My eighteen year old son reached into the drawer and picked up the tiny figurine. I watched his mannish face dissolve into the impish twelve year old that he used to be. “Do you remember the time…”, he began.
High school had just ended for my first born. Pomp and circumstance was fading and I was helping him to begin the dreaded task of packing for college.
Although not intentional, my son and I shared that last summer before college with an emotional grace that still leaves me breathless. Sharing memories paved the way for us to move forward. Cementing his childhood in an emotional exchange prepared both of us for letting go, giving us a strong foundation from which to jump to the next stage of mother and son. And it eventually served as a roadmap for navigating our relationship for many years to come.
A tremendous amount is written about that last summer with your children before they go off to college. It is often described as a difficult time filled with a roller coaster ride of emotions and behaviors that explode from an irritable, yet sometimes loving, child who on the brink of independence, is still trapped at home. It’s enough to make parents go mad.
As a fairly deliberate parent, I wanted that summer to be more than what I had read or heard. I had already decided to make some physical changes to the house so that when my children came home from their first year in college, the stage would be set. These subtle alterations included their childhood bedrooms. I knew that even modest modifications would help me to move forward and accept the fact that my children were now young adults. My role, just like their bedroom, had to shift and revamp, even though we would still be there to hold and protect them, giving them refuge as needed. But beyond my emotional needs, I hoped it would help them to recognize and accept this new relationship as well. So it was with this in mind when I asked my son if we could “clean his room together” before he left for college.
We started with two bins – one to keep and one to give away, as well as a giant trash bag. We kept the bins and the trash bag in the upstairs hallway all summer long, directly outside of his bedroom door. And while that was an annoyance, it was a way for me to respect his space. Anytime he had an hour or two to spare, I would sit in the hallway at the bins and he would bring forth items as he sorted through his debris strewn bedroom. We would talk about those objects, especially if they invoked a strong memory for either of us. Sometimes the attached recollection was so very different for him than it was for me, fodder which allowed us to share our very different perspectives on the events that constructed his childhood. There was something remarkably definitive to bringing both of our perspectives together in those quiet moments before he moved away. This was the room that a lost chipmunk had gravitated to when it unknowingly entered our house during the spring of his freshman year. Now it was an excavation site of years gone by, uncovering treasures, buried hatchets, and well kept secrets.
Drawer by drawer, shoebox by shoebox, we examined, held, shared, and relived the past together, twining our own stories together to form one. So many feelings, from tender to tough, flowed through us during those evenings of sorting and deciding into which bin his memories would go. He was like me in so many ways and this one time summer routine brought those commonalities to the surface.
When my son called me one evening during his first two weeks of college and asked me to send his high school transcript to our local university, I felt a little tingle of joy (after the initial wave of worry). I knew he was telling me that he was homesick. As a mom, there was something secretly reassuring in his unease. But I also knew that the right thing to do was to remind him that he had made a commitment. One full year was our deal. He had to stay at the university he chose (which was an hour or so away from home) and next summer we could discuss a transfer if necessary.
By the time he came home for Thanksgiving break, I knew by his demeanor that my son couldn’t wait to get back to his new home. When I asked, he thoughtfully reassured me that while it was great to see us all again, he had another world calling for him. With a giant lump in my throat, I told him that I completely understood. I couldn’t have been prouder or happier, because whether he was aware of it or not, I knew that we had reached a new milestone and there was no looking back.