My daughter and I are on the couch waiting for our face masks to revitalize our skin. Our weekly home spa routine was her idea. Even through my mask I can’t avoid seeing her boxes stacked against the wall, awaiting a mover’s truck at 9 a.m. tomorrow. In certain ways, I’ll be alone when she leaves — even though I’m happily married with a busy schedule as a college professor.
When she moved back home 18 months ago, her room was decorated with a framed diploma and a shrine of stuffed animals. Now she has a 401(k). Tomorrow her lease begins just four miles away, and I’m on the verge of tears.
“Time!” she says, jumping up. We’re eager to splash water on our faces. Remnants of our masks dissolve down the drain. We stare into the mirror together and smile. Squeaky clean, as I used to tell her when I still washed her hair.
“I’m feeling sad,” she says. “It’s not like when you moved out.”
I’ve told her about my complicated relationship with my mother. A poverty-stricken immigrant, she was unduly strict. We fought about everything from hemlines to college majors. Longing for freedom at the age of 20, I didn’t tell her I was moving out until the night before. I felt cruel thrusting such news upon her so suddenly, but I needed to avert her dramatic scenes. Claiming a girl shouldn’t leave home until marriage, she didn’t visit me for a year — although later she told me she used to stand across the street from my fourth-floor walk-up, hoping to catch a glimpse of me coming home.
Now my daughter says, “You didn’t give me anything to rebel against.” She stares into the mirror, where our gaze meets. Hazel eyes, the only distinctive feature we share. But we have the same sense of humor, and I’m the one she comes to for advice about her job or her friendships.
“I’ll miss you,” she admits, something my mother never said to me. “And except for college, I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
I reassure her, and myself, that we’ll still shop for clothes, discuss job strategies, debate politics, split a pie at our favorite pizzeria and sit at the same table during holiday dinners. We’ll have to get used to not bringing each other tea to soothe each other’s sore throats.
A Last Supper
On her official last night home, a chicken roasts in the oven. I want our sort-of-last-dinner to make our house feel cozy and comforting. Rich aromas to reinforce our time together here before sending her off on her own, memorable scents to pull her back to me again. As if the only way she’ll return is to be fed.
Once she leaves, there will be a void. My husband works long hours as a businessman, and is a weekend photographer. Always crunched for time, he pores over Photoshop after work, while I join my daughter in the kitchen. She has introduced me to Taylor Swift and Jay-Z, serenading us while we try recipes she’s selected. My husband is tone deaf, and hates to cook. Now I will be the dinner chef, singing solo.
Tonight she helps me take the chicken out of the oven, piercing the potatoes to see if they’re done. Breaking bread, before we sort of break up.
Blinking away tears, she says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m excited about my independence. But it’ll be different.”
“I’ll always be here,” I say.
Seeing Her Life in Boxes
I’ve cherished our extra time together like an unexpected gift. Yet at home she remains only partly adult, partly my little girl. How many times have I warned her not to leave her laptop cables snaking across the living room rug, where I might trip? I will miss those precarious wires.
“It’s hard to see my life in boxes,” she says.
The medicine cabinet is half empty as she packs her body lotion and lip gloss. I’ve been accumulating dish soap and toothpaste, things she is capable of procuring herself. I want to keep giving, lest she forget. I remind myself that it’s my love and pride that can’t be purchased, but will always be there.
We divide books and phone chargers. She’s taking the floor lamp, but she insists on leaving behind the Bacitracin skin cream.
“What if you cut yourself?” I worry, always worrying.
“Will you come visit me?” she asks, even though she knows I will.
“Of course,” I say, even though I must give her space.
She suggests playing a card game we used to love, Mille Bornes. It’s been so long, we have to re-read the rules. She leaves the box behind in her closet.
Tears Can Be Happy Tears
Across the river the next day, I help her unpack in her new place. While I remove price stickers from glasses she’s bought at a thrift store, she toils with 20 pages of Ikea instructions for her new dresser. She asks for my help only to hold a slat in place while she screws in a bolt. I can barely figure out how to charge the new dust buster. Four hours later, she has built an upright dresser with one of five drawers in place.
I don’t recognize this construction woman, pleased with herself, wielding a screwdriver. We break into a silly duet: “If I had a ham-mer…”
Eight p.m., time for me to leave.
“I’ll walk you to the subway,” she says.
“Not necessary,” I reassure her.
She hugs me, whispering into my shoulder, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Yes, you could,” I say emphatically. Like her new dresser, she is more than able to stand strong. Tears can be happy tears, I’ve told her throughout the packing process. I keep repeating this silently like a mantra, as I walk down a quiet street alone toward the subway.
Too Old for a Night Light
At home that night, after the take-out food that my husband prefers to toiling in the kitchen, he remarks, “It feels so still.”
“Different than the nights she’s just been out with friends,” I say.
We pause before passing her room. “You could leave her light on if that makes you feel better,” he suggests.
“I’m too old for a night light,” I try to convince us both. I used to leave the light on in her room so I’d know when she was back home, late at night, safe in her bed. Now I navigate my way down the hallway in the dark.
Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City.
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