By Kathleen Volk Miller
By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m.
Your child is coming home for Thanksgiving, for 3 days or 5 days or a week. You haven’t seen him since parents’ weekend in late September, and what with all of your time together being in public—the school’s organized events, the restaurants, the hotel—that visit barely counts.
I’m a college professor, and your son or daughter has spent more time with me than you the past two months. If I wasn’t also a mother, maybe I wouldn’t see the fear right beside the bravado, fighting for dominance on the freshmen’s faces. I saw her on the first day, looking neither to left or right and fixing squarely on me, fussing with her coffee, because she’s allowed coffee in the classroom and so she brings it to class because she can. I’ve seen your boy start to laugh at something and then catch himself, wonder if he’s blown any kind of cool he’s built up. None of them realize the others are just as scared, no matter what we, professors or parents, tell them.
I have watched your child establish certain patterns, the coffee, the route to class. But he is nowhere near mastering the best time to do laundry or how to quickly find his ID when he comes back into the building, what pocket he should keep it in. Your freshman is still very fresh.
And now your child is coming home, with everything that home means. You pick her up at the train/bus station/airport and you drive so you have to look at the road and you aren’t able to stare at her, which you’re both afraid you will. Count to three (in your head) when you hug, or else you will lose track of time; she’ll hear you breathing her in; she’ll sense you’re not going to let go. You chat about simple facts that can be covered—who is at home, when others are arriving, the new butternut squash dish you’re making for Thanksgiving.
But then you get home and your son reaches in the back seat for the duffel of dirty laundry and you notice for the first time something different about his face—an angle, a shadow that wasn’t there before. You are trying not to stare and your kid is out, up the front steps and shouldering the door before you are fully out of the car, you are just watching like this isn’t your driveway anymore. Don’t worry; it is yours, it’s just different now.
You get in the house and exhale and see that your college kid has moved straight to the kitchen and you are thrilled—this is something you know how to do—you know how to feed your kid, so you practically bound into the kitchen, but try to hide your enthusiasm, your joy at doing something you so often resented. Assume the position you hated to find him in, just a few months ago, look casual while you prop the fridge door open on your hip, and stare inside, looking for something, and ask, “Hungry?”
The turkey sandwich is in front of her now, with salsa and mayo and lettuce, like–you forgive yourself for thinking this—like she has not had for 9 weeks. Sandwiches are always better when someone else makes them, and you are still her mother; yours are still the best.
But everything feels different in this November early dark and now you are staring at her. And you know you shouldn’t, that you have to stop, but you cannot help yourself, because look at her: The softness under her chin is gone. You cannot see that blue vein you used to stroke for hours while she nursed. Don’t worry, it is still there, it’s just under the surface.
Your other daughter finally pulls herself away from her room of devices and joins you in the kitchen. When you say, “We’ve been home 20 minutes,” she says, “I know” and holds up the flat face of her phone. You don’t know if they’ve texted or the returning daughter posted something on some form of social media. It doesn’t matter: Know that you have to leave the kitchen very soon. They begin to talk, to say what they can in front of you and you can see so much under this surface talk, waiting to be said: leave the kitchen, like a good mother. Just as much as you are thrilled with the relationship between your daughters you can’t help but sting a little, feel a little sore in a band right across your chest, because they don’t both want to share it all with you, only you, interrupting each other, sidling against each other trying to step just one millimeter closer to you, to you, to you. Like after-school time when they were at the grade school three blocks away and came in together bubbling with stories, legs, clad in pastels, tangling, pink and blue and yellow papers falling out of their backpacks. They have things to say to only each other now, and as you move up the stairs they are already laughing, a different laugh than grade school, to be sure, but laughing; hold your fist to your heart in both joy and pain and continue up and away from them.
Prepare yourself: by Wednesday night all of the high-school friends are also home, and they pull together like magnets. It’s a good thing—of course you want her to continue these friendships, despite what one mother told you about another’s daughter, despite what you believe you can predict about any of their futures. They gather at your house, but it cannot contain them all, whoever they are now, and whatever it is that compels them back outside cannot be stopped. They drive around. They text each other from two cars away in the convenience star parking lot—still posing like they did in high school, making decisions of import on whose house to converge on—and leave—next. When you hear them go out, know that they will be back. When they come back, hunker deeper under your covers, revel in the fact the kids are in their rooms, your family is breathing the same air. Rest easy.
By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m. Do not make more noise then you need to, but now, at 11:20 a.m. you do not need to try to be quiet. When they were little, the day before Thanksgiving meant watching a movie and ordering pizza, which you always joked about since your fridge was barely able to shut, the counters full. You didn’t let yourself look at the clock when he got in last night, but it was 2:45 a.m.
Keep cooking. You think you’re angry but you’re not. It’s just that you want him there, at the counter, always. He will be down soon. Yes, somehow your son’s voice is deeper. Somehow he did grow two or three inches in nine weeks. Your daughter’s face is older in a way you can’t explain. She can’t already have wrinkles, can she, but yes, something has changed around her eyes. You can hug her again when she comes into the kitchen; she’ll allow it if you count to three.
Later, when bottles of hard cider are being distributed don’t wonder how you will be judged if you hand her one. Have one yourself. Your sister will engage her in a conversation about immigration that she would never get into with you. Your son will still drink orange juice out of the carton but he will take out the trash without being told for the first time in his life. Allow the pride and pain to battle inside you like her fear and courage, every day. You have both been in training for this since the day she was born.
Kathleen Volk Miller has written for Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, and Philadelphia Magazine and has work forthcoming in O, the Oprah Magazine and others. She is Director of the Graduate Program in Publishing at Drexel University and co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly.