Back to School


It's that time of year again, in case you aren't on social media at all, and in Musicianland too: Sara Hickman has been posting exuberant adorable photos of all her daughter Io's teachers; friend Carmen (whom I met at a music conference) proudly displayed a letter from the board of education authorizing her to homeschool her kid, and Matt, as you can see above, is way more stoked than his kids are about the whole thing. School started here in Ojai a couple weeks ago, and my daughter Stella - still home for the summer - kept commenting on the adorableness of the tiny freshmen in their new clothes.

Then, on Sunday, I put her on a plane to go back to Boston for her junior year. And I sobbed the whole way home, same as I did when we dropped her off the first time and same as I did when her sister told me she had decided to move to Colorado. Of course I was happy for both of them and supportive, but aaaaaahhhhh! This phase of back-to-school parenting is HARD. You spend their whole childhood praying that nothing and no one will take them from you, and then, all of a sudden, they take themselves away.

Did you ever see the documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill?" It's about, obviously, feral parrots - a whole urban flock of them - who live up in San Francisco. One thing in particular struck me. But first, another video reference: have you seen that clip that was going around Facebook recently of the mama duck jumping off the bridge and quacking for her babies to take the giant leap and follow her?

Okay, parrots are not like that at all. They build a nest way up high in a hole in a tree - or a telephone pole - and they raise, usually, just one chick there. The parents take turns guarding the nest. As the baby parrot gets bigger, it tries to edge past. So the parents spend a lot of time body slamming their child to make them stay in the nest. And then one day the baby is strong enough that the parents can't keep it back, and it pushes through and flies away.

I'm not a Parrot Mother. I encouraged both kids to go when they were ready. But I can relate to sitting there, stunned, with a baby suddenly gone.

I see myself in the Cherry Creek Bed Bath and Beyond in Denver with my daughter Sarah, striving to anticipate and fend off any potential discomfort with kitchen storage devices and bathroom cleaning products. We got everything to her apartment, and then I just left her there. All alone in the big city. Like she wanted. It felt fundamentally wrong.

When we dropped Stella off at Boston University, I cried walking to the taxi, in the taxi, on the plane, in the car on the way home, when I saw her car parked at the house and especially when I saw all the food she left in the fridge. I slept in her room for three days.

And then - how about this - I got used to it. I got used to the quieter cadence of the days. My husband and I both travel a lot, but now, when we were both home, it was just the two of us. Oh, yeah: you. I remember you. I liked you a lot, as I recall.

I got used to the random urgent texts and the knowledge that in most cases - even with modern connectivity - I couldn't solve most of my kids' problems. They had to do it, which of course was good. I got used to seeing them for a couple days here and there. I got used to them seeming kinda different, which of course they were. They were growing. Every time it was so hard to say goodbye, but every time reinforced the notion that it wasn't forever - it was just till next time.

There have been crises, though, that required me to drop everything and go help. Unlike parrots, human parents are never done.

And now I'm in this weird limbo where summer, for the last two summers, has meant a kid moving back into the nest, with all the noise and opinions and different food filling up the fridge. It's like going back in time - weird at first, then totally familiar and comfortable and sweet. And then: off they go again.

And then, home they come: one day Sarah decided she'd done what she needed to do in Colorado and came back, with a puppy. Suddenly both kids (and a granddog) were around, but older and more patient with each other and with us. It was awesome. Maybe next summer will be awesome that way too. Or maybe Stella will be living and working somewhere else and we'll hardly see her. Don't know.

I'm writing this stream-of-consciousness back-to-school missive because several people who are close to me are watching their little parrots swoop off. The first is Mark Hallman, aka The Shopkeeper, and his wife Kristen,who just got home after delivering their only son to college a thousand miles away. The next are cousins Bruce and Jeanne, whose youngest kid leaves in a couple of weeks. And the last is Kim Maxwell, whose son Woody heads out soon too.

It's very hard, for all of them. So this is my way of sending them -- and any of you who are going through the same thing -- love and a hug and the promise that nothing has ended - it's just evolving. Before you know it, your fridge will be filled with weird vegan food or old ramen. You'll see.


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