When You Turn 50 And Your Daughter Leaves For College In The Same Summer

Susan Buttenwieser Empty Nest

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1.    Spend previous year marking first daughter’s lasts. Last first day of school. Last Halloween, parent-teacher conferences, Picture Day, school play. Last family apple picking trip, last road trips with all four of you in the car and the music turned up. Last Emmys, Golden Globes, Academy Awards family watching parties. Last last day of school. Last full day she is still at home. The last day.

2.    Train for New York City marathon during early morning hours before heat settles in.

3.    Marinate in a broth of deep parental regret. What if you had been more patient, a better cook, good at crafts, more like Tammy Taylor?

4.    Jolt awake with these thoughts: what if she never comes back home again? What if she never leaves?

5.    And sometimes this one: what about all the choices and decisions you made that weren’t good ones? So much of her life up to this point has been curated largely by you. What she was fed, where she lived, what schools she went to, what books were read to her when she was little, places she visited, skills she learned or didn’t, people she spent time with, what she has been exposed to. What if it was all completely wrong?

6.    Read about the new research on picky eaters and fret.

7.    Read about the new research on breast-feeding and fret.

8.    Read about the new research on reading to young children. Maybe there is one thing you did okay.

9.    Pick up Pop Tart wrappers strewn around the couch from the night before, milk and Chinese food takeout containers left out on the kitchen counter and ponder the possibility that you might be ready.

10.    Troll the Internet for gauzy personal essays about mother-daughter last lunches filled with heart-felt talks and hugs and tear up thinking of your own petty arguments, your inability to stop moaning at her.

11.  Fall asleep most nights watching television with her in failed attempt to stay up late, trying to soak in the last drops of her.

12.  Realize that you don’t know all the songs on Hillary Clinton’s Spotify playlist; some of them you haven’t even heard of. Your days of music journalism, however fleeting they were, are so far in the past, as if they didn’t happen at all.

13.  Watch time kaleidoscope, the past and present blurring, like a flipbook moving backwards and forwards simultaneously. A song takes you to a long ago holiday when you’d wake up early with your daughters before everyone else and swim together, just the three of you. Back when they loved you desperately, needed you always, wanted you constantly. Their small hands latched onto you, fingers gripped tightly to yours, around your neck, attached to your arms. Holding on as if they would never let you go. Then you are brought back to the present, into the right now, where that is no longer the case.

14.  Contemplate this simple devastating fact: your first daughter was a baby and now she is not a baby. It perpetually crushes you that there was a time when you spent literally every single moment of every day together and not one thing happened to her that you weren’t there for or knew about. Already there is so much of her life that is private, a mystery, and so much more of that awaiting.

15.  Curl up together on a beach towel and see the layering of years on her face. She is curling her toes up when her tiny baby feet touch the sea for the first time, has hot fudge sundae smeared on her sunburned five year old face at the fish shack overlooking the harbor, boogie boarding and swimming out to a sand bar at seven, playing with her sister in the waves at nine, effortlessly surfing on twelve year-old legs. It is all still in there somewhere.

16.  Watch neighbors’ with young children leave on their summer beach vacation. The way you once did.

17.  Become increasingly grumpy and ill tempered during the last weeks. Occasionally manage something verging on adult-like behavior. But then there these moments with her that sneak up on you, almost announcing themselves like “this is a thing, notice it.” Buying dorm-bed sheets and a dorm-bed mattress cover together, playing around with the selfie stick display at Bed Bath and Beyond, a laughing jag in dorm bean bag chair section, sharing a picnic lunch of Lenny’s subs, the same thing you ate the day before she was born.

18.  Replay her start to kindergarten over and over in your mind. The days leading up to it, you wandered around together inside her new school with her baby sister in tow. Choosing her outfit the night before, a purple dress, laying it out on her bed. The whole family walked her to school on that first day with her best friend and his family, stopping every few feet for pictures. Remember the smell of wet leaves on the pavement that whole entire fall. That same smell again on a college tour with her in Pennsylvania, driving home afterwards in the light rain and singing along to bad pop songs.

19.  Hurtle along the Mass Pike with her possessions loaded down in the car. You have done this trip hundreds of times before. For first Thanksgivings, first birthdays, more birthdays, Easters, Thanksgivings, Christmases, anniversaries, school vacations, family gatherings. All the college visits, SAT-taking, essay writing, thinking and worrying and planning and shopping and packing and arguing and celebrating, all the everything that is now culminating in this drive to freshman orientation.

20.  Spend the following day swimming at the beach. The same beach where you swam when pregnant with her, your long ago 32nd birthday, floating on your back in the sea. Nervously waiting to become a mother. Moving the previous week after being evicted, your brother and his girlfriend helping. Crying as you cleaned out the filthy bathroom in your new apartment, too pregnant to lift, not too pregnant to scrub and for tears. This is the same beach town where you took your first daughter when she was a baby and then both daughters on vacations. Went on whale-watching trips with your mother during middle school, slept in the backseat of your high school boyfriend’s car, came on your honeymoon, weekend excursions before children. The same water, the same place. You have been alive for half a century, born in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, before Stonewall even happened or Roe v. Wade. Your first daughter unpacks her things in her dorm room, navigates the cafeteria. The sun sets at the very end of the Cape, the last tip of land on the Atlantic seaboard curving backwards on itself. Connecting you to all those years and all the things that have happened.



About the Author

Susan Buttenwieser

Susan Buttenwieser's writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Atticus Review, Women's Media Center, Brain, Child and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women.

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