For years I was able to say that I was a stay-at-home mom. There was a certain dignity to that – implying the sacrifice of my career for the sake of my child. Somehow the years flew by and it was suddenly time to look for a college. In my town there is tremendous pressure on the kids to pick the perfect college. Their entire senior year is dedicated to this cause – college visits, AP classes, ACT prep classes, extracurriculars and mission trips (I drew the line there; not that Son was all that motivated to join his classmates in Guatemala). Somehow they were all convinced that this single decision would determine their entire future happiness.
After all the prep came the applications. We were advised to select six schools – two reach, two appropriate and two safeties. Son was a little light in the activities area, so we stretched band into an all-consuming life- enhancing activity. It was all there – teamwork, dedication, technical skill, language. He failed to mention that he never once practiced and hated marching. He only stuck with it to have one “thing” on his resume.
Fortunately Son had little interest in traveling far to college. On a family vacation we stopped to take a peek at Stanford. “I could never go here,” he said. “It’s way too nice. I would never study.” It is good to know your limitations.
As a product of the Big Ten system I probably pushed a little hard to go this route. Other moms were looking for nurturing schools, but I couldn’t see beyond the joy of reliving my youth. We dragged Son to his first Purdue football game his sophomore year. It was a miserable cold, rainy day. As we walked through the deserted campus he saw a few nerdy kids studying in the buildings and decided this was not the school for him.
After about five more college visits and a return to Purdue he decided that perhaps it wasn’t so bad, and he probably was not going to get in to MIT. Fortunately, he was accepted.
That last summer at home was a strange combination of dread and anticipation. I could not imagine how empty the house would be without him. I could not imagine how clean the house would be. I fantasized about how I would slowly shovel out all my rooms.
Son is a builder and inventor at heart. His passions changed over the years. We went from Lego’s to Nerf guns, to modified Nerf guns (who knew you could strap a pump onto a Nerf gun and send those foam darts screaming 50 yards across the yard), to building computers. Everything in our house has been disassembled and reassembled and modified for greater speed or improved style. I always feared he would take my car, swap out the engine, and spray paint it.
As a byproduct of these hobbies, I had boxes of PVC pipe, Allen wrenches, paint, and most of all computer parts and cables all over the house. These would all be cleared out.
Move in day finally arrived. Son was miserable. He was the first of his friends to leave and he knew of no one going to his school. We packed the car with our Bed Bath and Beyond purchases and headed east.
After a few quiet moments of driving on I65 he finally spoke.
Son: What do they serve in the dorm cafeterias?
Me: In my day, carrot and raisin salad, burgers that tasted like sawdust and fried chicken with veins. In your day, probably lobster.
Son: Do you know lobsters have no age limit? They can live forever. So, if I eat a lobster it could be 120 years old. That can’t be healthy. Why aren’t scientists studying them?
Me: (knowing this is the kind of conversation I will miss most) Maybe they are.
Son: We can buy 4, cook 3 and save one for a pet.
Me: A pet that will live forever? No thanks.
We arrived at West Lafayette and ate at his favorite lunch spot – Paneras. He picked at his food. We tried to tell him how much he would love college. We walked to the bookstore to buy him a sweatshirt and lift his spirits.
The first thing we saw in the bookstore was big boy blubbering in the corner while his mom looked on helplessly. I am pretty sure no one was crying when I went off to college. I don’t remember anyone even being the slightest bit melancholy. (Old) People claim that our kids have it too easy, or we did not prepare them enough for adulthood. A friend of mine is now at my old university helping freshman transition. He says they lack the life skills that we had. They bring about 25 piece of electronics and panic at the sight of the 2 dorm room outlets. They don’t know how to write a check, do laundry or send a piece of mail. Their parents are hovering at check in, trying to smooth the way for their entrance into adulthood.
We found Son’s room in the ancient, all-boys dorm. He looked terrified at his spartan conditions.
He had no roommate yet (he would be flying in from Bangladesh in a week). He sat frozen on the bed. I started unpacking and hanging up his clothes in the tiny closet. I tucked some clothes into the three little drawers.
I wandered down the hall to see who else was moving in (thinking that perhaps I could arrange a play date). Every room I walked past had the same sight. A boy sitting on a bed and the mom unpacking and organizing. I overheard one dad say to his distraught child, “You’re not going to jail, you’re going to college.”
We left soon and Son headed off to his orientation. I was miserable all the way back to Illinois, and for many following weeks. Late night texts about lack of friends were breaking my heart. He also said he wasn’t eating because he had no one to go to the cafeteria with. I suggested he join a fraternity. For once in his life he took my advice and joined a frat. He finally had friends. It would be OK.
Back at home there was less cooking, less cleaning. I didn’t have the heart, however, to clean out his room. Soon it was Thanksgiving and he was coming home. That first break the all neighborhood kids met up at our house. The noise was deafening as they all compared stories of their first few weeks away.
As the weekend progressed a new obsession started. Son wanted a pet.
Son: I want a rat.
Son: They are cute.
Me: No, they are not.
Son: Have you ever seen a fancy rat?
Somehow he got me into PetSmart to window shop for fancy rodents.
OK, they were a little bit cute.
Me: Remember your beta fish and the great fish massacre?
Son: That wasn’t my fault. If you don’t like rats, my friend has python he said I can have.
The rat was suddenly sounding better.
Somehow freshman year flew by and summer arrived, along with the mess. Son now had a new hobby – cooking. Probably because he starved at school all year. He made us homemade pizza, carnitas burritos, pasta salad.
Days were filled with sleeping. Nights with friends and girlfriend and cooking.
Sophomore year move in was a breeze. He now loved Purdue. He was moving into his fraternity and sharing a room with a friend. His new room was called “The Pillow Room.” It all sounded very unsanitary and I barely ventured into the space. It looked like a combination of Animal House meets Rhoda Morgenstern.
That year was fairly uneventful except for the first in a string of strange cell phone mishaps. His iPhone had a button that stopped working, so he got a replacement. He took the new phone camping. He used its flashlight to see to add wood to the campfire. Somehow he threw the phone into the fire along with the logs. iPhones melt quite spectacularly (so does skin when you reach into fire to try to save phones). Then there was the phone that was stolen and the one he dropped and cracked the screen. This doesn’t even count the phones he swam with or washed with his laundry in his earlier years.
Throughout the year he half-heartedly looked for a summer internship in his new business major. He finally conceded that he would have to look into retail, but not at our mall. He moved home for the summer and found a position at Sunglass Store in a neighboring town.
That was a surprisingly structured summer job. I worked retail as a teen. Our training involved instructions to wear a foundation and not steal the merchandise. Sunglass Store required several interviews and a detailed training course in hard selling techniques and store operations. He was required to wear black dress clothes.
Son hated that job. He insisted it was stupid. He did not like the canned sales techniques he was supposed to use. He had a hovering manager that critiqued his every timid encounter with a customer. He learned to say things like “They frame your face nicely.”
That job cost me $400 in new clothes and $200 for the pair of Tory Burch sunglasses I bought (so that he could earn a commission). Son got a speeding ticket on the way home one night that consumed the rest of his income. He wrote his first check ever and completed an online driving course. In spite of the misery and costs, he finally had some employment on his resume.
That summer he added beer making to his hobbies. He took me along to the home brewing store which to me looked like a home pot growing store.
This hobby was messy and expensive. It created giant piles of spent grain. At first I thought some large animal had vomited in my backyard. He explained that he had to dump it outside. Anyway, the spent grain was “organic and like compost”. “Well, the dog is eating it,” I said. “At least dump it on the other side of the fence.”
His cooking improved every year.
He even recruited his friend Kyle to help with this one. It all went well until Kyle started my potholder on fire.
Junior year Son moved back into the fraternity. I re-shoveled out the house (but somehow I still have all those boxes of computer parts). We went to a few football games which always seemed to be in the freezing rain. We even traveled to an away game to see his friend, Andrew, march for MSU.
He learned a few more life lessons (no thanks to me). On the way home for spring break he got a flat tire. It was midnight and he was in the middle of rural Indiana. He called to ask me what to do. I said to call Allstate. He said he did and some lady in India said she couldn’t help. Husband rolled over in bed and grabbed the phone. “Get the owner’s manual out and read how to change a tire.” Then he hung up. I was horrified and of course wide awake when he rolled in at 2:00 am. He was very proud that he had changed the tire.
The summer before senior year he finally found an internship in his dream industry – beer. He was a marketing rep. This involved working at beer events all over the city. That part was fun.
It also involved calling on every seedy bar and liquor store in his territory – which was the southwest side of Chicago. His distributor told him never to go there after dark.
I was a wreck when he made these calls. I loved it when he had to give sample at our local Whole Foods.
We finally decided he was probably responsible enough to leave him in charge of the house and dog. We went on a business trip. On our last day I called home to see how things were going.
Son: I don’t know how to run a household!
Me: What’s wrong?
Son: We have some sort of fly infestation.
Son: And the dog pooped in the house
Me: She never does that. I’ll bet she was upset.
Son: She wasn’t happy. I was late for work and I couldn’t let her out.
So upon returning home it took me five minutes to find the food source of the flies (sticky beer and some of that spent grain) and three weeks to kill all of them. I still occasionally find one stuck somewhere. This one must have died desperately trying to escape from the messy house.
Before we knew it it was senior year. One last fall of football games and tailgates.
One final Christmas break and the accompanying mysterious messes that materialized while I was sleeping.
Spring semester was full of job hunting. He interviewed on campus and mailed off a few actual paper resumes in snail mail (after calling and asking me how to mail a letter: “where does one buy a stamp?” and “where do you actually put the letter?”. I had clearly failed to teach him life skills. Yet, here he was graduating and heading out into adulthood.
He informed us he was moving to Cleveland with or without a job. This was where girlfriend had accepted a job. Cleveland?? On to his next adventure. The nest will stay empty. I guess I am now a stay-at-home housewife. Perhaps I should just say I am retired.