So Sentimental

So Sentimental

Art Dollhouse

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Throwing away the little-girl toys doesn’t make me sad this time around.

My oldest daughter is fifteen and my youngest daughter is ten. We recently moved and I’m not a very sentimental mother. I would rather have space on shelves than boxes crammed full of old memorabilia. I would rather make room for sports equipment or downsize than keep buckets of old toys and disintegrating dress-up clothes that don’t fit any of us anymore.

Still, I thought that when the time came to finally get rid of the old stuffed animals and the old dollies and the old wooden dollhouse furniture, that I would feel sad and wind up storing all of it for that one-day-grandchild to enjoy.

There are so many ways I mourn the passing of time as my kids have aged. I miss the pudgy hands grabbing my cheeks and turning my face to force me to look them in the eye. I miss the giggles so easily brought out by a few tickles on the feet. I miss the goofy songs, the post bath slippery toddler streak shows. But I’ve also delighted in each new stage. My sister says, “Rachel says every age is her favorite.” And she’s right. When my kids were two, I loved two. When they were ten, I loved ten. When they were fifteen, I loved fifteen.

Moving is always complicated and living in east Africa doesn’t make it any easier. Few houses have built in closets or storage spaces so unless we want boxes stacked like Legos in our living room, we have to make choices. With each move, we have to consider, what is worth keeping? What would we regret tossing? What would we pay to actually ship to the US some day in the unknown future? So I downsize every time. And in typical American style, within no time at all, we manage to accumulate so much that I need to downsize again.

Our most recent moved required first storing everything in a shipping container for six months while we housesat for another family. This meant we really didn’t have space for extemporaneous items saved merely for nostalgia’s sake. So I started purging. My youngest, at ten, didn’t need the miniature musical instruments or the play clothes that didn’t fit her anymore. She didn’t need the CDs of toddler songs or of kids teaching French through nursery rhymes, she had become fluent in French at school. She didn’t need the board books.

We did keep some toys, for when families with little ones come over to visit and some to bring back to the US at whatever point we return. And we will always keep Legos and American Girl Doll treasures. But, my husband and I fought over the wooden dollhouse we bought in France when I was pregnant with our youngest. It is big and awkward to store, I said. It is precious and unique, he said. He won and it balances on top of our two boxes of stored holiday items.

I like to think that the ease with which I purge has to do with the positive character traits of simplicity and practicality. But, as I thought about it while rummaging through the toy bins and buckets of stuffed animals, I realized I was wrong. I had too high of an opinion of my emotional state and stability.

The reason it was easy to throw or give away these particular toys was because my daughter had never really played with them. I don’t have memories of her holding a My Little Pony or zooming the Matchbox cars around because she didn’t do that.

She is a builder, a creator, a performer, and a people person. Legions of homemade items were scattered everywhere in her room, cardboard boxes turned into American Girl Doll Jeeps, broken pieces of tile from the swimming pool turned into a bathtub, paintings labeled with the names of her school friends. My phone is full of videos of songs she wrote and performed, my computer has a file folder exclusively for the stories she types. Her walls are barely visible through the barrage of photos she has taped up, of all the friends she has loved in America, in Kenya, in Djibouti. These crafted things were much harder to throw away and some of them found their way into boxes and folders to keep.

I look at the dollhouse my husband and I fought over and have another realization. He is just like me. Our kids painted the walls of the dollhouse. They rearranged the interior, they marked it with their personalities.

Turns out I am sentimental, only not for the items purchased as the consumer I am. I’m sentimental for the items designed by the individual, creative child I’m raising.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.


Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.


Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 


Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

IMG_2021Not that you asked, but here’s my advice: if there’s a question about whether to send your child to overnight camp, I say, “Yes. Have your child go to overnight camp.” And for a minute, I’m not saying this for your child (I don’t know your child). I’m saying this for YOU.

Here’s why: beyond all those good coping skills and peer experiences your kid will have at camp (and let’s face it, probably your child will have a blast), you get a lot out of the deal. You are dubious. Hang with me, here.

You get to miss your child. Sure, this is tender and a little sad, even melancholy, but it’s also the sweet kind of tender. You remember what you like about that kid of yours in little unexpected bursts. You almost buy the favorite flavor of yogurt—and then, for a week or two, you don’t. There’s something about pining for someone that parents in the 24/7 grind of life don’t experience with their children. It’s really, really nice to be reminded just how much you adore your child, through the absence that does make the heart grow fonder.

You get, I hope, mail. Depending upon your child, age, fluency with writing, this can be informative or not informative, but no matter what, it’s fun to get a letter and to see what your child does or does not reveal via post. I am not sure all camps require letters. Ours does, one a week. And there aren’t electronic communications, like postings of photos or emails or texts between parents and children or really even camp and parents. There aren’t phone calls. Thus, the mail—so old school—becomes authentically significant again. There’s really nothing like an envelope through the chute when that is all the communication you’re going to enjoy for a period of time.

You will, I hope, send mail. You know what? If you let it be fun, it’s fun to send postcards and letters with a little comic from the paper and or a Mad Lib or crossword enclosed or what have you off to camp. Most camps don’t allow food (mice, jealousy, food allergies, sugar highs). This means you have to be inventive and send a tiny flashlight or a deck of cards or yoyo strings if you want to add to your missives. I find it interesting, at least this is the case for me, to realize how little I have to say; you might realize how little you have to say—or you might be surprised by just how much you have to say (and then, please let me know so I can follow your lead and write juicier letters, quality over quantity for a change). It’s delightful to wonder aloud on paper about what’s happening where your child is. It’s kind of nice to communicate in such a different way. Personally, I’m reminded that I enjoy drawing hearts.

To that last notion of wondering aloud what’s happening where your child is—I think it’s really nice not to know everything when on some level, in day-to-day life with familiar haunts and kids and even teachers or destinations, there’s just so much you don’t know about the rhythm and feel of your camper’s day. This is why I favor the no photos posted by camp decision. I like so much that camp is for the campers not for parent voyeurs. And I say this as one who will pick up at camp, and take photos and post them and email them to the grandparents. Put another way, what happens in camp stays in camp. This is good for your child. I think, in our helicopter-leaning era, it’s even better for us. The tethers we keep so tight do have to get longer and looser in order for our children to grow up and out. And we have to loosen our grips in order for this to happen. To hear your child tell you of some adventures and misadventures later on is to realize your child’s resourcefulness and to realize that your gift to them as a parent has just as much to do with letting go, as with holding tight.

You may not miss your child—at least not the entire time. It might be nice to have a break. And that’s awesome, too.

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By Lorri Barrier

0-10It is day five of my oldest son Ian’s first week away at camp. It is a totally unplugged camp, which is good for him. Like most twelve year olds, the virtual worlds of Minecraft, Pokemon and Zelda are his reality. This also means he is unplugged from me. He’s been to sleepovers and stayed weekends with grandparents, but this is different. I can’t call at night. I can’t check and see if he remembered to change underwear or clothes. If he’s eating enough. If people are being nice to him. If he’s having fun.

I saw Ian last on Sunday morning, when another mother and two kids going to the same camp picked him up. I stood at the car window and called him “sweet pea” out of habit. I realize now I shouldn’t have done that, but it just slipped out. He had sort of a half smirk on his face. He said a little sarcastically, “Bye, Mom!” His blue eyes were shining. He is sweet boy; he always has been.

When I was younger, I said I never wanted children. As an only child, it was probably closer to the truth that I couldn’t imagine children. My experience was limited to a few babysitting gigs at age thirteen, and wrangling a few slightly younger cousins at holiday gatherings. Children seemed like scattered, unpredictable creatures. Even when my husband and I married, I asked him over and over—”You are sure you are okay not having kids?” He says now that he knew I’d change my mind, but I don’t know how he could have known. He never did anything to pressure me, but I did change my mind.

At work, I obsessively check the weather in Burgaw, NC. That’s where Ian is. It’s been mostly cloudy all week, so he hasn’t been too hot. He burns easily. I wrote that on the camp sheet under “Special Concerns.” He sunburns very easily. That’s another thing I would say, if I could call. “Are you wearing sunscreen? On your face? What about your hat? That protects your scalp from getting burned.” If I could call, I imagine Ian holding the phone as I say these things, rolling his eyes. “Yes” he’d say. “Yes, Mom. I am fine. I am wearing sunscreen everywhere.” It would appease me. But I’d have no real idea if he’s doing it or not. But at least I would have heard his voice.

Ian was delivered by C-section. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had childbirth and baby care books everywhere during my pregnancy. I sometimes told people I’d read them, but really, I hadn’t. I’d read a few chapters of each, and then become bored. I like books with a plot and characters. Give me some dialogue. It was hard to visualize what I might do with this baby that was still mostly imaginary. I decided I’d figure it out when the baby got here. That’s the way I’ve done most things in my life—learn as I go.

It’s Thursday, and raining again. It’s rained so much this summer that people joke about monsoon season.  Usually at this time of year, the grass is brown and crunchy in North Carolina.  Usually in July, I carry water to my tender dogwoods and lilacs at the edge of the woods. Not this year. I watch the rain from work. I’m distracted, I can’t focus. I check the weather at camp. There’s a flood warning in Burgaw. Flooding in some areas is imminent it says. The Cape Fear River is rising as I type this. I have no idea how far the camp is from the river. I know in 1999, there was a major flood at the camp. Water stood at two feet inside the buildings. I saw the pictures on the website. That was almost 15 years ago, my husband would say if I mentioned it. I imagine Ian standing on top of his bunk, the floor covered with water. Would they call if the river flooded the camp?  What would be the point, my husband would say. I’m sure they will take care of them and are prepared if that happens.

When they finally pulled him out of me, I cried. C-sections hurt—don’t let anyone tell you differently. I thought of the line from Macbeth, “From his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” The doctor said, “The umbilical cord is all wrapped around his foot!” Then they held him up above the sheet dividing my head from my dissected lower body, and I watched the doctor unwind the cord, bleary-eyed, exhausted. A blue coil, just like a telephone cord. The kind of phone Ian has never used. That’s the kind of phone I imagine him answering, if I could call. I imagine him answering it in the kitchen, the phone hanging on the wall. In the background, through the door frame, I can see the other kids playing board games and ping pong.

“Yeah, it’s raining today,” Ian would say.

“Is anything flooding? Are you okay?” I’d ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.

“No, Mom. We are fine. I have the rain boots you packed if we go out later.”

I wish I could give a name to this feeling at my core that feels like tangled homesickness, embarrassment, and love. It feels a little like quickening; a primal flutter—what I felt when I didn’t know him, didn’t know what to expect, but I knew where he was. At least I knew he was safe.

When they handed Ian to me, he seemed so small. He didn’t weigh as much as our cat. But I did learn to breastfeed, and he learned to nurse. I learned to change his diapers and bathe him, little though he was. I learned how to pack a solid diaper bag, fasten a car seat, and wear him in a sling.  I learned to wake quickly from a deep sleep, walk the floor with him at night, swaying—the dark world reduced to two, mother and son.

This is a different kind of learning. It’s not hands on; it’s hands off.

I imagine Ian will be glad to play his video games again, and he might even be happy to see his younger siblings. He may ask me what I did while he was gone. I worried constantly, but I won’t say it. “Oh, nothing,” I’ll say.  “I went to work, came home, went to exercise class, played with your brother and sister, you know, the usual. I missed you.”   I see the image of the doctor unwinding the twisted cord from his tiny foot again.  The first time I ever saw my son.  And I practiced deeply, repetitively, falteringly, grudgingly, the painful art of letting go.

Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child.  Women’s issues are of particular interest to her.  Her blog is available at

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Disappearing Act

Disappearing Act


Art Disappearing Act 2The cruelest truth of parenting: If you do it right, they leave.

I’d done my reading. I knew that from the moment I got that baby in my arms, my job was to prepare her to go. I understood. I’d done it myself, to my own mother. So I concocted a foolproof evasion.

As our eldest approached adolescence, I created an adventure so adventurey that it would foil the designed entropy of human development.

When our kids were five, nine, and twelve, we moved from the center of Seattle to a tiny mountain town in Costa Rica. For the obvious reasons—slow down, step outside consumer culture, blah, blah, blah. I wanted to live a life a little less obsessive Type A, and for our family to spend less time at practices, more time together.

The plan was clearly brilliant. In our new world, our kids were more a team than they’d ever been back home.

“You guys will not believe how milk works here!” Hannah, Harry, and five-year-old Ivy burst in from a mission to the grocery store, where they had discovered giant, metal silos. Strictly local and straight from the town’s dairy, the silo milk could be dispensed into a vessel of our own choosing. We’d never experienced milk that had been, so recently, encowed.

The early weeks were filled with such marvels, shared among ourselves. We were all we had.

In no way did I intend “I want us to be closer as a family” to translate to “Let’s take our adolescent daughter to a place where she can’t speak the language and knows no one; then she’ll have to stick with us.” But the fact remains: Speaking no Spanish, we moved to Central America, and to a house so isolated you had to walk ten minutes to find another person. Hannah was almost 13—time to fly, little bird— but I had her now.

And then, without warning, she vanished.

My own teenage disappearing act had been strictly by the book: into friends and football games and anyone- is-more-exciting-than-my-parents. As an adult, I thus assumed that adolescent separation required a destination—a world to separate to.

But we were strangers in a strange land and Hannah had no not-us destination. She disappeared in place.

Our rented mountaintop house was built by people who liked each other, who wanted to be able to chat no matter what else they were doing. Kitchen, living, and dining rooms were all one inviting space. Sliding doors to the wraparound deck opened wide, erasing the distinction between inside and out. It was a little like living in a sidewalk café. Everything about our house was about being together within it.

Hannah’s loft bedroom was the sole exception, its own little world. Her space came complete with tiny bathroom and its very own picture windows from which to gaze at the sweeping view. She claimed her loft with wonder. “How can I know this is what I always wanted, when I’d never seen it until now?”

The space was a perfect match for the other thing Hannah had always wanted.

“I have so much time here…I can read anything…”

Hannah made her bedroom, this lovely top-floor viewpoint from which you could see the world, into an escape from it. In this house that was designed around being together, Hannah found a way to be apart. She turned 13 up there, moving into solitude as if it were some kind of destiny; it didn’t have the feel of a phase.

She ducked away from us, spent her time instead with Salinger or Austen or Allende. We missed her.

“Hannah, do you want to play…” Harry or Ivy would begin. Their big sister was polite, always.

“No thanks,” she said over and over, as she slipped upstairs after school, after dinner, after anything, just when we thought we might keep her for a while. “You guys go ahead without me.”

Hannah vanished in October. She was never mean, but we could tell she was being patient with us.

Our family at its best is jolly and jokey, with lots of flopping over each other. Hannah stopped flopping. I could feel her counting the minutes at dinner, and imagined her internal monologue. Will Mom be annoyed if I leave now? What about now? I’ll finish eating, then count to 100.

Ivy missed her the most. “Hannie, do you want to do my nails?”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

Harry was perplexed. His bookish sister hadn’t always quite made sense to him, but she had always, at least, been present. “Mom, doesn’t Hannah even like us anymore?”

Since Hannah’s first day of kindergarten I’d been steeling myself for my own separation heartache. Narcissist that I am, I’d never quite put together that our younger kids would hurt, too. How do you explain to a five-year-old that her sister’s brushoff is developmentally appropriate?

The mists that rose up our hill from the lowlands provided the ultimate now you see it/now you don’t. The view from our windows started at the guava tree and went down down down—past cows, pasture, forest, foothills, and finally to the thin, sparkling band of the Gulf of Nicoya. Several days a week, the mists climbed up from the gulf. In reverse our view would narrow, until even the guava tree disappeared and our house stood alone inside a white cloud.

I imagined the mists enveloping my daughter. I didn’t know how to keep them from coming and, once they were here, I didn’t know how I would find her again. I worried that one day, as they retreated down the mountain, the mists would take Hannah, too.

Eventually we got used to her being gone. The littler kids stopped asking. Months passed.

One April afternoon, our hillside sparkled impossibly green. The sun had burned away the mists and shone now on a world so bright and new you almost didn’t want to look directly at it. Hummingbirds hovered, and all manner of background wildlife had set to chattering and chirping. The soundtrack of our life would not have been out of place at a Seattle day spa.

I was in the kitchen, making chayote soup in a non-obsessive manner. I had told Ivy I’d be happy to stop cooking and play with her—all she had to do was stop saying my ideas were stupid. But Ivy was stuck in the groove of her own irritability and showed no signs of exhaustion. Harry and Daddy were out, Hannah was reading as usual, and there wasn’t anything to do up here, ever. Mom was boring and all of her ideas were…

Hannah was up in her loft, deep in One Hundred Years of Solitude. After the slow start and the revelation that this book was going to be way weirder than anything she’d ever encountered, Hannah was hooked. We’d barely seen her for two days.

Ivy finally got to the heart of her problem: “It is SO STUPID that Hannah never wants to play anymore!” By now, I was annoyed, too. What the hell? We’d brought Hannah halfway across the world, and she couldn’t be bothered to come out of her bedroom?

Then, from behind the foreground pulsing of Ivy’s frustration, I heard a tiny arrhythmia. A sad little sigh, the snapping of the book closed, the standing up out of the window seat and facing the world. The barely perceptible background sounds of resignation.

After a pulling-it-together pause, Hannah appeared at the top of the stairs. Ivy and I watched her descend. Hannah’s jaw was set firmly and her ponytail did not bounce.

Finally, she stood in front of Ivy, hands on hips. Ivy glowered up with her storm face on. Hannah looked down. Steely blue eyes met flashing brown. Hannah cocked her head to the left and added a brisk tapping of her right foot.

Any moderately attentive adult could see that Ivy had a full-on tantrum lined up; all she needed was someone to pull the pin.

“Ivy,” started Hannah. I cringed. Should I step in? Divert? Had Hannah, after all these months of adolescing quietly, finally turned the corner to the explosive part? Had I been worrying about the wrong pin?

“Ivy. What you need…no, actually, never mind you…”


“What this house needs…”

Ivy glared.

“Is some strawberries. I have totally had it with the lack of strawberry pie in this house. It’s insane. I’m going outside.”

Patches of wild strawberries dotted our hillside. We’d eaten a few, but as a concept they’d failed to take hold. It might have been a girl-next-door thing: the berries were always there. Why bother with them, what with all the sexed-up mangoes and papayas constantly throwing themselves at us?

Hannah marched to the kitchen and grabbed all the plastic storage containers we owned—four.

“I am going to need all of these because the berry deficiency we are dealing with here is acute.” She shoved her feet into her flip-flops.

And then, as afterthought, “Ivy, you can help if you like.” Hannah held out her hand for a millisecond but did not coax. She dropped a container as she left, closing the door behind her and not looking back.

Ivy stood her ground, eyes narrow. Then she walked over, grabbed her faded ladybug boots, and snatched up the Tupperware. “Yeah,” she threw back at me on her way out. “It’s insane.

I watched them out the window. After a while, Hannah flopped to the ground and lifted her face to the sun. When Ivy wandered near, Hannah opened her eyes, peered into her container and picked out a perfect berry. She pulled her little sister into her lap, and fed her like a baby bird.

Was she back? Was she toying with us? Would a tiny lecture along the lines of “It’s about time” be out of place?

When my girls finally came inside, I said this: “Yum!”

I’d known the basics about the leaving. But I hadn’t known it would hurt quite so much, or that it would affect our whole family. That no clever gimmick could forestall the inevitable.

I know now that I couldn’t have hoped for a lovelier departure. Hannah had simply slipped away, wanting none of our delightful, familial hilarity. There was no yelling, and no doors slammed. It was our starter goodbye, and over the next years Hannah would vanish again and again—into friendships, boyfriends, politics—sometimes gracefully, often not. Rules would be broken, curfews missed.

I think about my own youthful goings-away. I went far, stayed away long, and, like my own daughter, was not always kind. And yet.

Three summers ago, back in Seattle, I caught a cold that got worse instead of better. I got the pneumonia diagnosis two days before Ivy’s birthday and with a work deadline looming. I didn’t have time for pneumonia. Desperate, I called my mother’s house. When my stepdad heard the tears in my voice, he said, “I’m coming to get you.”

I stayed for a week. My mother and her husband fed me soup and made me sleep. They called my house and told my family to deal. I curled up. My mommy drew me baths. I was 44 years old.

If you do it right, they leave.

The cruelest truth, the truth we cannot trick away, is that it’s our job to let them go. But my firstborn’s adolescence taught me the most beautiful corollary. How had I missed it in the reading? Or maybe no one told me because no one wants to jinx it. They come back.

And when they do, being there—not judging, not furious that they left in the first place—is part of the job, too.

At thirteen, Hannah sighed, put down her book, and rejoined our family while I watched through a window. Being there doesn’t always look like the proactive parenting of the early years. When, after long silences, she wants to chat about a boyfriend or cry over the phone with the sheer exhaustion of being responsible for her own life, I listen. If she’s home, I get to tuck her hair behind her ear in the old way. And I’ll provide whatever haven she needs, 30 years from now, if she has to flee that life for a while. I will draw her a bath.

Almost four years ago, Ivy and I dropped Hannah off at her freshman dorm. Before flying back to our own coast, the two of us drove, weeping, around rolling countryside that looked surprisingly like the green hilltop where Hannah had first disappeared. But she was gone for good this time, two airplanes away from home.

Now approaching adolescence herself, Ivy doubled over in the rental car, hugging her sides for maximum drama. As she did so, her eye caught a small, wrapped package that hadn’t been there before.

“For Ivy. If you need me, I’m right over here. Always.”

Ivy put the CD in the rental car’s player. Songs Hannah had picked out just for us filled the car and our chests and our lumpy throats. Hannah would never be gone for good.

Author’s Note: If you parent your children with love but not hovering; if you give them roots and wings; if you share yourself (but not too much); if, in addition, the stars align or God smiles or pixie dust falls, whatever it is, that secret blessing outside our control … you’ve created the perfect friend. And the healthiest thing for that creature to do is … leave? I’m working with it, but honestly: That’s just bad design.

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