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Life’s Way Station August 31, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Motherhood, Parenting, popular culture, Women's Issues.
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Empty-Nest-%232My nest is empty.

On Saturday, Mr. Kitchen Table and I took our daughter two hours down the interstate and left her in a tiny cinder-block room in a city where she knows nobody.  Of course, this place is commonly known as a college dormitory and countless parents have made the same trip – but to us it felt like abandonment of the highest order.  My anxiety was boundless, both before the drop-off and since, though I truthfully believe that we feel more abandoned than she ever would.

I really thought that this would not affect me this way.  John and I have been rather looking forward to this.  If you ever shared a house with a self-centered 18-year old girl, you would understand why.  We were so very tired of arguing the same arguments over and over again because, of course, nobody knows more than a self-centered 18-year old girl.  We were so ready!

Also, John and I had spent a few years just the two of us before she came along.  We went places on the spur of the moment, stayed in bed all day with the Sunday paper, and spent money on frivolous things.  We always knew exactly where our car was, the towels were always hung up in the bathroom, there were no piles of junk on our dining room table, and when we reached in our pockets – there was usually some money.  We were really anticipating getting at least something of those days back. 

What we didn’t anticipate is the overwhelming emotion.  As our daughter stood in the middle of her dorm room (which, to me, looked vaguely reminiscent of the cells in “Lockup” on MSNBC), all I could see was a little girl in her plaid Holy Family Elementary School uniform beaming with excitement on her first day of school.  I saw the anxious face of the first-time Girl Scout camper as we waved goodbye for a week of camp.  I heard the laughter of my companion on our various road trips and the cries of a high-school freshman that lost a schoolmate to a car accident.  I felt the arms that surrounded and comforted me when my parents died.  Then, I saw a beautiful and confident young woman standing there and almost didn’t recognize her. 

I said goodbye to her through some tears and hurried to get to the car.  I am ashamed to admit that since we dropped her off, I have sent four text messages and made two phone calls.  I need to constantly reassure myself that she’s OK.  Though I might have glimpsed an adult standing in that dorm room, I still have a little girl, whether she thinks so or not. 

Right now, my daughter and I are parked in one of life’s way stations.  She’s too grown up to live with curfews and restrictions, but not mature enough to be totally independent.  For me, I need some time to be able to trust in her and completely let go.  I think this must be why they invented resident colleges, to hold you in semi-independence until you are really ready to be out on your own.

My nest may be empty, but most of my friends who have already gone through this have told me not to worry.  Often, the chicks come back and fill it up again – which is a totally other column!


A Tribute To My Mother May 10, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Mom, Mother's Day, Women's Issues.
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mother and childI decided to forego politics today to write about my mother.  It seems fitting, as today is Mother’s Day, to examine that complex relationship that we all have with the first – and no matter what, most important – person we meet in our lifetimes. 

My mother, Patricia Stockman, died on July 14, 2005.  I – and my life – have never been the same since.

Everyone that knows us both tells me that I am exactly like my mother.  In fact, a family joke is that she never really gave birth to me – that I was instead cloned from her fingernail.  When I was younger, that really used to annoy me.  I wanted to be ME, not a miniature someone else.  It wasn’t until I got older that I began to accept it and now, I wear it with pride.  I will never again know anyone that I respect and admire more.

My mom was born in 1938.  Sometime after the war, I think she was about 12 years old, my grandfather went out to work and never came home.  The old man was a real beaut – a drunk and abuser of epic proportions – but his disappearance still affected her and her siblings deeply.  Ma never really let on that him going missing caused her any pain except in her unguarded moments – and those were few and far between.  For example, I was talking to her once about a good friend of mine who was a single mother and the struggles she was having.  “It can’t be worse than when I was a kid,” she told me.  “Can you imagine what it was like in 1952 when your teacher asked you to bring your mother and father to school?  First, you had to tell them you didn’t have a father.  Then you had to explain your entire history when they got mad and told you not to be ridiculous – everybody has a father.”

It was those little offhand comments that really helped me understand my mother.  She was a tough broad.  Though I always knew it, she never said she loved me until I was a grown woman with my own daughter.  She was an absolutist.  There was black and there was white, things were right or they were wrong.  No moral relativism was allowed; no excuses were permitted.  When I was a kid it drove me crazy.   As I grew older and she let me see more of her own childhood and her family’s struggles, I began to understand.   In a world where things were turned upside down overnight a certain control – even if it was only over yourself – needed to be maintained. 

Lest you think, however, that Ma was a brittle or bitter person, you need to think again.  When I was a kid, she would stand on a kitchen chair and belt out “Put the Blame on Mame” for her children’s entertainment.   She was a Girl Scout leader for my sister and me; she helped my Dad with Boy Scouts, Little League, the Community Association, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.  I learned what it meant to be Irish from her.  Like an Irish shanachie, Ma told us stories of fairies and banshees and sang the Irish songs – even getting my German father playing them on the harmonica. 

Ma only graduated from high school, but she was wicked smart and had a sharp, sarcastic wit.  She told a million stories.  She loved all kinds of music and even went through my Prince “Purple Rain” phase with me.  It baffled my Dad but gave the two of us a great laugh.  She mothered our various friends, who loved her almost as much as we did.  She and my Dad never turned any stray away from their door – be they animal or human.   Anyone could find a meal, a song, a story, and a laugh in our kitchen.

The last years of Mom’s life were tough.  Forty years of smoking took its toll – she was diagnosed with COPD in her 50’s.  She spent several years going in and out of hospitals.  She had pneumonia so many times, she had to have a tracheotomy so it would be easier to hook her up to the respirator.   But it never got her down until my father – her husband of 49 years – got sick himself.  Dad’s last illness took all the fight out of her.  She died almost exactly one month after Dad did.  Even though I knew she had been sick for years, he passing still shocked me to my core.  In many ways I have not recovered.

So, on this Mother’s Day, I want to tell my Mom how much she meant – and still means to me.  I want her to know how much I miss her.  I still find myself thinking, “Wait until I tell Mom about this!”  I want to thank her for all the gifts that she has given me.

I am a mother now.  I tell my daughter often that I love her.  She and I share serious and silly moments; we fight, and yell at each other, and hug it out.  My daughter is growing up and will be leaving us this fall to go to college.  It is something I yearn for and dread at the same time.  While I am happy to see her going out into the world, I still want her in my kitchen making newspaper photo collages while telling me about her day.  I want to know she is safe in her bed at night.  I want her to be happy.  Most of all, I want her and I to have the same relationship that my mother and I had. 

I just need to learn one more lesson from my Mom – letting go.  I hope she’s still guiding me from wherever she is.