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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

How to Say Goodbye to Your College Kids

It was hardly a big surprise. Rather, a playing out of the natural progression of life. A rite of passage. A milestone we had known was coming for 18 years. Yet, nothing I had read in magazines, scrolled through on Facebook or heard from been-there-done-that parents could have prepared me for the way I felt when I bid the first of my three children farewell, seven short years ago.

My spouse and I drove the daughter 500 miles south to the college of her dreams in the old minivan, which wasn’t quite as old then, overloaded with plastic containers filled with brand-spanking new everything. We followed all the rules of freshman move-in day, parking in the 30-minute only circular driveway, waiting patiently for the laboriously slow elevators to ding open in the lobby, and eyeing parents and their kids smiling through gritted teeth as they tried to make that last time together pleasantly memorable.

The daughter’s room, which she shared with a blond-haired, blue-eyed North Carolinian named Crystal, was just this side of disgusting. It was not the clean, modern dorm we toured at orientation, nor did it resemble the online version of itself. The building was high-rise motel style with balconies serving as walkways rather than interior halls where I had envisioned the daughter stopping to visit newfound friends as she made her evening walk to the common commode.

We lingered. We helped the daughter unpack. We painstakingly hung her belongings on pink slimline hangers behind a curtain that covered a soon-to-become messy closet. We smoothed the sheets and fluffed the pillows. We gushed over how nice the room looked and how many friendly people we had met in our trips up and down on the elevator.

And then, it was time to go.

The daughter walked us to our car. I hugged her. She hugged me back. I got in the old minivan and watched her in the rearview mirror until she turned and walked back into the dorm. All alone. 

And then I let it all out.

“Whoo hoo!” I screamed and fist-punched the air.

When my middle child transferred to a school 3,000 miles away his sophomore year, I flew with him to Los Angeles. We bought a new round of new possessions because it was cheaper, or at the very least, easier, than UPS-ing the year-old bedding, TV, fan, and other dorm room basics. Besides, he reasoned. You can use it for Leo next year.

I set him up in his very nice apartment of a dorm which housed transfer and international students. His roommate was Jiang, call me Joe, from Beijing. He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed like a real nice guy.

I spent three days in California with Max which was probably a day-and-a-half too long. I projected everything that was swirling around in my muddled mind right into his, despite keeping my mouth shut. For the most part. Would he ever find a normal friend amongst these eggheads and future Steven Spielbergs? Would he find his niche? Would he pass his calculus class? Would he join an intramurals team? Would he find a family to feed him on Thanksgiving? (Because that was the rule, you go that far, we’re not flying you back and forth. And we didn’t, that first year. But, of course, ever after, we did.)

And then, it was time to go.

He walked me to the car. I hugged him. He hugged me back. I got in the Hyundai rental car and watched him through the rear view mirror until he left the parking garage.  All alone.   

And then I let it all out.

I wept like a baby. Heaving, from-the-heart, gut-wrenching, years-in-the-making sobs.

When my youngest chose a college 45 minutes away, I worried that he wasn’t going far enough. That he would never have a friend who wasn’t born and raised in New Jersey. That he would rely on his Teaneck friends too much. And that if he had gone to a Division III school, playing on the baseball team wouldn’t be as all-consuming.

My spouse and I helped him set up his room with the bedding Max had left behind the year before. We plugged the goose neck lamp into a dead plug and immediately called maintenance, knowing he’d never succeed if he didn’t sit at that desk with that very lamp shining knowledge into his brain. We made small talk with the roommate’s parents. We maintained our smiles.

And then, it was time to go.

He didn’t walk us to the car. I hugged him. He hugged me back. And then we walked ourselves down the long hallway to the elevator. All alone. 

And then I kept it all in. 

The empty, what-do-I-do-now, hole in my soul.

Each and every one of my three kids truly believes they are the favorite. And, they all have been for fleeting moments in their lives. Though they were each my favorite as I said goodbye to them at their respective college campuses, they provoked very different and unexpected feelings when they left.

Since sending the daughter off into the cold, cruel world seven Augusts ago, a lot has transpired. The two college graduates both had happy experiences, made good friends and now have respectable jobs in which they are required to get up, get dressed and work hard every single day. The youngest is about to start his senior year and assures us that he, too, will have earned his stripes come May.

I’ve said those August goodbyes over ten times now and every year it’s a little bit different. Sometimes I simply can’t wait to get their junk out of the house. To get the toilet seat back down. To have no back door banging at 2 am. To have a refrigerator full of food. And sometimes I get sad, knowing how much I’ll miss the company. The conversation. The constant stream of people in and out of the house, banging aforementioned back door.

And no matter how hard I try to harden my shell and put on that stiff upper lip, when I say goodbye to my kids, a piece of me goes with them. I look at them and wonder where the time went. How they became the young adults that they are. And how I ever survived all those years of motherhood. I hold my tongue so I don’t insinuate my strong opinions into their headstrong heads. I hold my breath hoping they’ll make the most out of their lives. But most of all, I hold my heart, knowing that through it all, there’s one thing I can count on.

They’ll be back. 

Maybe not when I want them. Maybe not when I expect them. Maybe not when I need them. But they'll be back.

They’ll always, always be back.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words of Wisdom as You Leave for College

Dear College-Bound Freshmen,

Because I’m somewhat certain that whatever words your own parents may impart regarding your impending departure will be met with eye rolls, slammed doors, or worse, I’ll go ahead and do it for them. Keep in mind that I do realize that you’ve got this and that nothing anyone (least of all someone of a rapidly aging generation) could possibly say would ever begin to change the course of your life.  

But, still.

I can’t resist sneaking my words of wisdom inside your Bed, Bath and Beyond comforter set and hoping they’ll sink in as you sleep soundlessly upon your new Tempur-Pedic pillow.

It’s been more years than I can count since I left the bosom of my happy home for the open canvas of a college campus. But don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten the exhilarating feelings of hope, joy, excitement, enthusiasm, eagerness and boundless opportunity.

Nor have I forgotten the overwhelming pangs of panic, fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Or that ever- growing pit in the bottom of my stomach that radiated to the pulse of my heart and the depths of my soul with every approaching day.

That summer before I left for college I was mean to my parents. I lashed out at my siblings. And I spent a minimum of 20 hours a day with my high school cronies. Because I knew for sure that never in a million beers would I find a new set of friends who would understand me, love me and put up with me as my hometown homies had. And so, I had to pack as much fun and friendship into a summer as I possibly could.

I was the third child in three years to leave my parents’ nest and I got what my older sisters left behind. My bedspread was a pink woven thing with some blue and white threaded accents that conflicted horribly with my freshman roommate’s Holly Hobbied comforter. You know, the little girls in patchwork dresses with the big bonnets on their heads holding sprigs of wildflowers. Those Holly Hobbies.

There were no matching sheets or in-room television sets or pink plastic hangers. There were no Rubbermaid containers or rolling suitcases. We collected boxes from the local liquor store to transport our personal items and stole milk crates from behind the WaWa to store our record albums. We carried our toiletries to the common bathroom in gallon-sized paint pails. We didn’t have microwaves but rather electric popcorn poppers and hot plates on which we heated up mugs of Lipton-Cup-a-Soup.

When I left for college freshman year, we loaded up the family station wagon. What didn’t fit didn’t go. Nothing got tied to the roof, tugged from the trunk or shipped from the post office. We pulled up in front of Harley Hall, made our ten trips in and out of the dorm, my father sighing heavily with each box he dropped on my floor. My parents hugged me goodbye. And they left. I made my own bed. Put my own clothes away. And began my own life.

There were no cell phones so we wrote letters. Lots of letters. My parents called me once a year on my birthday, dialing in to the pay phone at the end of the hall. One year I got two calls, only because the death of my grandmother warranted quicker communication than the US mail would bring. When winter break came along, if we weren’t successful with the Ride Board in the Student Center, we would take a Trailways bus home, even if it added three hours to a two-hour drive. Or hitchhike.

I know, I know, your eyes are beginning to glaze over. This isn’t your life.  It’s mine. But I tell you these things not so much as a “When I was your age, …” kind of tale, but rather to point out that certain life lessons transcend the test of time.

I know every person is different. Every circumstance is unique. And every school has its own vibe. But, I can’t help but wonder just how my life would have panned out if I had known then what I know now and had followed some wise old woman’s advice instead of insisting on blazing my own trail.

So, here goes. 30 timeless tips for the college-bound:

  1. Don’t play baseball.
    If you don’t love it anymore, don’t play. Don’t run. Don’t ski. Don’t pluck the cello. Don’t join the debate team. And don’t major in theater. Just because you’ve done something your whole life doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Now is the time to think about the whys behind the whats and figure out if you’re doing it for yourself or because it is expected of you.
  2.  Kiss the fat boy, not the frat boy.
    While the world has turned out thousands of upstanding fraternity brothers, don’t limit yourself to those who rank. Look beyond the coke bottle glasses, the Wrangler jeans, the unbranded sneakers and get to know people for who they are, not what they represent to the high school version of yourself.
  3. Eat pizza at midnight.
    And ice cream for breakfast. Just because you can. But keep in mind that the freshman 15 is rectifiable. The subsequent sophomore, junior and senior 15 are harder to shed. 
  4. Leave your car at home.
    Do you really want to be the designated driver for the next four years? God created Uber for a reason.
  5. Call your mother.
    Humor her as she asks if you’re studying hard. If you’ve made any friends. If you miss her. Just say yes. It’s easier that way.
  6. Pull lots of all-nighters.
    Drink copious amounts of Red Bull so you can finish that paper and go to the Kendrick Lamar concert. Because a good education is well-rounded. 
  7. Give it the old college try.
    Whether you chose this school or it chose you, if it’s not a good fit, it doesn’t have to be your final destination. Keep your options open (which means keep your grades up), and think about transferring somewhere better suited to your hopes, dreams and reality.
  8. Be color blind.
    Experience different cultures. Learn different languages. Love different people. 
  9. Change your major.
    Stop worrying about disappointing your grandmother. If you want to study philosophy instead of going pre-med, do it. You’ll get a job, eventually. I promise.
  10. Don't ask for money.
    Call home to say hello. I love you. I need your advice. But, don’t ask for money. Get a job if you’ve blown your budget by October 1st. You may be used to getting anything you ever asked for, but it’s time to stop expecting your parents to bail you out. 
  11. Do something alone.
    College flocks are fun, but you also need to spend quality time with someone more important. Yourself. 
  12.  Never take a Thursday night class. 
  13.  Talk to strangers.
    Every friend was once a stranger. 
  14. Call her in the morning.|
    Don’t be that guy. Be respectful. Be kind. Make your mama proud. 
  15. Protect yourself.
    Never, ever, until you are married, and maybe not even then, have sex without a condom. Parenting should be a privilege, not a problem. 
  16.  Overdrink. Understudy. And stay up too late.
    You’re going to do it anyway, so permission granted.
  17. Do your laundry.
    The smell of your own sweat may be sweet to you, but the ripe scent of three-weeks-worn jeans will turn up a lot of noses. And don’t bring home a suitcase full of dirty clothes at Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular belief, your mom really doesn’t want to do it.
  18. Get involved.
    There are dozens, if not hundreds, of extra-curricular things to do in college. Be the geek you’ve always wanted to be. Check out the computer club, the animation club, the badminton club. You might find a passion you’ve been missing your whole life long.
  19. Take care of your friends.
    Don’t leave them to fend for themselves when they’ve drunken themselves into a stupor. Be there to hold their hair and their car keys when they puke and don’t tell them the stupid things they said the next morning. 
  20. Be brave.
    Do one thing every day that makes you feel uncomfortable. 
  21. Don't go into college looking for a spouse.
    Love comes along when it’s good and ready. And if you graduate without ever having had a college sweetheart, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.
  22. Live in a hovel.
    There’s plenty of time to live the high life. College is not one of those times. Everyone should have the experience of swatting swarming cockroaches.
  23. Take notes.
    Not in class, in life. Jot down how you feel, what you’re thinking, who you’re hanging out with and what you’re doing. Who knows, you may become famous and the world will want to know what made you tick and what ticked you off in college.
  24.  Be loud and proud.
    Wear the school hoodie, go to the football games, embrace school spirit and be proud of where you go, even if it wasn’t your first choice. 
  25.  Introduce your parents to Venmo.
    You may be surprised how easily a mom or dad can click that PAY button and how much fun they’ll have adding their stupid little emojis.
  26. Don't go home on weekends.
    You can’t find fun on a college campus from hometown USA. And trust me, your parents don’t miss you that much.
  27. Don't take it so seriously.
    Just have fun. Never again, unless you age out in an over-55 community, will you be in one place with so many people your own age. Savor every minute. Grab every opportunity. And make the most of the most overpriced experience of your life. 
  28. Don’t get a credit card.
    Sure, you can have everything you want for $25 a month. Until, of course, it becomes everything you want for $250 a month. Those minimum payments don’t go away. Forget worrying about building credit. Build your bank account instead. 
  29. Be resilient.
    Losing your fake ID is nothing compared to the real-life losses your future will bring. Toughen up now so when you lose a spouse, a job or a house, you’ll be able to cope.
  30. Don’t drop out.
    Or flunk out. Or party out. Or peter out. Just graduate.

And now, go. Leave your happy homes and have yourself some fun. Find out who you are. What you want to be. And how you want to live your life. And while you're doing that, remember to be kind. Always, always be kind.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Horsing Around on the Food Truck

“Just imagine how hard it would be to actually be my friend,” I said to Sarah in defense of yet another food truck rule I had imposed that morning. It was probably something on the lines of you can’t touch my calculator or the Green Mountain coffee cups are stacked too high.

“Uh, hello,” she responded. “I kind of do consider us friends.”

“I mean, like if we hung out together.”

“As opposed to what we’ve been doing?” the whippersnapper retorted.

After all, we spent over a month together, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, shimmying for space, reaching for change and bumping butts inside a 14-foot food truck with a view of nothing more than gray gravel, hungry faces and begging dogs. If we contorted our bodies to a 90-degree angle and craned our necks the right way we could catch a glimpse of the mountains, a bridled horse, or the porta-potties across the way. But, basically, we were sequestered to the confines of our aluminum-lined kitchen, the workers within it and the folk who frequented it.

“You’re right,” I concurred.

Sarah is younger than my youngest child and I’ve spent more time with her in one fell swoop than I’ve ever spent with my oldest, middle and youngest combined.  

Sarah is funny. Sarah is smart. Sarah is a hard-working, people-pleasing, multi-tasking, full-loving friend. Not to mention an accomplished speed skier and Vermont-via-New Jersey transplant.

“Do you think we’ll ever see each other again?” she asked in another one of our inane conversations. The one in which her legs were crossed tight as she buckled over in belly-heaving guffaws.

“You’re too old…and, for that matter, too young…to be peeing yourself,” I cautioned.

She kegeled tighter.

“But to answer your question,” I said after she returned from changing her shorts. “Yes, we will absolutely see each other again. You’re my new best friend.”

Which got me to thinking about the crazy ways we come together in this world and how our lives end up being enhanced by the least likely contenders. I gazed out onto the grounds of the Vermont Summer Festival where the food truck was planted, scoping out the red-and-white checkered picnic tables filled with people of all different ages, sizes, shapes, ethnicities, social statuses, riding abilities, pecking order positions, political affiliations, sexual preferences, religions and wallet sizes. And I wondered how many of us would ever have even spoken two words to each other in a life outside this six-week-long horse show in Manchester.

I thought about Paige who was working in the stables for the summer and how she came for her BLT sandwiches doling out dollars from the bank envelope that held her weekly paycheck. I thought of Chelsea and how she convinced us that we, too, could get followers on Instagram. Of Haylie who has liked every single post we’ve ever posted and Sydney, Betta and Maeve who went so far as to be photographed with the old lady from the food truck. I thought of Pippa and Franki, the cute little riders who are still lucky enough not to know how lucky they are. Of Jess with her smile, Maddy with her shrimp and Colby with her account. Of the Hillsborough crew and the Baby Bagel. Of our first-week friends, Kim and Hannah and Julie and Daphne. Of Dawn and her big gray dog, Stella. Of Lisa and her over-easy eggs and her ever-easy husband, Paul. Of Carla, lamenting over her first-born heading off to college in Ohio as her second-born landed on her head in Vermont. I thought about how much fun it was to recognize old friends like Jared and Trevor and Shawn and KC from previous shows.

We loved meeting and greeting our customers as they rotated in and out of the show, bantering with the best of them as we tried to figure out the world in which they rode.

"Are you rich?” I asked Shawn after learning that he travels to Europe to “try out” horses. He laughed and I charged him double for his Caprese sandwich.

“Just how much does a horse cost?” I asked Heather, one of my first and favorite friends.

She smiled that you-don’t-really-want-to-know smile.

“What in God’s name (besides being Betsy) prompted you to do something like that?” my friend Nalls asked when I announced via Facebook that I was home from a month-long stint working on a food truck at a horse show in Vermont.

Which prompted me to give it some thought. What popped into my head was an image of the tiny woman from Mexico standing on her tiptoes trying to grab three burgers and an order of chicken fingers from the counter. My two-Red-Bull-in-the-morning boyfriend who worked in the stables. The golden-toothed groom who knew that only I could place his order for a steak sandwich with no horseradish sauce without bellowing, "What? I can't understand you" half-a-dozen times. The multi-Grand Prix champion who drank the same bottles of water that everyone else did. The blacksmith who never once rolled his eyes when he stood in line too long. The vet and his staff; Dottie and John; Billy and Jenn who all talked to us like we were friends, not hired help.

I thought about James, Mr. Please and Thank You, and the sordid life stories that we shared. And about how he jumped aboard the truck on my last day and gave me a hug that made my heart swell.

I thought about the people we fed. The grooms, the trainers, the farm owners, the stable managers, the office workers, the show staff, the vendors, the breeders, the braiders, the riders, the barn hands, the ring sweepers, the show managers, the judges, the photographers, the dealers, the dogs, the jump designers, the stall cleaners, the announcers, the handlers, the potty pumpers, the trash collectors, the parents, the grandparents and the friends and families behind all the financial, emotional and physical sacrifices.

I thought about the people with whom I worked. My best friend Sarah and my sister Nancy who put smiles in every sandwich; Doug and Carrie who powered the production; Autumn and Andres who added the spice in the Mexican food station; Hannah, Courtney and James who all could press a perfect grilled cheese sandwich; Leo and Jake who learned a lot about lattes;  Richard who quickly saw just how different cooking in Vermont could be from bartending in Phoenix; Christine, the best bill facer west of New Hampshire; and Oscar, the fast and furious cook who never missed a morning FaceTime call to wake up his wife and kids in Guadalajara.

“Aren’t they all a bunch of rich people?” a friend asked when I tried to explain the horse show circuit.

“Rich is a relative term,” I answered.

I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never sport an Hermes belt buckle, wear an Ariat jacket or hack a horse. But my life has been enriched by those who do. Our paths would surely never have crossed had they not been looking up to us on that food truck, trusting us to leave the tomato out of their tuna, add extra salsa to their breakfast burrito or spike their passion iced-tea with just the right splash of lemonade. 

No matter where we fit in to the grand scheme of life, there's one thing I've learned from my many fun-filled experiences. We all have our parts to play in this great big world and not one of us is any better than the other.

And that whether we are riding horses, serving sandwiches, brokering a business or ruling the country, it always takes more than money to run the show.