Samantha came home from two weeks at Outward Bound, a no-frills boot camp in a sailing ship off Puget Sound, Wash., with four new vocabulary words: "Can I help you?"
I was in the kitchen slicing tomatoes, and the shock was so great I nearly nicked my finger. But she was serious.
"I can chop garlic," she said, gaily. Oh my. Garlic is a second-tier miracle of its own; the expansion of my daughter's appetite from Power Bars into wok cooking.
Teen-age girls always have a strange relationship with food. When I was her age, I ate only peanut butter or salami. Before Samantha will buy anything, even shoes and shampoo, she investigates its chemical properties and environmental impact. She interviews restaurant managers to certify the tuna in the nicoise is dolphin safe. Her favorite reading is the labels on packages, those tiny charts listing the calories, protein, salt and carbohydrates. With the exception of apples, she basically eats food created for astronauts.
I am well beyond arguing with her. This is my comeuppance for raising a baby naturally, in a Coke-free home, free of stabilizers and preservatives. I was responding to my own childhood, in which all vegetables came frozen in plastic bags or cartons; these were in turn a vast improvement over vegetables preserved in cans. Anyway, I baked my own bread (from a famous cookbook created by California monks) for her pre-school sandwiches of peanut butter and banana, (no jelly; too much sugar.) But the minute she was in our friends' kitchen, she went right to the refrigerator and dove for the soda can. This was not the only exercise in humility my daughter has given me.
We are in the middle of a long summer of separation, so of course I'm thinking about how we began, and where we are heading. When Samantha announced she wanted to spend the summer camping away from home, she did so with my best interests at heart.
"You need a break!" she declared. And looking in the mirror, I had to agree. Exhaustion coated my body like a linoleum floor with too much wax build up. Where, under all those worry lines of parental concern, was the real me?
I spent my own childhood summers at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. While I enjoyed well enough the time spent reading novels and swatting flies on the top of a bunkbed in a cabin by a lake, it was my parents who really benefited from the experience.
Mom and Dad would bring me to the downtown New York bus depot looking haggard and defeated. The moment Dad heaved my duffel bag onto the baggage truck, his spirits lifted. When they picked me up weeks later, they were buoyant, hands waving brightly in the pageant of waiting parents standing curbside, practically glowing with good health.
Like Samantha, I took my parents' happiness personally. I'd lie on my bunk staring up at the ceiling during the post-lunch rest hour, and imagine them dancing in the living room, or -- imagine this -- laughing together during dinner, like I'd once seen them when I was 7 and crept down the hallway during an adult party. But now I can see that it wasn't me: all year long they were cocooned in responsibility; they lifted into their true joyous colors temporarily, when I was gone.
Who am I when I'm not a parent? So far, it's been hard to tell. For the first days, I lived on the banks of denial, just doing my business as usual. Then I began to feel what was missing, the negative space where hormonal rage and sweet delight usually swing in counter point. My friend "E," whose son is off to college this year, tells me she's following him around the house in order to store up "boy smells," anticipating the moment they'll be gone for good. E and I are on the same page. When things get quiet at home, I spontaneously play in my head (never that @'*! overproduced record) the theme from "Titanic," which Samantha loves. Girl sounds.
My friends, whose children are now adults and living on their own, are still practicing the parenting arts. We talk about the professional lives of der kinde as once we discussed their play groups and clothing sizes. And when the flock moves home for some periodic resting, we don't even mind.
"They ask me to make dinner," says my friend Barbara of her adult children. "I'm glad to do it."
It's weird to find how the mothering side of nature takes hold; it is the skin we grow and can't easily take off. I am of the generation of women that fought against vicarious identities.
Parenting may not be my only business, but it sure eats time. How am I doing as a mother? is the question that haunts me night and day. So here we are, proud feminists all. But a kiss is still a kiss, and a mother, as my own mother forever tells me, is always a mother. I am now, for this summer, what my girlfriend Marika calls a "single mom," a mother who is doing the same degree of worrying, but alone.
When Samantha was young, I would imagine the day that I would have my freedom again. Cross-country bike tours; a villa in Portugal; a cooking class with Marcella Hazan in Italy. But right now, I'm not Outward Bound, but Inward Bound, exploring what's to come.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist for The Jewish Journal. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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