When I saw my older daughter walking away from the car after I dropped her off for her first middle school dance recently I felt a little tug of the heartstrings and knew that with every step she took she was going one step farther away from her daddy, one step closer to life on her own as an independent individual.
I don’t want to make too big a deal over this; she is only 12 years old, after all. Maybe we fathers make too much over our precious daughters. Fathers and sons I don’t know too much about, not having any sons of my own. I am a son to my own father, but, since I am basically an average guy, I didn’t pay too much attention to my father’s feelings when I was 12 years old; it’s hard to say how much difficulty he had letting me grow up. From observing a lot of the boys my daughters’ ages, I’d guess that most parents are pretty relieved when their sons finally show a modicum of maturity and self-reliance.
My mother, her I remember more clearly at those milestones where I walked away, asserted a little independence, began cutting the apron strings. Of course, she showed me how to do it first. When I was five years old and playing with all the toys in the basement at Barbie’s preschool on my first day, there was my mom, chatting with all the other mothers; they seemed so tall. I turned away to get a block or a crayon, and I turned back and saw Mom tiptoeing up the stairs. I must have called out, because she ducked her head down between the rungs of the staircase and said goodbye to me. Hmm, well that’s how it’s done.
I didn’t expire that day, and I must have eventually had a pretty good time. So one year later, I found myself on the first day of kindergarten confidently walking down South Street toward Anson School, holding Mom’s hand. I had my nap rug with my name written on it in Magic Marker rolled up under my arm, and I was ready for a new challenge. This time there were seven grades worth of kids starting the school year — a lot of hustle and bustle. Mom stayed for a few minutes in Mrs. Lasiure’s classroom for a minute or two as I waded into what I remember as a crowd of new kids; none of them had gone to Barbie’s. When the teacher finally began to create order out of the chaos, I glanced back to the door and Mom was gone.
There were lots of steps away after that — first sleepover (I don’t remember that at all), first away sporting event, first junior high dance (I hope Mom felt some heartstring pulls that night, to compensate for the pterodactyl-size butterflies in my stomach), first end-of-high-school-cross-country-season party. ’Til finally, the big one — I left home for college.
My parents and I drove from Iowa to New Hampshire to deliver me to my first semester of college. At the bed and breakfast where we stayed we met another family who was dropping off their son; the father and son sat down in the living room the night before the parents left so they could have a heart-to-heart. It looked so contrived to me. The next day my parents dropped my luggage at my dorm and dropped me off outside the gym; it was kind of awkward; my mom tried not to cry too much; my dad teared up. And I turned and walked up the steps and into one of the defining adventures of my life.
The final walk I took that transported me even further into maturity and maybe, sort of, into a league with my parents, was when I got married. The night before the ceremony the whole family, and family’s family, and friends etc. were gathered for a celebration; and Mom, she was a puddle. I hadn’t seen her cry that much since her own father had died when I was five years old. I don’t know if she was crying because I was the last of her seven children to marry, closing the possibility of any of us ever moving back home again. I imagine there was some measure of relief (see my observation above about boys and maturity); Mom knew that at least I was some other woman’s responsibility now. Perhaps she got a peek at her own mortality. The next day both my parents walked me through the congregation, and then I stepped away and took my place next to my beautiful bride.
Now, in the twinkling of an eye, I found myself driving my own child — who, to be honest, is not really a child, if not quite an adult — to another of her own rites of passage. Before she got out of the car and went on her way to chat with friends, let the music move her body across the gym floor and, possibly, though I don’t really know because she didn’t say, exchange a few words with, ah, er, boys, she leaned toward me and let me kiss her forehead. Then she got out of the car, called to a friend and waved, and strode confidently toward her future.