisions and choices and free enough to move forward. Those of us with insecure bases are afraid to leave them, scared that in our absence they will change or disappear. For that reason, I’ve always told Maurie that as long as she remains responsible, she may move back home anytime she wants, although if she’s in school, she must finish the current semester so her time and money would not be wasted. She, I hope, knows that her base remains steady, that she is free to wander, to leave, to return.

In May of her senior year, Maurie was named Miss Paschal High School, a stellar honor indeed, one worthy of countless rounds of family ribbing. Two weeks later, we left for Europe on the trip that was her graduation present. After struggling all day with treacherous, wayward Italian roads, she and I wearily dragged into a small cafe in an isolated coastal village where about 40 German tourists noisily dined. As soon as we entered, there was sudden silence as 40 faces turned to us. Maurie and I fitted timid smiles to their frank stares, self-consciously looking at one another until she whispered in mock annoyance, “It’s that Miss Paschal thing. 1 can’t go anywhere anymore. “

But, of course, she can go anywhere, and does, and will.

The other day my friend Claire, whose daughters now live on another coast, asked if I remembered how we used to talk about parents who insisted their children stay right close to home. Remember how dull we said they were, she asked, how selfish? I nodded.

“Well, ” Claire said ruefully, “they were right. “

Of course, she was only kidding. I think. I’m sure I was when I agreed with her. Well, pretty sure.

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