October 7, 1999
Digging in Deep
"Next year," she says, "can't we put the sukkah on the other side of the house?" She explains that if we move the wooden lean-to from the garden to the level, concrete slab, we won't spend the autumn nights pulling the legs of the folding chairs out of the dirt as we did this time. It would be nice if our guests could eat sitting upright.
I am floored to find her thinking about next year at home, and the sukkah we'll build. For me, next fall is a huge black hole. The sukkah will be there, but Samantha, having moved on to college, will probably be gone.
The thought's a killer.
My own senior year in high school has long-ago been composted, mashed into decayed memories that only very recently became fertile ground. I can't separate the debris of high school from the vitality of college, or myself from my mom. What I recall is that we spent many arduous years trying to accomplish what the orchid and bromeliad do naturally; splitting off into independent beings.
Only part of the problem was money. My parents didn't know they were pinching me at the roots, having insisted since sixth grade that there was a perfectly good local college I could attend for free.
The larger problem was cultural expectations: no one in my family had gone to college, none had lived away from home before marriage. None of my parents' siblings ever lived more than an hour drive from Grandpa or each other. I was expected to live as they had lived, for what else was there? There was simply no guide-book for parents on how to prepare a child for an autonomous life.
And then there was the bigger issue: my mother's own unblossomed hopes. Mom was way ahead of her time, a woman who did not need a women's movement to tell her that her energies and smarts deserved a more hospitable soil than Eisenhower's America, and the Little Woman with the Apron who earned her "pin money" typing envelopes and balancing corporate books. When my mother went off to work, the neighbors leaned out the window.
"What's the matter, your husband can't support you?" one asked.
Until the day she graduated from college, at age 59, my mother resented my opportunities, if not exactly me.
Well, OK, it's all ancient history now. Samantha knows that college is expected, and none of it is free. She's already lived across country, knows how to use an ATM and e-mail; freedom is part of our family terrain. I resent her nothing.
But if everything is as expected, why then the sense that the ground is shifting, and that my leg is stuck in deep soil? I am prepared for everything it seems, but the depth of family love.
The myth of Family Love, as the women's movement explained it to me, is that it is stronger at the root; most intense when the children are infants, growing to strange antipathy during the teen years, then finally restoring itself to respect when the children are adults.
Therefore: For independent women, the best recourse is satisfying work at an early age. A woman who maintains her career, keeps networking and growing, keeps a healthy social life with friends, husband or lovers, keeps her resume fresh and her skills in the public eye, will protect herself from unnecessary pain when the children leave.
But out there, among the readership of this very newspaper, are scores of women who did everything according to the rules, who worked, stayed independent, kept vital social lives. And who miss their children desperately, and grieve for the family life that seems more valuable as the years bring it to a close.
We're afraid to talk about it. We think it unseemly that you know. In this age of the dysfunctional family, who could predict, let alone account for, a love so strong?
Women like me, who trained our children to grow straight and tall and need us less, now need them more. My daughter made her own doctor's appointments in fourth grade; bought her own ballet slippers when she was 10. When she was a baby she knew what it meant to say "Mommy's working." While I was off at work, I knew that good daycare would suffice. And it did. But while she was happily trying out her competence, I was growing more attached. It wasn't supposed to be this way. But I'll be damned if I'll miss one choir practice or one audition, with my own eyes.
It strikes me that the more independent the woman, the harder the cut. "I can't meet you, Ariel is coming home for the night!" says my friend, Marika, of her daughter, a college freshman. Others thrill at the prospect of a rare breakfast with adult children who live not miles away.
The women's movement, which provided us with such wisdom in the early years, protects us from nothing at this point. I feel only what parents throughout all time have known, a love for my family life so strong that I cannot bear for it to end, even though the end is good and proves that I've done the job right. Love, unfathomable, unanticipated Love. And one more year to go.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, for a conversation on "Jewish Women: The Artists Imagination" with artists Elinor Antin and Ruth Weisberg at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday Oct. 21.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.