Friday, April 8, 2011

By the Time He Gets To Phoenix, You'll Need a Double Snapple

I didn't expect to hear from Cousin Katie so soon. We usually try to get our families together around the major winter holidays. Or whenever something worth celebrating happens.
Snapple and the Stuff of  Life:
Perfect together.
So when she called in the dead heat of this off-graduation summer, I had to wonder what was bringing us to Audubon, NJ, this time.
Last summer both our families celebrated high school graduations when their Derek and our AimeƩ managed to crawl across their parallel scholastic finish lines just in time to get a validated diploma. We won't be doing so again until 1998 when their Jason and our Neil get to balance simultaneous mortarboards on their little knowledge-laden heads, too.
"We're having a going-away party for Derek this Sunday." Katie's voice caught me off guard. "He's moving to Phoenix."
Phoenix. Capital of Arizona. A big dry state somewhere near California. The place Glen Campbell was headed to in the 1960s -- right before he landed that job as a Wichita lineman. Also, the home of Katie's parents.
"When is he leaving?" I asked.
"Next Wednesday. It's time. I think it will do us all some good," said Katie, hinting at the mixed motherly emotions that I, too, have experienced during the advanced stages of custodial parenting.
Not custodial, as in winning custody in a divorce hearing; she and Cousin Chuck are still in good standing, maritally speaking.
I mean custodial as in taking care of, guarding, maintaining and sustaining the child you've made it your business to hover over since birth.
And I say advanced stages because, when your live-at-home teenager finishes high school, turns 18, looks and feels grown up and still lives at home -- you become a terminally incredble parent.
That's right; I hate to shock those of you custodians out there still in the prime of your hovering stage. It's just part of the fine print you didn't dwell on -- along with sleep deprivation, financial ruin and chronic stomach knots. You still have to deal with losing all your credibility. And you thought you were so smart. This is something that even Doctors Spock, Drew and Brazelton can't solve for you, not even with an assist from Dear Abby.
"OK. We'll see you then," I said, remembering the last time we had spoken about Derek's future.
His mind was set on Rider University. But that changed when the financial reality of higher education caved in around him. So he settled for some affordable night classes at the local community college and survived his first post-high school year working, studying and looking for the next step up.
Phoenix seemed to hold promise. After all, Derek could stay with his grandparents for a while, establish residency and attend a state college there for a fraction of the $18,000 it would have cost him to live at Rider, right in his own New Jersey back yard.
At least going to Phoenix is going someplace.
And someplace is better than no place, especially for a young person like Derek, whose birthright is full membership in Club Genreation X.
Cousin Chuck said he knew Derek needed some wings. The best he could offer was a choice: another semester at the community college and some wheels of his own to get back and forth -- or a plane ticket out of Audubon.
Derek took the golden ticket.
Postscript: Derek turned out fine. Found himself
a great wife, Bridget, and is living happily ever after.
At the party, Derek seemed happy enough. He said he was packed and counting the days. Several of his friends stopped  by with offerings of cards, gifts and bear hugs. Chuck and Katie were busy restocking the taco dip and fetching Snapples for the hot and thirsty summer crowd.
A week later, I had the unusual pleasure of seeing my cousins again, this time at Cousin Arn's house. Cousin Arn, who also lives in Audubon, is Cousin Chuck's younger brother, and three weeks my junior. He and his wife were celebrating their baby's first birthday. And in 17 summers, I suppose we will be celebrating mutual graduations for their Morgan and our Julianna. Guess it's never too soon to plan.
"So, how'd it go?" I asked Katie, sipping a Snapple.
"I cried for three days. In fact, this is the first day I've been able to say his name without -- "
"-- You talking about Derek again?" Cousin Chuck interjected.
Katie's eyes filled with tears.
"I was fine until the night before he left. Then it hit me -- all of a sudden I couldn't stop crying. It's just that Derek and I would sit around at night a lot, talking about things. You know? Now he's gone to Phoenix. Then you start wondering things like, 'Did I do enough for him? Did I give him enough while I had the chance? Will he be OK?' It's just been harder than I thought."
 Katie struggled bravely under the weight of her sentence.
And for a few minutes, on Cousin Arn's moonlit deck, we cousins and our spouses sipped Snapples just to beat the hot summer night, wondering out loud about the state of parenting.
Surely it hadn't been so hard for OUR moms and dads. We marveled at the cost of living, the cost of college, the cost of taking a chance on parenthood without reading the fine print.
Then, we drank another round of Snapples and I offered up a silent toast, to Derek and the future. I think Katie made hers a double.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Confessions of a Prom Mom

Harry S Truman Prom, 1994. Andreas Scheerer and AimeƩ, in blue.
I want to start this by saying I can comfortably write a column about my 17-year-old daughter and our perfect relationship because we share a unique understanding that would make most "regular" mother/daughter duos extremely jealous.
But why resort to blatant lies?
Truth of the matter is I can write comfortably about my daughter because she's out of the country. She's in Canada with her high school chorus. And since the bus isn't due back in Levittown until later tonight, I should have enough time to curb the Sunday paper this is printed in, along with the trash and recyclables, before her dirty laundry hits the hamper.
Next weekend is her senior prom. These are the six scariest words in the Maternal language.
What's so scary, you ask? Perhaps, you, who have never been a hormonal teenager girl, would need to ask. Me? I've been to that party, pal, and I know when to pass the onion dip.
Not that I don't cherish the opportunity to share this once in a lifetime moment with my daughter. But I've barely survived the Prom Mom preliminaries. I'm not sure I have what it takes to make the final cut.
First, there was pre-decision purgatory. That was the month I spent emotionally suspended between Audrey "I Could Have Danced All Night" Hepburn and Sissy "Doesn't Carrie Make A Lovely Prom Queen" Spacek. While all of Aimee's friends were talking about prom gowns and the fashion risks they were considering, from hair to toenails, my daughter refused to throw her hat into the ring. She waffled on her potential prom candidacy with the eloquence of a young Republican.
"I don't know if I want to go. I hate all that catered food. And anyway, it's really just an expensive dance. And I hate to dance."
So I get used to the idea of playing cards and eating mass quantities of Ben & Jerry's with my daughter on prom might when, out of nowhere, she says, "I want to go dress shopping on Saturday. Are you free?"
Am I free?
Would Naomi come of out remission for Wynona?

We decide to hit the rent-a-dress place on Route 1. That way we don't really have to make a commitment. We can sort of scope out the fashion trends and see what styles we like. And if we should happen to find the perfect dress, we grab it. After all, with only four weeks left to dress hunt, our fashion rifles are loaded; we will shoot to kill.
Without dwelling, I'll just say that it was the most traumatic experience of my life. She tried on one dress. THE dress. Long, black, beaded, elegant, sophisticated. It was magic. it was expensive. It was already reserved for her prom night by another hunter, an out-of-town prom-goer.
I learned that in the rent-a-dress jungle, there is only one of each species. Even the assault weapons shoot blanks.
It felt like the part where Cinderella loses her shoe and the coach is a pumpkin again. I was in mourning. My daughter shrugged it off like a household chore.
Suffice it to say that four bridal shops, two major malls and one week later, I found myself hoping for some mice and birds with well-developed sewing skills to whip something up just before an ugly step-sister says, "The carriage is here."
I even considered dusting off my old senior prom dress and offering it to my daughter as more of a sentimental bonding gesture than a last resort. But I found out that the beautiful navy blue dress I left hanging safely in my mother's closet had been sabotaged by the fashion police. My daughter broke it to me gently.
"It's tacky."
I'll admit that it does have more tiers than a Richard Simmons infomercial, but tacky?
Well, the shopping safari finally ended when we bagged a shorter, more practical version of the dress I had loved and lost. It has cobalt blue sequins and beads. Maybe she can make a case for it in 30 years when her 21st Century daughter has trouble finding the dress of her dreams after a few frustrating trips down the fashion Information Highway.
With one week to go, it's not over yet. There are hair and nail appointments to keep. There are still pantyhose to buy (in triplicate, in case of runners or manufacturers defects).
And there are all those overblown, over-analyzed Prom Mom fantasies that I am about to lose.
I bet, if I asked my own mother, she would remember the kind of stuff moms remember, like how long I spent in the bathroom doing my hair, or how nice it was to see me out of my faded Levi's and in a dress for a change. Or how it felt to see me walk out the door in that navy blue layered chiffon gown with the boy she'd one day know more intimately as the father of her grandchildren.
If I could look back, without all the romantic fuzzy edges that time adds to our memories, I would probably see a 17-year-old girl in heels too high and too uncomfortable to walk gracefully in, never mind dance. I'd see Sterno trays filled with food groups I'd never had a first person experience with. I'd see an expensive dance.
In a way I'm glad Aimee won't get a chance to read this.
I have to admit it's really not so bad, being a Prom Mom. And, quite honestly, my daughter packed most of her annoying hormones away in the same box as the New Kids On The Block memorabilia and her entire ninth-grade fluorescent wardrobe.
The scary part is really that anticipating her senior prom means she will be graduating from high school in four weeks.
It means she will be turning 18 in September, and starting college. It means she is pretty much grown up now and, the real truth be known, I would just like one last chance to pick out her shoes, or dress her in something frilly, or rock her gently when she cries.
This prom night, for her, will one day be a memory of how great her friends looked, all dressed up, without big T-shirts, baggy jeans, or backward baseball caps.
And this prom night, for me, will forever be the last ritual of mother/daughter relationships, that reminds me of what it was like to be a hormonal teenage girl.
Maybe, if I hurry, I can make it to the drug store for extra film and a big  box of tissues, before the Canadian tour bus gets back to the school parking lot.